Sunday Opinion: You Never Know

At the risk of encouraging my good friend and client Janet to send me an email demanding to know when I will quit talking about her on this blog, I will talk about her again anyway.  I cannot really remember how the subject came up, but many years ago we were talking about what she got from her Mom that has proved influential.  Parents try to get plenty to stick in their kids minds and hearts-what actually works out  is another story.  “You never know when you will meet your intended”, her Mom said.  Though Janet is sure this was in reference to her not wanting to get dressed up for a date she was definitely not looking forward to, this big idea very much describes how she gardens.

Janet has a five acre garden.  That in and of itself tells you plenty about the level of Henry Mitchell-esque defiance of which she is capable and ready to put to use. She looks after that landscape every day, every year, as she believes that unexpectedly, the perfect garden moment might show up at the front door, and ring the bell.  Or maybe a good gardening friend, or the Queen of England; no doubt she would treat either visit with equal care. She intends to be ready.  But five acres of landscape also means the chances are excellent that on any given day, and in any given year, somewhere on that huge property, a garden disaster is either brewing or in full bloom.  She may tell me she is going to dig up all her roses, and grass over the damn spot, but don’t believe her.  I have never known her to give in, or give up.  All of us at one time or another give out; there are times when I am just too tired or too disgusted, but this state of mind never lasts very long.  Over the past 25 years I have seen Janet’s garden not ready for Janet-but I have never seen it not ready for her intended.

I sold my 5 acres fourteen years ago in order to finance the purchase of the building and property that houses my store.   I moved to a city house, with a city-size piece of land. The unexpected benefit?  My exposure to garden disaster is limited; I look after a tenth of what I used to. Some disasters may seem large, as there is no hiding them.  One of my Princeton Gold maples is such a disaster I may have to dig it out.  I may be thinking the “for pete’s sake” thoughts, but if I need to start over in that spot, I will.  I have no reason to complain; this tree thing will get sorted out.

Meaning,  I intend to be ready for my intended.  Every day when I get home, my garden and landscape gets what it needs for an hour or two-maybe more.  Buck is good natured about our conversation about the day that has to happen in tandem with the watering or the deadheading.  As he came to me with an exposure to landscape that involved riding the lawn mower around 3 hours, twice a week, like it or not, I am impressed with this.  Should I start to apologize for a particularly lengthy evening garden project,  he likely will interrupt with “What if  Janet rings up tomorrow that she would like to pop around for a look ?”   When I am done laughing, I realize she definitely is on my intended A list-as is anyone really serious about gardens.  I furthermore believe there are people on that list I have yet to meet , or I dream about meeting.  So like she does,  I do what I need to do, every day.

We are finally getting some warm weather. The Michigan dog days of summer can take their toll.  The grass threatens to go brown, there is fungus brewing in the magnolias, and the zinnias, at the end of a scorching day the pots wilt like I have not watered them in a month, the perennial garden flags, the panic grass falls over.  Such is the garden.  Keeping up every day is my only defense against coming home to disasters that have multiplied such I would want to fall to the ground and weep.  This I would no doubt recover from.  But what if I was about to meet my intended?

Last night the light was so beautiful when I got home. Buck was already watering, thank God.  I parked my car on the street, cleaned up the day’s garden debris, and got out my camera.  Though I do not think my 2009 garden has peaked yet, maybe it has.  Just in case, I took 189 pictures, of which I saved 50.  In 10 days, I may take another set, and throw these 50 pictures away.  Equally likely, in ten days a late summer storm with wind rain and hail could shred it all-and I will need those 50 pictures.  So I have a set of pictures I can look at while I am picking up the pieces, or when I can’t stand one more minute of snow, ice and 19 degrees.  Maybe a certain picture will show me in January that I need to make a change.  I take pictures regularly; this helps shore up my garden spirit,  given how ephemeral a garden can be, and how important the memories of it are to me.  Lest this sound entirely too gloomy, I firmly believe the best is yet to come for my garden, for Janet’s garden-for everyone’s garden.

Sunday Opinion: Sometimes its Good to Give Up

I think of myself as a focused and self disciplined individual.  I make a sincere effort to be organized.  I am a” deal with it within twenty-four hours” girl.  I try to follow a thought along, even if it is one layer under the day’s business, as long as it takes, to get that thought in a form that energizes me enough to speak, or draw. For me doing a design doesn’t stop with the drawing.  A design needs explanation, supporting photographs or other material, a time frame, a plan to stage the installation.  It has taken me fifteen years to install the landscape on my lot.5; why wouldn’t I address staging with everyone else? 

 Walking through the store in the am, on my way to my office, I can spot 15 things that need cleaning, weeding, straightening, grooming, levelling, vignetting, attention-and water.  I can spot a plant that needs water when my eyes are closed. I can as well spot from yards away a plant whose green leaves have gone dusty from lack of water.  I call this focused;  Buck calls this obsessed.  I about fainted with shock and surprise the first time he casually suggested it might be better for me all around, if I could realize that sometimes it’s good to give up.  Let things go that don’t deserve your energy.  Sure, be in charge, put your name to your work, think everything through, do the best you can.  But most of all, give up when it’s time-good things can come of giving up.  Other outcomes can be good.

I am sponsoring a tour of gardens of my design in one week, July 19, to benefit the Greening of Detroit.  They have been planting trees, sponsoring urban gardens, teaching people to plant and grow to feed their families, and sell at the Eastern Market in Detroit, for the past 20 years. They impressed me.   Last year we raised 10,000.00 for them; I am very proud of this.  But today I am seeing that my own garden, which is on tour, is two weeks behind a normal season.  There will be no Limelight hydrangeas in bloom, and my pots are not the best, given the cool weather.  I see weeds, fungus, unfinished areas-and I am the person who ventured in last Sunday’s opinion post to suggest there is no World Series of Gardening.  Talk is cheap, is it not?? 

The entire impetus for this post is a pair of fabulous Italian pots on pedestals, on my terrace,  planted identically.  Both pots are coming along fine, albeit slowly-except for the centerpiece plant.  The nicotiana mutabilis in the north pot has spiked, and is blooming.  The southern nicotiana mutabilis is in stall mode.  For three days I have been agonizing over replacing that recaltricant nicotiana.  Given Buck’s commentary, I think I will stand pat with the two pots that do not match.  Do these two glaringly unmatched pots say everything  about when it is good to give in, and give up?  Do they not speak reams to what every gardener aims for, and does not get?  Buck  says not one gardener on the tour will fail to recognize that in spite of  my efforts,  our efforts, I am not really in charge.  He thinks I should leave it be.  I think he may be right.  Better the garden be real, than engineered like a stage set.

No matter how enchanted I am with a design, my relationship with my client comes first.  My ideas are just my ideas.  Not the be all and end all.  Great designs depend on a solid relationship between me , and my client -and whatever shakes out from there.   Giving in is not necessarily a gesture of defeat.  Giving in can be a recognition of the other party;  a resolution not anticipated.  Giving in can be a way of letting go of issues that have no resolution, for better or for worse.  Giving in is sometimes a striking move; amazingly, things can be better for it.  I have landscapes in which the big idea came from the client that work just fine. My two unmatched pots which will be going on tour-they are charming me.


urban11It was Henry Mitchell who wrote that defiance is what makes gardeners; I believe him.  Everyone who works for me gardens.  It is interesting to see what they make, and how they use their voice.  This loft right downtown in Pontiac is home to Lauren Hanson; she works in the store. It is one of many buildings in the area in various states of disrepair and dereliction.  But it is obvious she has an idea about how to live and garden. Defiantly.

urban3She is young, and has adventuresome ideas.  She tells me she likes living in this loft, that it has so much more presence and attitude than a suite of rooms in an apartment building.  This urban location doesn’t dismay her in the least; she is energized by it. A friend built her a windowbox for the floor of her mini-deck, and she planted flowers in very lively colors.  The mossed baskets in the windows take some of the edge off the bars on the windows.

urban5When Lauren has a design idea, she figures out how to get there with materials she spots at house sales and thrift shops.  The planted galvanized florist’s buckets hanging from the railing look sassy, and sensational.  They are a great shape, and the silver sheen repeats the color and shine of blue sky reflecting off the windows glass.  She tells me she will live here until she finds a house she can buy. In the meantime, she has made this loft a home , with a very good looking  garden.  All the plants are well grown, and kept up.  She is of independent mind, and she has a great spirit; this is unusual people her age. She has her own ideas about what’s good, and what’s important.  Even more impressive, she’s self effacing to a fault; my customers really like her.  She has made it her business to learn about plants, and their care, so she can help people.  She’s made an effort to become knowledgable about what we have-this you cannot hire.

urban4Number 43 is not only occupied, but it is occupied by an urban pioneer who gardens. She has big ideas, and good things ahead of her. This very petite blond woman hauls around forty pound bags of soil like its nothing. She looks after our plants and pots.  She photographs everything we have, and maintains our website.  She does the work of the posting for me. Like I said, she has a fire burning all of her own making; it will be interesting to see where she takes that.


Sunday Opinion: Righteous Food

Gardeners grow trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials, groundcovers, hardy bulbs, house plants, vines, water plants, herbs, lawn-the list of what they grow is long. They also grow plants to eat-we call this food. Gardeners who grow food on a big scale – for others –  are called farmers. The farmers in our country work very long and very hard, and they feed a lot of people, both here and abroad.   Before I proceed, I think it is only fair that I be upfront about my biases.  As my Mom was a scientist, I was raised with certain notions. “Better living through Chemistry”-this is my era, and my bias.
I am neither proud, nor am I ashamed of this.  It just is.  She felt that science has helped to make farming more productive.  She had a lot of unpopular ideas; scientists frequently do. They have no interest in politics, just good science. They don’t persist, when there is no evidence to warrant persistence. Persistence can get a life of its own, if you don’t watch it.  They do not take to readily to fashion, trends, or conclusions.
Some years ago, there was enormous press about how the growth regulator Alar, was in fact a cancer-causing agent invisible to the eye, but present on the apples we bought at the grocery store. In the press we all read –  “your apples may be killing you”. Don’t get me started on journalists who read the first paragraph about something, and consider themselves experts, instead of news readers.   They need an audience, so they do what they do. It is just too bad they don’t state their bias up front.
Anyway, my Mom fumed about how the ability to measure chemicals in parts per million had created panic where none was needed. You’d have to eat Alar by the pound morning, noon and night to get cancer from it. We are living longer, and better, than we ever have, she said.   See the following from the Wikipedia entry on Alar.

Apple growers in Washington filed a libel suit against CBS, NRDC and Fenton Communications, claiming the scare cost them $100M. The suit was dismissed in 1994.

While Alar has been verified as a human carcinogen, the amount necessary for it to be dangerous may well be extremely high. The lab tests that prompted the scare required an amount of Alar equal to over 5,000 gallons (20,000 L) of apple juice per day. Consumers Union ran its own studies and estimated the human lifetime cancer risk to be 5 per million, as compared to the previously-reported figure of 50 cases per million.[4]

Elizabeth Whelan and her organization, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), which had received $25,000 from Alar’s manufacturer,[5] worked to establish a narrative of the Alar episode as a scare. The ACSH claimed that Alar and its breakdown product UDMH had not been shown to be carcinogenic. Whelan’s campaign was so effective that today, Alar scare is shorthand among news media and food industry professionals for an irrational, emotional public scare based on propaganda rather than facts. There remains disagreement about the appropriateness of the response to Alar, but as of 2005 it is classified as a probable human carcinogen by the IARC and the EPA and a carcinogen by the U.S. State of California.[5]

She also thought a good bit of any given person’s chance at longevity had to do with their specific genetic makeup. She was a scientific fatalist-and I guess I have a dose of that too. Farmers get help with insect and disease control so they can sell their food at prices people can afford. Everyone needs to eat-and I will place special emphasis on the concept-everyone needs to eat.
Organically grown food is incredibly labor intensive.  Small organic farmers have an equally small ability to distribute. This makes the food expensive.  I see plenty of organic food that does not appear to be fresh.  I like home grown corn and tomatoes as much as the next person-I eat these foods every day, in season. I buy from local farmers at the Oakland County Farmers Market in Pontiac. I buy from Farm Boy Market. I don’t ask them what chemicals they use to grow their crops. I just try to thank them for growing good food that I can afford to eat.  Organic milk, produce, and meat-a luxury.
I read, and I keep up with the news. I have read all of Michael Pollan’s books-ok, fine. It seems perfectly reasonable that if you eat the foods your grandparents ate, you are eating in a healthy way. But the article by Judy Gunlock  from the National Review, “Alice in Wonderland”, caught my eye. It articulates far better than I ever could my feelings on this subject of organically grown food.

Organically grown food is very expensive food. It is also cool food; food as fashion.  Righteous food. As for those people that eating amounts to a religious experience-I am glad the organic farming people have customers for what they sell. I eat to live, and get my religious experiences elsewhere. Being an adult has lots, maybe too many responsibilities. But one of its perks is being able to decide what I want to eat. I make no recommendations to others about how and what they should eat. I only comment that planting, making things grow, and being aware of my connection to the natural world, has provided me with a satisfying and healthy life-for what that’s worth.
There is no science or study which conclusively proves that people suffer and die too young from food grown with the labor-saving help that science provides.  There is no scientific study which suggests that organically grown food makes people more healthy. I would hazard to say that people in our country have a good financial opportunity to eat as well as any place on the planet. The topic of organically grown food bores me beyond all belief, as the topic is always accompanied by the emphatic assertion that it is better food.  That if I would just come to my senses, I would realize that this opinion was more than just an opinion.  My opinion?  Righteousness is a concept appropriate for church.

Just designing an experiment which will prove or disprove a theory is very difficult-as you have to track and account for every variable. I celebrate the whole idea of variability. This means that lots of people have lots of opinions about what is good and right.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but an opinion is not a fact. Every gardener has their own way of growing, and most of those ways work for them. There’s no need for my way to work for you, unless you decide you want to give it a try. In every garden, in every neighborhood, in every city, in every country, planet wide, there are people gardening, eating healthy-in many different ways-that still are living to tell the tale.
Yesterday I drove by the Charles L. Bowers School Farm; both shoulders of Square Lake road were jammed for a good quarter mile with families taking their kids to the farm. In 25 years, I personally have never met a child of a client who did not know that potatoes are grown in the ground, that peaches come from trees, and milk comes from cows. I myself still remember visiting the Michigan State University dairy experiment station in their school of agriculture, to learn about milk production-that was 50 years ago.
I am sure Alice Waters is a very fine chef.   She has an aura generated by popular opinion and fashion.  One is led to believe she is a guru-chef, a rock star chef, the first and the last word about righteous food.  I think she needs to get out into her own country more-just as Judy Gunlock suggests.  I would ask her to consider the idea that maybe what tastes good and is healthy is much about what we each imagine tastes good and is healthy. I could offer her a good meal anytime, or direct her to any number of other local households that serve great meals.  She is talented, colorful, and convincing.  Would I include her in a list that included Einstein, Curie, Pasteur, Newton and DaVinci- no.   Would I want her to be in charge of research that would help feed our plant?  No.   Do I think she is interested in the challenges posed by the need to feed the planet-no.

My last word on this topic is that it is very important work, to feed the multitudes. No kidding, Judy Gunlock; the purpose of food is to nourish people.  People of all different environments and circumstances.  If your circumstances enable you to have dinner at Alice Water’s restaurant, fine.  I would want that she be able to keep cooking.  People who eat there make it possible for her to keep cooking.  Who knows what she will have to say or cook in 10 years.
For all of you gardeners, if the idea of organic food still appeals to you, grow it yourself.  I am the last person who would fault your effort.  If you are so inclined, figure out how you can provide yourself with organically pure soil.  Plant a columnar apple tree in your yard, if your space is small. Asparagus looks great planted between the roses, after you are done harvesting the spring crop. Strawberry jars were invented for a reason. Tomatoes like tall pots for their long root runs, thus we have “long tom” pots. Certain tomato varieties do well in hanging baskets. Plant your vegetables and herbs in pots filled with righteous and pure soil on your terrace. Spring pots of peas and lettuce look good, and taste good-spice up those pots with some pansies. Your local nursery can help with all of this, until you get up the nerve to grow your own food from seed. Making something grow is good in every regard.  But the need to persuade everyone within your reach to grow how you think it should be grown just might be speaking out of school.

The food I buy at my farmer’s market, and at my grocery store, is good, affordable and fresh food. I’ve lived 63 years, and according to my internist,  I’m healthy.  This is good enough for me.  What is good enough for you?  That is your choice, not mine.