Monday, February 27, 2006

Photography, Martha Stewart, and Soft-Core Garden Porn

Author Amy Stewart posted this recently: Dirt: Garden Magazines, with a reference to Martha Stewart's new issue of Living, the garden edition. This elicited pleas from readers for garden magazines for real live gardeners.

Let's face it: garden magazines these days are less about gardening than they are about printing drool-worthy pictures of framed garden views that you wish were framed by your own windows. Pick up any of the offerings at the supermarket, or the better magazines at the bookstore, and you'll find page after page of gorgeous photographs of full, luscious greenery, spilling over with a voluptuous display of floral excess, with the blossoms fairly throbbing in their eagerness, pleading, "Oh, yes! Oh, yes! Take me, pick me, please!" Yes, it's porn for the gardener's soul. Like Playboy babes, these gardens are the epitome of perfection -- and like Playboy babes, they're not to be found in real life anywhere on the planet.

Or so a tell-all article I read by a garden photographer revealed. Those full-blown bowers of blossoms? Filled in with potted plants and cut flowers and greenery. The perfect garden paths, framed by mounds of green? Groomed to within an inch of its life by a crew just prior to the picture, and flooded with the photographer's lights. That cool blue misty atmosphere and those pure colors? Photoshop.

Martha's magazine follows the same lusty trend, starting with the photo on the cover of a perfectly groomed path of warm yellow pebbles, edged with clipped shrubs and mounds of lavender, leading the eye into the distance with a promise (a real or false promise?) of cool forest recesses beyond. Trees shrouded in mysterious mists in the far background add to the fantasy atmosphere. Ah, it could all be mine if only... if only...

...if only I could afford those $150 Indonesian pots adorning the path (I know, I priced some at the garden center last Friday), had enough flat land to lay out a formal arrangement like this, had a full-time assistant to do the clipping and raking, and had neighbors obliging enough to keep the trees on their back lot shrouded perpetually in cool blue mist.

I turn to the corresponding article inside and admire the pictures -- centerfolds, practically -- of the same nursery. Ah hah! It's all a professional endeavor! Gorgeous green perfection, lovely to behold, but beyond the reach of us ordinary gardening mortals unless we should somehow strike it rich. I should have known.

Beyond the article on the Digging Dog nursery are pages of food art featuring hot red peppers laid out on candy-colored dishes, with colorful linens and a multitude of serving accessories. Like the gardens, the food is lovely to look at, but nothing like what graces our own plates of an evening at home, unless one has all day to create it, plus a vast supply of crockery and linen that can be carefully color-coordinated with the food. And still you know that Junior will turn up his nose at it and demand corn-dogs, while the spouse will give you a patronizing smile and tell you, "It's real... interesting, honey."

Oh, but wait... there's an article on making fountains in ceramic pots. Ooh, I could do that, I think. A fountain on the front porch perhaps, made with some nice ceramic pots... Big Lots had some on sale... I could... I could... Ooh, and an article on growing dahlias, big poofy dahlias, just plant them, stake them, fertilize, prune, dig the tubers and carefully store them in vermiculite... I could do that... I could...

I could also put something cool on my forehead, have a lie-down on the couch, and come to my senses, since I know perfectly well that I haven't any outdoor electrical outlets to run a fountain. Nor do I have many sunny bits in my garden where I could grow dahlias, not that haven't been claimed by vegetables, anyway. And who wants to muck around with digging up tubers in the wet Pacific Northwest fall? If it requires intensive care, it's not going to survive in my garden. Ah, it's the Martha effect, and I was nearly overcome.

Actually, my favorite bit of the magazine isn't even an article. It's an ad on page 181 for Amtrack, featuring a very chubby fairy fixing a hot drink for a passenger. I like that fairy. I want her to be my muse. Strangely, the plump fairy is probably the most real, down-to-earth thing in the entire magazine.

So how about it? How about a garden magazine for real people? One that features not perfectly groomed nurseries, or gardens of the wealthy that get photographed after a professional garden crew has worked them over. I'd like to see real-life miracles, people who have little time and money to spend on their 1/8 acre suburban lot, but still create something remarkable. Would a magazine like that sell? It might. I'd buy it. But you know that the gorgeous garden porn will sell even better. Why? For the pictures, of course. I know all those guys say they buy Playboy for the articles, but honestly, would they still buy it for the articles if all the pictures were removed?

I think not.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Planting peas, striking gold

My grandmother used to plant peas on Washington's birthday. Never one to argue with Grandma, I stopped by Nichols Garden Nursery on the way home yesterday and picked up a quarter pound of shelling pea seeds, a variety called Big Boy. I've not tried it before. I like French petit pois, but they had none, and I thought I'd try something new. They also had seeds for snow peas and the relatively new snap peas, the ones that are eaten pod and all, but unlike snow peas, are eaten when the peas themselves are fully developed. Thus one gets more food per planting than with any other kind of pea. I'm still thinking about them. I don't want to buy a whole quarter pound of seeds just to try them, but I may order a packet from Territorial Seed Company when I fill out my order this weekend.

Today I dug a trench along the asparagus bed by the driveway, where the morning sun warms the asphalt and the soil next to it. I'd soaked the seeds overnight, and this morning I stirred them up with a big spoonful of pea inoculant. After loosening the soil, I planted the peas a bit thickly along the trench and covered them up. In all, I planted perhaps fifteen feet of peas. Now -- will they pop up and get growing before the squirrels and crows find them?

After than I pruned the peach tree, which should be old enough to bear fruit this year, and the Montmorency cherry. I still need to spray them with fungicide. In this climate, even with curl resistant peaches, a bit of copper and sulfur throughout the spring is a must.

The strawberry bed did poorly last summer, so I took some time while I was out to dig it up and yank out the nasty white roots of the quack grass that invaded the bed. I left it rough-dug for the rains and worms to work on a bit while I order the plants. Territorial has the reliable Tristar that I've planted before, but I may go with a new variety this year, something called Seascape that promises to be virus-resistant and extremely tasty.

It was when I reached the end of the strawberries, digging carefully around the blueberries as I went, that I struck gold. Yukon gold, to be specific. The strawberry bed butts up against the potato patch, and some sneakers had moved into the strawberry bed. I kept going through the potato patch and found about two quarts of Yukon gold and German fingerling potatoes. Guess what we're having for dinner tonight?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The garden -- such as it is -- in February

I'm glad that I'm not expecting visitors any time soon. Between the torrential rains we had that lasted for weeks, getting sick for most of Christmas break, being overly-busy with teaching and graduate work, writing books under contract, and working on my dissertation (anyone want anything else done while I'm at it?), and getting knocked flat by an intestinal virus over this last three-day weekend, the only outdoor chore I've been able to get to is occasionally clipping some grass for the Guinea pigs.

The garden lies in sad neglect, not a good thing in the Pacific Northwest, where the weeds are already romping uncontrolled, like the neighbor's children. The peach tree, the Montmorency cherry, and the roses all need pruned, one post supporting the raspberries needs replaced, and the arch in front, a Big Lots special in enameled green metal tubing, is listing pathetically to the north, bent where some vandal kicked it. The crabapple tree in front of the house needs professional treatment, as its crown is a wild tangle, a bad hair day with lichen. Beside it, the ugly concrete pad of no clear purpose, which I've wanted to get rid of since we moved in eight years ago, is growing a fine crop of moss.

But the crocus are in bloom, as are a few cyclamen and the fragrant Daphne. I will show them off and pretend that the rest of the yard is just resting, waiting patiently for me to tend to it, promising to be good and not run riot in the meantime.

So like the neighbor's children.

Scouts in the garden

Hoorah! At my son's last Scout meeting, two young men came up to me and asked if I would be their counselor for the Gardening merit badge! It's not a frequent request, not when there are Eagle-required badges to be earned, and more glamorous subjects, like snow sports or whitewater rafting, to choose from. But I've got a couple of budding green thumbs in khaki ready to give it a go. Here's what they'll be up to:


Do the following:
  1. Grow six vegetables, three from seeds and three from seedlings, through harvesting.
  2. Grow six flowers, three from seeds and three from seedlings, through flowering.
  3. Give the food value of the following:
    1. Three root or tuber crops.
    1. Three vegetables that bear above the ground.
    1. Three fruits.
  4. Test 100 garden seeds for germination. Determine the percentage of seeds that germinate. Explain why you think some did not germinate.
  5. Visit your county extension agent’s office, local university agricultural college, nursery, or a botanical garden or arboretum. Report on what you learned.
  6. Identify five garden pests (insects, diseased plants). Recommend two solutions for each pest. At least one of the two solutions must be an organic method.
  7. Do ONE of the following:
    1. Build a compost bin and maintain it for 90 days.
    1. Build a vermipost bin (worm compost bin) and maintain it for 90 days.
    1. Build a hydroponic garden containing three vegetables or herbs, or three ornamental plants. Maintain this garden through harvest or flowering, or for 90 days.
    1. Build one water garden, either in a container (at least 12 by 6 inches and 6 inches deep), or in the ground as a small, decorative pond no larger than 6 by 3 feet and 24 inches deep. Maintain the water garden for 90 days.
Sounds like fun. Now if I can get my own boy to give the badge a try. So far he says, "No, Mom, gardening is your thing."

(Requirements and image from:

Monday, February 20, 2006

Roller coasters, tourists, and other hazards of gardening in Santa Cruz

Review of From the Ground Up by Amy Stewart (St. Martin's Griffith, 2002).

Every gardener's first garden is full of first-time miracles: the first time one sees bean seedlings elbowing their way up through the soil like rude children in a crowd; the first brilliant blossom of a cosmos grown from seed; the first taste of a tomato ripened in one's own patch of sun. Prosaic, everyday miracles, yet when a writer skillfully recalls them, the resonate with any garden addict.

Amy Stewart recalls her first garden in From the Ground Up which she scratches out of the hard earth around her rented bungalow in Santa Cruz. The garden looks down on the harbor and the amusement park, and the morning bird songs are accompanied by the rattle of the roller coaster. Her first attempts at poking plants in the ground (under the assumption that dirt is dirt, right?) meet with little success, but rather than give up as others have, rather than assume she's been cursed with a brown thumb, Stewart is determined to learn and succeed. She learns about compost; about scale and aphids; about "good" and "bad" bugs; about earthworm ranching and gopher repelling.

Through the course of a year, Stewart's intensive self-taught horticultural learning program takes her from "What happened to my poor plants?" to "What am I going to do with all these zucchini?" Along the way she introduces the reader to her two cats (the languid Gray and the zippy LeRoy), intrusive tourists (including a pair caught sunbathing on her front porch, unaware that people actually live in Santa Cruz), her gardening neighbors, her patient husband, and her wise great-grandmother.

Though it's not a garden how-to book, Stewart offers her own tips at the end of each chapter -- not that one can recreate a Santa Cruz bungalow garden without a Santa Cruz bungalow, but simply to pass some of her successes, or those of her gardening friends, on to her readers.

Sadly, all good things must end, and so does Stewart's time with her garden. She and her husband must move, and the garden must stay behind. With her, the reader says farewell to the geraniums, bougainvillea, and cosmos (adorned now and then by tourists' beer bottles), and hello to a new home and the promise of a new garden.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Of Cats, Chrysanthemums, and Georgian Follies

Review of Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols (Timber Press reissue, 1998)

Some fall in love with women; some fall in love with art; some fall in love with death.

I fall in love with gardens, which is much the same as falling in love with all three at once.

For a garden is a mistress, and gardening is a blend of all the arts, and if it is not the death of me, sooner or later, I shall be much surprised.

So opens Beverley Nichols marvelous Merry Hall, a classic in garden literature, reprinted by Timber Press. Merry Hall is one of the author's later gardening books, but written at the height of his writing career and at the height of his gardening style. It is the first book of a trilogy in which Nichols paints a humorous portrait of his years spent living in a Georgian manor, restoring it and its surrounding gardens to Georgian splendor.

As with any work of fiction, and Merry Hall, while based in fact, is a fictionalized tale, it is the characters who make the story. Nichols, as the narrator and protagonist, is effusive, energetic, opinionated, and open-hearted. His majordomo, Gaskin, looks after the house and Nichols himself. There is Oldfield, the gardener, who keeps the lilies and "t'chrysanthemums" in bloom, happily if allowed his own methods, grudgingly when forced to use innovative ideas -- and smugly, when the innovations fail. There are the indomitable Miss Emily and Our Rose, and their machinations in the floral shows. There is the mysterious Marius, who, it is hinted, might belong to the Secret Service.

And there are, of course, the cats named One, Two, Three, and Four. Alas, Two and Three succumbed to illness early on, in spite of intense nursing and penicillin injections from Gaskin. But One and Four live on.

If the descriptions of Nichols' life in Merry Hall are to be believed, one may get the impression that his life was one long lark, dashing from one social event to another, where most disasters were horticultural ones. While Nichols was highly social and an extraordinary novelist and garden writer, what is deliberately missing from this account is the darker side of Nichols' life, better described in his biography, Beverley Nichols: A Life by Bryan Connon. Nichols hungered for the life of a serious writer, but though he tackled many social issues of his day in his novels and columns, his fame wrapped around his garden writings, as it still does today. Bitter over what he viewed as a failed career, and increasingly resentful of his autocratic father, Nichols later penned his savage autobiographical novel, Father Figure -- which, like Merry Hall, was a work partially of fiction. In it Nichols portrayed his father as a ruthless brute, and described his own attempts at patricide in all the lurid detail of a confession magazine.

The contrast between the gothic darkness of Father Figure and the sparkling champagne wit of Nichols' garden books, including the Merry Hall trilogy (Merry Hall, Laughter on the Stairs, and Sunlight on the Lawn) only highlights the deep complexities of an extremely talented writer. Though Nichols may have been disappointed that readers favored his garden fare, gardeners themselves may rejoice that his best-loved works have survived.

And perhaps he needn't have been disappointed after all. Under the gleam of humor lie Nichols' strongest feelings about racism, religion, and world issues, within parables of gardens and floral shows, which makes them all the easier to slip past the reader and gently awaken one to the greater lessons that lie in the garden, and beyond.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Reading our way down the garden path

What's Reading Dirt about? It's a site for the literary gardener. It's all about what's up in my garden, what's up in other gardens, and what I've been reading in the way of garden-related literature lately.

Readers who have written garden-related books are welcome to contact me about getting their books reviewed here. I'm not fond of vanity published books, but I'll look at any from a traditional publisher and self-published (under your own imprint) books. I'll also review gardening websites. Drop me a line, dirt-lovers!