Monday, December 29, 2008


Michael and I drove home today from Boise, where we spent Christmas with his family. Coming home we passed through the snow-covered Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon.The weather was dreamily gray and the undulating old mountains lulled like lull-a-byes. Luckily Michael was driving through this beautiful part of the world most people miss. It gave me a chance to doze. And also to daydream. My dreams were reflections of the sunny spots I visited this year, of the new friends I made and the old ones I revisited. Full, rich, blessed...what a year it was. And though I am hoping to stay closer to home this coming year, I do not regret one trip, one dollar spent. This year of erratic and unusual weather for the Northwest was sandwiched by snow. The escapes to Mexico, Arizona and Italy couldn’t have been better planned. And seeing legendary landscapes and gardens I thought I might miss was truly the inspiration I needed. Here’s a little photo essay of the highlights of 2008.

My first winter at the farm reminded me of Wisconsin, snowy, frozen and silently beautiful

February's trip to the Yucatan Peninsula with Michael and his friends Jonas and Christine, was magical and monolithic; here Chitzen Itsa's main pyramid.

In March I headed north from Phoenix with my family to the Grand Canyon. I was, and still am, speechless.

Back at the farm we were still having snow in April. Unheard of.

The cool summer made cabbage the star of the garden this year. This prompted me to contact my drawing teacher, Carol Emmons, from 30 years ago ( my final project was cabbage based), we met again in November in her spectacular art-filled home in Green Bay Wisconsin. It was a happy and inspiring reunion.

The biggest surprise of the year for me was right in my own back yard , so to speak, the City of Bellevue's exhibit "Sculpted Green". The huge sculptures, installed in the downtown park were impressive. This piece by Bernard Hosey called "Round and Round" was my favorite.

Of all the gardens I visited this year I was most moved by the humble grace of Bartram's garden in Philadelphia.

I joined the Garden Writers Association this year and attended the symposium in Portland ( a city I love to go to again and again). This detail from Lucy Hardiman's garden, symbolizes how I felt about this inspiring and downright fun weekend.

I finally return to Elba and the garden I worked in over 10 years ago. It was wonderful to reconnect to the garden and to my friend and the garden's creator, the photographer Hans Georg Berger.

We had a blessedly long and beautiful fall.

The first flood hit November 8th.

The second flood hit a week later with devastating effect.

The surprisingly minimalist garden at the Milwaukee Art Museum. When I was growing up there gardens were for corn and tomatoes.

The year ended on a sweetly happy note. The snowy weather gave me an unexpected vacation. And a client gave me this gingerbread house fashioned after the garden shed I use on her property, it is filled with delicious spice cookies.

Monday, December 22, 2008


I wonder what will survive this unreasonably wintery weather. We’ve had it down to 8 degrees at the farm, howling wind and pelleting snow. And just when you think it’s run out another front paces through. I know there are much worse conditions in other parts of the country, but you must understand the tenderness of the North-westerners and our gardens. We blindly continue to plant things that have little hope of surviving, even though “zonal denial” seems to be a fashion in passing.
I was daring this year. Or should I say stupid?
I left a few plants, treasures, outside. It was deliberate. Deliberately a test of hardiness, not deliberately a murder. I’m already regretting my decision, but I also know it was a sane decision. There’s no room in this house to keep so many plants , so my inadvertent sacrifices are lessons learned. Stop buying plants that aren’t hardy here.
I wonder if I’ll remember that lesson in May when the nurseries are full again with treasures, maybe not quite appropriate for this climate. I wonder if I’ll leave them on the porch again. And I wonder if we’ll have a doozie of a winter again next year.
It’s only December 22 and we’re already experiencing more winter than we’re used to.
I wonder if were backpedaling from global warming to global chilling.
I wonder how long this will last , or how often it will come and go over the next months.

I wonder about wonder, too.
I’m still simple minded. Still wonder at the beautiful frothy white frosted world.
Still find it magic.
And in these moments I can easily forget my losses, and my loss of work. As I regain a sense of wonder.

What a perfect way to end the year.
No more dreaming, white Christmas is here.

Monday, December 15, 2008


What a difference a day or 2 makes, a degree or 10.
Just 4 days ago I was making a list of what was in bloom in one of my clients gardens.
It was a braggart’s list to post on my blog. “Look at this, all you East Coast fools,” was the subtext. “ Sure it’s gray and wet here, but we have sunflowers in December.” No, I do not live in New Zealand, and yes, I did see a sunflower blooming in a street side garden in downtown Seattle on December 9th. It’s been a freakishly mild year, no summer to speak of and a fall that lingered in heat waves and heavy rains, but very little frost. Even here at the farm where our nearness to the mountains guarantees us colder temperatures and more snow than Seattle, we have not had one killing frost until this weekend. The temperatures predicted to be in the 20’s all week should finish off any of that lingering summer and fall that until now was reluctant to move on.
I want to post my “braggart’s list” anyway. Written December 10th it was remarkably long even for us this time of year.
Cuphea sp
Eleagnus x ‘ Sunset’
Fuchsia magellanica ‘Aurea’
Salvia elegans ‘Golden Delicious’
Tropaeolum tuberosum ‘Ken Aslet’
Escheveria ‘Metallica’ (in bud)
Leucanthemum ‘Goldrush’ (one very fresh and new flower)
Begonia richmondensis
Amaranthus ‘Ponytails’
Fuchsia speciosa
Helleborus foetidus ‘Chedglow’
Viburnum x bodnatense ‘Dawn’
Camellia sasanqua
Pittosporum tobira ‘Variegata’
Agapanthus ‘Storm Cloud’
Tulbaghia violacea
Helleborus argutifolius ‘ Silver Lace’
Fragaria alpina
Daphne bholua
Nicotiana ‘Tinkerbell’
If that’s not impressive enough, on Saturday when Michael and I were digging the dahlias and covering the plants waiting to be planted with oak leaves I took a short inventory of what was in bloom at the farm. Remember we’re away from the gentle maritime effects of the Puget Sound, probably in zone 6.5.
We had in bloom on Saturday December 13th
Daphne transatlantica
Rosa bonica
Dahlias ( 2 types )
Not as impressive as the first list I know but who has dahlias blooming in December, except New Zealanders?
Of course now the arctic blast has absolutely scoured the garden. I must admit as much as I like flowers I like a clear ending. Now I know fall is definitely over.

The last dahlia was a portentous snow white.

An enduring calendula, crisp with frost.

Monday, December 1, 2008


The voluminous new entry hall at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Is it the walls or the space they hold that is so elegant?

WISCONSIN in November is sparse.

Just a dusting of snow and newly naked trees. Winter hadn’t settled in yet when we visited over Thanksgiving week, but Fall was definitely through. Hardly seems like a time to celebrate, even though that’s what we were there for.
After landing in Milwaukee we headed north. First to Green Bay to visit the woman who taught me to draw ( don’t look at my drawings as evidence of her skills as a teacher, for she teaches much better than I’ll ever draw ). Carol Emmons was my drawing instructor at UW-Milwaukee back in the late 70’s.
I say she taught me how to draw, but actually she taught me how to see. The most profound perception she opened my eyes to was the concept of negative space. The space in between things. In the 2 dimensional world of drawing these spaces become shapes and these shapes can be powerful elements in the composition of a drawing. So one is not just drawing a tree or a coffee cup, but the air between the branches, the hole in the handle.
Often times when I consult people on how to improve the gardens, I find they have been trying to solve their problems by filling up space. And when the garden gets cluttered they scream: “ Help!”
This is when I declare deletion king. Lifting tree limbs, clipping shrubs, removing aged perennials and rampant ground covers. Destruction, or deconstruction, is a the part of gardening I think most people avoid. They see these acts as brutal and miss the benefits of deleting, or what I would rather call adding negative space.
That’s why I love Fall and Winter, the garden shows you it’s negative spaces.You can follow them, enhance them. What is a bowl with out that empty belly to fill with soup. What is a garden without a scooped out corner to gather shade. An arching branch to frame a walk or view.

A reductionist garden at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

I used to adamantly look at nature for clues on how to create a garden. Not a bad idea I’ll admit, but limited. Now I look at architecture too. Am I maturing from my plant driven motivations? Has my interest in what’s “not there” become as important as what is? I know I’ve moved on from my 2 dimensional notions of painting a garden, though I will never tire of color and light and play. I guess as the gardens I created mature it is the editing, the hollowing out, the sculpting that increases in importance. As if the garden’s requirements force me to mature as a gardener. When I was 18 learning to draw I got my mind blown by the concept of negative space, but it is not until now that I realize we live in the negatives spaces. It’s where life happens, in between walls, in between branches, in our arms.
So now what I am looking at is volume. How branches hold space arching and expanding. How lawns run snug along the flat or undulating surface of the earth. How shrubs, boulders, even moveable furniture grabs at space molds it into shapes. Even the sky plays along mute with low clouds, obscuring with fog. Or opening ad infinitum at night to stars.
As we moved north in our travels last week to my parents home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, it seemed we were moving closer to the sky and farther from a sense of garden. Though geometric farms and towns were carved out of the never ending northern forest, they appeared more like interruptions than intentions.
My parents had the intention when they bough their 40 acre farm back in the 70’s to let some of the cleared land return to forest. Over 30 years, and a strange passivity rarely seen in my parents, a forest has reemerged. Black spruce ( Picea mariana ) and white pine (Pinus strobus) and popple ( Populus tremuloides ) as they call it. That land wants to be forest , resists agro-nomics.
That bit of recovering woods is an antitheses to the mown hay fields that surround it begins to lend shape to the shapeless land, like a blank part of a page gives volume to a drawing. The interplay of ascending trees and flat fields change places; the fields become negative spaces in their Winter fallowness, the evergreens growing in a space taken out of production become the product, so to speak, as we searched for my parents Christmas tree.
And open up the woods.

Here we stand, my parents and I, in the forest they created by doing nothing. The blaze orange is not a fashion statement, but anti-camouflage, it was deer hunting season.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Look down . There is evidence. The mushroom is a flowering body of the fungus living beneath.
The foot print of the bear tells us who stripped the apple tree, and who tipped over the garbage can.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I was digging ferns in the forest today. Blechnum spicant, the beautiful native deer fern. I know I’m not suppose to collect from the wild, but let me explain, this ‘wild’ is about a 20 acre green belt around a faux-chateau subdivision. It was all forest until the 90”s, when the bulldozers scraped it clean, builders built houses, and landscapers laid sod.
Now luckily my client is a fern lover and this is a shady property. I’ve added many native ferns over the years and many non-native. It is in some ways a fern test garden for me. The only thing that failed was the New Zealand tree fern, Dicksonia antartica. Each time I go into the forest, my client owns part and has asked me to collect ferns and move them closer to the house, I am amazed at the abundance of ferns. In particular the Northwest giant Polystichum munitum, or sword fern. No matter how many it seems i take there are always more.
Years ago someone told me they planted fern hedges in Seattle. 2 days later I bought my train ticket and moved here. That is an exaggeration. But the idea of a climate where ferns thrived was enough to make me want to move here and eventually I did. That’s 20 year’s ago now and all that time my love of ferns has grown.
What is it about these flowerless plants that appeals to me?
It’s hard to say.
Their delicacy?
Their primeval silence?
I guess , as Boy George said, “ Love is never asking:Why?”

Sensitive fern ( Onoclea sensibilis ) growing rampantly in a wet meadow in Upstate New York. One of my favorites it spreads rapidly in moist ground even taking sun.

Sensitive fern turns this beautiful bronze in the Fall.

Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) this small evergreen fern is lovely in a shady rockery. My new favorite fern.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


I picked up where I left off today, planting bulbs. The sun was regular and warming, the murky swirl of flood waters moved on, though not without leaving silty traces, and damage. Our new “dry garden” went under water. Newly planted rosemary and lavender coasted down stream. One large phormium set sail and landed in a ditch down the road. A barberry tumbled like a hedge hog picking up debris on the way. A log snapped off the top of our young “Elizabeth” magnolia. The pepper house collapsed into a slumping pile of plastic.
Yet I felt hopeful, planted bulbs. As soon as the earth was visible I couldn’t help but garden. It was the only act I knew that would perk up my mood, sometimes as heavy as the waterlogged soil. I talked to my friend, Peach back in North Carolina, she said she liked to plant crocus bulbs with the children at her church as part of the Advent observations. She said there was no more hopeful act. I had to agree. It seems hope is more than a campaign platform. It’s an actuality, effecting our daily lives. My hope when planting bulbs, has a conviction. Winter comes, yes. But spring follows. No darkness lingers too long before light comes to dispel it. Flood waters recede. Fallen leaves become soil.
A butterfly flew by, mistakenly woken m by the warm weather. THe illusion of Spring.
We had our friends, Kevin and Louis, over today to help us dig potatoes. There was no illusion of Spring as the sun slipped behind the ridge. I thought indignantly, “It’s still afternoon.” We all made wild guesses at what time it really was. Kevin was right-- 3:43. Darkness crept into the valley slow enough to allow us to finish our project. Then we retreated to electric light and bowls of hot posole.

Silty mess.


This bright calendula was 8 feet under water just a few days ago. Talk about resilience.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Where have all the flowers gone?

Where has the garden gone?

The Snoqualmie River, at record flood levels, has once again turned our garden into an 8 foot deep lake, with a current. Needless to say we are housebound, except for little tours with the Kayak or chest waders. We actually did a bit of "gardening" by yanking debris from the orchard and setting it afloat. The real work starts this weekend when the now obscuring waters, recede and reveal the damage.

The cherry tree under which we've had many summer picnics.

The house stayed high and dry, though the basement is another story, we're waiting for it to drain to check the damages.

The fig tree trapped pumpkins like a spider catches flies.

Blue skies returned at mid-day a hopeful sign that the waters will recede.

The end of the day was beautiful, still the river kept pumping it's overflow down our road and across our yard.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


My computer is going into the shop for a little R'n'R, not rockandroll, rest and rejuvenation...better known as repairs. I will be stepping out of cyberspace for about a week please stand by.


I stopped watching the rain gage and started watching the flood gage. The river got unexpectedly high . I was “islandized”, the house and drive totally surrounded by a foot or more of water. Pumpkins floated and dahlias sunk. There is nothing that will clean and dirty a garden faster than a flood. All the plastic pots that I wasn’t quick enough to collect have floated “down stream” and braided in a tangle of weeds, grass, branches and miscellany like some 80’s environmental sculpture. Beautiful in a very un-gardening kind of way. The tall weeds were flattened by the flow, leaves puddled in corners. The dogs can’t go out without becoming “mud-hens”; the cats stay in and sleep. But the birds seem celebratory. Great flocks of juncos and robins, even doves, pick through the debris with renewed vigor, like shoppers responding to a “ new shipment”.
But what was most spectacular was the silence.
The road closed, excluded what little traffic travels by our house this time of year. The simple slosh, like a hush made one feel far out at sea with land just visible. The fire burned bright in the stove. I cooked a soup and read a book about medieval cloister gardens and imagined myself in another place and time like I often did as a child. What a luxury to be trapped on an island o if only for a few hours.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Not so long ago I thought it would be a good idea to become an actor. I was working for a nursery at the time and the low pay and drudgery just wasn’t what I had hoped for in my life. My Botany degree lied uselessly behind me, my art work reduced to a weekend hobby. So why not venture into a whole new direction?
Like acting.
So I enrolled in classes, and even got some walk on parts in local productions. But when the applause died I still needed to make a living.
So back to gardening I ran.
One thing I did learn, or at least began to learn from my time as an actor was letting go. Letting go is to the actor what patience is to the gardener. If your jaw is clenched, if your soul is as tight as a fist you will never be able to emote large enough to fill a theater, or specifically enough to fill the silver screen. There are many exercises designed to help you let go. One in particular , which I was terrible at, was a blind-folded backward fall. A group of you class mates stood behind you open-armed ready to catch you. Now it takes a lot of inherent trust to be successful at this. And I probably learned more about how distrusting I was than about letting go. But it certainly got me thinking.
And thinking I was today as I walked through he garden watching Fall take its toll. I took a breath and tried to quiet the parts of my mind that wanted to stake things up or deadhead. Plants should stop flowering by the 1st week of November, I said to myself. Although they rarely do here. Plants should start their slow decent towards the earth. There is nothing really to do to aid this process. But I whisk away the failing these days so that none of my clients need be bothered by the unsightliness of decline.
Out at the farm there is no need to clean up. No clients to please. Actually living in a flood plain requires that you don’t clean up. Any debrie covering the soil saves the soil from being washed away when the river gets high. So no matter how ugly it gets around here I have to let go. This is almost harder than letting a group of open-armed acting students catch you in a backward blind-folded fall.
Yet I am learning to love the junco flocks plucking seeds from wads that were once flowers. I am beginning to see beauty in the nearly black foliage as slimmy as a slug draped across the garden. I am developing an aesthetic based on the criss-cross patterns of stems as they listlessly begin to bow.
But most importantly, I’m beginning to like the sensation of slowly falling.

Monday, November 3, 2008


Here is my article from Garden Notes for the Fall issue.

Maple and Birch forest on the shore of Ottawa Lake in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan.

In the Upper Penninsula of
Michigan there is a forty-acre wood
thick with sugar maples. I make a
pilgrimage there as often as I can.
Pilgrimages fueled by nostalgia. I
have visited those trees on my
parents’ farm since childhood. A
reverence also drives my visit, a
reverence for the sugar maple itself.
Sugar maples—the calendar girls of
fall color—are lauded by poets,
photographers, and nurserymen.
They’ve even inspired a Canadian
flag maker. But not, apparently,
Northwest gardeners.
An adaptable tree, Acer saccharum is
most abundant between the 43rd and
46th parallel, from the Atlantic to the
Mississippi. If you include the seven
subspecies and three varieties, which
some botanists retain as separate species,
it has a far wider range, into the cloud
forests of Guatamala and the sunny
slopes of the Rockies. It is one of over
150 species of maples in Aceraceae, a
family of only two genera. Most are
found in China and Japan. In North
America we have thirteen species,
A. saccharum being the most famous.
But Northwesterners are more familiar
with this maple’s sweet sap than any of
its nearly forty cultivars.
The crop that needs no sowing or
hoeing had been part of the native diet
long before Europeans landed on this
continent. According to Lenape legend,
the Algonquin tribes learned to “drink”
from the maple tree, Axsinaminshi, from
woodpeckers. Sugaring was a time of
celebration called “Maple Moon,”
beckoning the onset of spring. European
settlers took quickly to this celebratory
sugaring and the syrup’s energizing
effects. The high taxes on cane sugar
made the sugaring industry strong until
the early 20th century. Since then
production has fallen to nearly a fifth of
what it was. The healthful syrup is high
in potassium, manganese, and zinc. With
a celebrity endorsement from Beyonce,
who made the maple syrup diet popular,
and the higher costs of importing,
sugaring might make a comeback.
The wood, as highly valued as ever,
is used for everything from flooring to
musical instruments. The hard, fine-
grained wood gets smoother instead of
rougher with use. The Romans, who
used the hard wood of their native
maples for spear shafts, gave rise to the
genus name Acer, meaning “sharp.”
So why is this tree, chosen by four
states for their state tree, lauded by
poets, and a perennial October calendar
candidate, so seldom seen in the
Northwest? Arthur Lee Jacobson lists only
thirteen stately old trees, probably
planted by nostalgic Yankees, in his
Trees of Seattle. The Washington Park
Arboretum has only four cultivars and
three subspecies in its maple collection.
Maybe the sugar maple, disliking air
pollution, compacted soil, and heat
and drought, is over-shadowed by
the tractable Norway maple (A.
platanoides) and its innumerable
cultivars as a street tree. Yet A.
saccharum ‘Green Mountain’ and
A. s. ‘Commemoration’, thick-leaved
drought-tolerant cultivars with tight
crowns, are ideal for street
plantings. Maybe the elegant
Japanese maple (A. palmatum) has
eclipsed cultivars like ‘Brocade’, a
small tree with long, red-petioled,
deeply dissected leaves. Or maybe the
size is a deterrent. The record holder is
138’ tall. Yet the slow growing cut-leaved
‘Sweet Shadow’ would fit nicely into a
suburban lot. There are narrow forms
like ‘Temple’s Upright’ and ‘Newton’s
Sentry’, which A.L. Jacobson calls “ludi-
crously thin,” so why are you
complaining you don’t have room for
another tree?
I found room and planted a seedling
from my parents’ grove at our farm in
Carnation. I know we don’t have a
“sugaring” climate; yet, I look forward to
watching our sugar maple spread out
graceful branches and develop a dark
furrowed bark. I look forward to the fog
of chartreuse flowers in the spring, and a
generous amount of shade come
summer. But more than anything, I look
forward to the legendary golds and
oranges of fall and the short pilgrimage,
just a glance out the bedroom window,
to one of my favorite trees.

'Sweet Shadow' sugar maple in the Washington Park Arboretum.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


I’m always talking about how important patience is for the gardener. Probably because I have none. Or very little at least. The best I can do is ignore. I guess that is a form of waiting, at least in the garden.
I’ve ignored this climbing hydrangea for 9 years now. Actually the first 3 years my client and I dutifully watered it. I know they can be slow to establish, reticent to bloom , yet long lived and worth the wait. So ignored it. Weeding under it, planting around it, just giving it the corner of my eye.
2 years ago my client asked, “ Is that thing going to bloom in my lifetime?” I unfortunately had no answer. She had made a special request for a climbing hydrangea and we bought a particularly big one to speed up the process.
I had stopped caring, secretly harboring wishes that it would surprise us with the fragile airy clouds of flowers which make this vine so desirable. Reverse psychology doesn’t work on plants, I guess.
Yet it surprised me anyway.
Today as I came around the house a daffodil-yellow glow brightened the dark garden.
My sloppy “patience” was rewarded, though I still harbor secret wishes.
Maybe next year: flowers.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


The entrance to the Il Orto dei Semplici Elbano , a educational pleasure garden of native and endemic plants of the Tuscan Archipelago

The dramatic setting of the garden on the eastern slope of Monte Serra make it both challenging and extremely beautiful.

A homage to the botanist Gabriella Corsi, one of the seminal forces behind the creation of the garden.

Dario Franzin the current gardener, maintenance man, curator, administarator... actually he does everthing. He humbly calls himself uno uomo delle pulizie , "a cleaning man".

In Il Giardino Argentato, the Silver Garden, a Cesario Carena sculpture called "Cubo con nido e vegetale", " Cube with nest and plants"

Monday, October 13, 2008


"Eisenherbarium" By Berlin Artist Suzanna Besch, the rusted artifacts were collected on the beaches of the island.

Detail of "Eisenherbarium".

In the chapel a gravestone carving by an unknown stone carver from the 18th century.

A living sculpture by italian environmental artist Cesario Carena.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


I spent the fall and part of the winter of 1998 at Il Eremo di Santa Caterina. I gardened and wrote. The hermitage was created in the 16th century on a site that was held sacred since ancient times, some say even prehistory. It definitely is a powerful place and the monk who saw an apparition of the saint there was the inspiration for its creation. It had been abandoned in the 1800’s and remained so until the 1970’s when photographer, writer and old rose enthusiast Hans Georg Berger [ see link to his website ot the right] made it his project to revive the site and create an artist retreat. With the association Amici di Santa Caterina (Friends of Santa Caterina) they brought the space back and began the construction of a botananical garden devoted to the plants of the Tuscan Archipelago. That’s where I came in 10 years ago and again this October.
I was fortunate to be invited back to help the garden once again. But it was also a great blessing to be able to “retreat” from the world of candidates and market crashes and watch the full moon slowly rise, and listen to the pettirossos’ melodious chatter in the morning. We should all have such beautiful places to work. At least 2 weeks out of the year.

The entrance to the hortus conclusus, the private artist retreat space at Santa Caterina.

A perfect seat for moonrise viewing.