Photo credit: Erica Berger
Describe your latest book.
Twenty-one years ago I wrote my first book, A Way to Garden
. All these years later, visitors to my Hudson Valley garden open days regularly bring their beat-up, outdated copies for me to sign. Shortly before what would have been its 20th anniversary, I decided to bring it back to life. I undertook a complete do-over, reflecting my expanded knowledge but also how much has changed in the technique and art of the way we garden today.
This is a basic gardening book and then it is not so very basic, aiming to foster both practical knowledge and also connection to nature — both the science and the spirit of it. I have written that by becoming a gardener, I accidentally — blessedly — landed myself in a fusion of research lab and Buddhist retreat, a place of nonstop learning and of contemplation, where there is life buzzing to the max and also the deepest stillness. It is from this combined chemistry that I derived the phrase “horticultural how-to and woo-woo,” the motto of my website and podcast, also named A Way to Garden,
and the book.
Each chapter covers two months of the garden year, one of six seasons I celebrate. Gardening is not outdoor decorating to me, nor just a list of chores. It is a life practice. The chapters/seasons are anthropomorphically titled, like "Conception" for January-February and "Senescence" in September-October. They open with memoir-style essays, before we dig in to the practical stuff for that time period.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking
, because my baby sister is red-haired and freckled and also a wild child. It seemed as if Pippi
and its sequels had been written just for us.
When did you know you were a writer?
Both of my parents were journalists. Even while on the telephone, engaged in everyday conversations, they took notes, their reporter brains ever engaged. Writing things down was part of my upbringing.
I was a distracted, restless student, and didn’t even complete college, but was always a confident communicator, especially on paper. I pieced together a career first in newspapers and then magazines that rewarded that ability, and also allowed me to advance my skills — for researching, but especially for listening (see the next answer) and then crafting the written reply out of what I’d heard.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
I am someone who considers it torture to sit through a single sports event, even on television and with ample snack foods on hand. But near the start of my journalism career, when I was a beginning copy editor at The New York Times
, I was given the opportunity to write a Sunday column called “Women in Sports.” I think my age and gender got me the assignment, certainly not any athletic inclinations. This was at the start of the Title IX era, and the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association (think: Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova), among other catalytic happenings.
From that odd mismatch of an early adventure, interviewing women in a field that I did not innately grasp their attraction for, I learned to be a careful listener, the fundamental skill of a reporter. That taught me that I could write about anything if I did my homework before an interview, and then really paid attention during.
It was interviewing great gardeners (and botanists, entomologists, ornithologists, ecologists, and plant pathologists) in the years since that has made me a proper gardener, too, besides providing all the material my writing derives from.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I tried so hard to steer away from the magnetic north that the kitchen seems to represent in many situations of daily living. It’s the spot that everyone’s family and even party guests always gravitate to — and me, too.
To try to steer away from plopping down in the kitchen, I specifically furnished a room upstairs as “the office.” It sits rejected, unused.
The 1874 Swedish trestle table in my combined kitchen-dining area proved irresistible, and not just because I can pace back and forth from “desk” to pantry all day for another cracker or dried fig when ruminating.
It was irresistible because it sits at the literal center of the little house, surrounded by early botanical prints on the walls and stuff displayed everywhere (see the next answer), in primitive cupboards and on sideboards and such. From my seat I have a view in most every direction into the garden and countryside beyond (all four compass points are possible if I turn my head around and look behind me). I find the expansiveness exhilarating, but somehow also contemplative — which makes up for the fact that the tabletop is so uneven as to require shims beneath my laptop.
One of the privileges of living alone is that you are not inconveniencing another by piling the dinner table with works-in-progress. When company comes, I move the projects onto the adjacent staircase, one pile per step.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I clearly have some issues around the subject of collecting, owing to a grandmother who ran the local hospital auxiliary thrift shop and arrived home most Saturdays with her latest finds. I suppose I have what could be labeled a vessel fetish — I love pitchers, boxes, laboratory glassware, and I even used to collect vintage handbags, but have mostly deaccessioned those.
I have collected plants for more than 30 years, especially ones with good foliage — bold in scale, interesting in texture or color (not just plain little green leaves; gold foliage is a particular obsession). I long ago lost track of the number of plant species in my 30-year-old, 2.3-acre rural garden.
Indoors, among and within the vessels, there are little collections of found objects from the garden: a discarded Cecropia moth wing or wild turkey feather; dried fertile fronds from ostrich fern or allium or poppy seedheads; gourds and galls and curled-up layers of birch bark and stones and more.
To make sense of it all, I also collect field guides. So yes, I collect.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Moths. Yes, really, the butterfly’s misunderstood, overlooked Lepidopteran cousins. There are maybe 12,000 moth species in North America, compared to like 750-ish butterflies (depending whose numbers you use). I don’t mean the ones in the pantry or the sweater drawer, but a diversity of mostly nocturnal beauties with names like The Old Maid, The Modest Quaker, The Penitent, The Betrothed, Frigid Wave, or Baltimore Snout.
Clockwise from top left: Painted Lichen, Pandorus Sphinx (on a friend’s shirt at Moth Night), Tolype, and Spiny Oak Slug moths are just 4 of the nearly 200 I’ve photographed so far in the garden.
As a lifelong gardener, I know a lot of insects by sight and name, but moths never caught my attention. The 2012 Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America
woke me up. Why care about moths? One good reason (among various): Without moths, songbirds could not raise their young (caterpillars, the larval stage of moths or butterflies, are the baby food of the songbird set).
I have photographed and identified almost 200 species in my garden since that book came out, after decades of not even noticing them at all. For six years I have hosted Moth Night in the state park adjacent to my garden — public walks in the darkness to black-lighted white sheets set up in the woods to lure the creatures of the night.
As I approach senior citizen status, I am particularly inspired by how even beat-up moths, with tattered wings from making the most of their short adult lifetime, keep flapping, flying madly onward till the bitter end.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
You’d probably like to hear that I talk to myself when working, and that the vocabulary I use derives in part from some of the made-up language my sister and I shared as children. And that I also talk to the birds outside the windows, and even to the occasional spider who rappels down his homemade rope from the light fixture above my computer. But quite understandably, I’d be far too embarrassed to tell you all that.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
No one should leave this life (or live this life) without reading Bernd Heinrich
, the prolific author, illustrator, professor emeritus of biology, and ultramarathoner with a great gift for science and nature, and for the written word. So many things I have observed and even photographed but did not grasp have subsequently been explained to me in absentia by him. The only challenge in recommending Heinrich is deciding which one of his 21-ish books to recommend.
My favorite is the one least like his others (probably his most famous is Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
). The Snoring Bird
, however, is more memoir in style, highly personal — but at the same time charts the evolution of scientific practices in the field of zoology. It is most of all Heinrich’s homage to his Papa, Gerd Heinrich, a man of natural sciences in his own right (an expert in parasitic wasps), who with his young family in tow was driven from the family land in West Prussia (later Poland) by the Red Army, and forced to flee Europe and eventually start again, in Maine.
What scares you the most as a writer?
That I will die before I use up all the scribbled ideas in a lifetime of notebooks. (This surely will be the case.)
Do you have any phobias?
I got wicked asthma in my twenties, so no surprise that I can get quite claustrophobic.
Earlier in my gardening career I also suffered from ophidiophobia — the fear of snakes — a real liability for an organic gardener, because snakes are helpful partners in creating functioning, balanced habitat, being so good at natural pest control. A photojournalist friend, drawing on insight from early in her career when she’d been sent to cover crime scenes or natural disasters — things she didn’t really want to see, let alone photograph — generously shared this insight: Focus on the thing you fear from a safe distance through your longest camera lens (or a pair of binoculars), she said, as she had at those grim scenes years before, and gradually move in closer as you get more comfortable. It worked.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I like a British accent, maybe because I grew up with an English grandfather in residence. Even my selected incarnation of Siri has one. Watching British television is a longtime obsession (and lately Australian, too, such as Please Like Me, Rake, Offspring
, and Sisters
, as more of it has become available). I am more likely to recognize and admire Nicola Walker (don’t miss her in River
), Phil Davis (in Silk
, for instance), or the stars of Fleabag
than some Hollywood celebrity.
Out the window: The larger of two garden pools, with Sedum blooming in the paving cracks, seen after a summer rain.
My Top Five Book List.
I look around here and there are books, books, and more books, so what rates my Top Five? I have no idea, so here’s what I did, crapshoot-style: Eyes closed, I listened for which ones shouted out for attention, to be chosen. On this day, the winners are:
Plant Dreaming Deep
by May Sarton
The Madness of a Seduced Woman
By Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
A Path With Heart
by Jack Kornfield
by Norman Rush
Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates
by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney
Why those? The only common thread I infer is that each is an example of extreme passion: Sarton’s for a rural house, garden, and solitude; Schaeffer’s for a man, and murder; Kornfield’s for the message of directing compassion toward ourselves and others; Rush’s sexual, intellectual, and political; Eiseman’s and Charney’s (a field guide to obscurities in nature like galls and leaf mines and even spider webs, the tracks invertebrates leave behind) for slowing down and stopping to notice the tiniest things in the world, and study them.
If I close my eyes tomorrow, the list will change, though Sarton and Kornfield are always on it.
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approach to gardening is a unique blend of what she calls “horticultural how-to and woo-woo.” In A Way to Garden
, she shares decades of knowledge on ornamental plants, vegetable growing, design, organic practices, her beloved birds and beneficial insects, and much more.