Orare est laborare, laborare est orare

An 8th-century copy of the Rule of St Benedict.

When my father returned from his tour in Vietnam, he didn’t know what to do with himself.

He came from an upper-middle class family, and his parents likely would have pushed him into college had he not been drafted. He tried attending classes under the GI Bill, but the transition from stomping through the jungle – clothes soaked from the humidity, eyes constantly watching for booby traps and some of the most venomous snakes in the world, bracing for enemy fire at any moment – to listening to a professor, not much older than himself, drone on and on about how to write an essay was impossible. I’m sure he did not want to listen to anyone who spent the war on campus talk about Vietnam either. “Please, hippie, explain how the world works to me.”

He worked for his favorite relative – his uncle, a contractor – for a while. He developed many practical skills and apparently learned a lot about how to get along with people and run a business. Then he discovered an occupation that he truly loved: drilling municipal water wells.

I think part of the appeal of the water infrastructure industry was the danger. Not unlike working on an oil rig – in fact, oil and water rigs share some equipment – water wells run deep into the Earth. You have to be both strong and fearless to work on them, much like surviving in a war zone. People did die occasionally by falling into the pit, which happened one terrible day to one of my father’s friends.

But I think the greatest appeal the job had was that it was hard work being done entirely outside. The activity and the sunshine had a restorative effect on a man who had been all but destroyed by the experience of war.

He worked his way up through the company, through various acquisitions, into management. In addition to the physical labor out under the hot California sun, my father loved the construction and maintenance of infrastructure as an intellectual project. When I eventually went into public finance, many people would ask me how I knew so much about civil engineering. This was our dinner table conversation when I was a child. I could diagram a desalination plant when I was seven. We were geeks, but a special kind of geek – the sort who wanted to be out in the world and learn how things fit together.

My father would eventually give this gig up when he grew older and returned to working as a contractor, as his uncle had taught him originally.

I bring this all up, because it has become somewhat fascinating to me how people talk and think about hard labor and the perceived value of blue collar workers in our society.

I’ve spent a lot of time this weekend working out in my gardens, which is fairly typical for me. And I usually talk to everyone who passes by while I am doing it.

Yesterday afternoon, I was kneeling on the ground planting dozens of deep purple petunias and French marigolds in a flowerbed. An Amazon truck pulled up, and the delivery man walked up the path toward our front door with a pile of packages. I waved at him and he asked me how I was doing.

“It’s a beautiful day to be outside,” I said, and I meant it. I was enjoying watching butterflies dancing around my garden in early January. It was marvelous. And I loved the contrast of yellow and purple I was putting together.

“You know you could pay someone to do that for you,” he shouted, and then climbed back into his van.

Why would I want to pay someone to plant flowers? Actually getting down on your hands and knees and digging in the dirt is sort of the point of gardening as a hobby. So is feeling the warm sun on your skin. People who don’t physically tend to their gardens are not gardeners. They are just people who happen to own gardens. Their relationship to their garden is not any different than their relationship to their television or their grandfather clock. It’s a possession, not a pastime.

(Somehow this reminds me of a most painful biography of the socialite Bunny Mellon I read years ago. She tried to make herself famous as a “gardener,” but she had legions of staff to maintain her gardens. Her idea of gardening was waltzing around in her Givenchy gowns and clipping a rose here and there. Even that lady’s own children loathed her. Her biographer made a point of discussing how she left only some stupid ceramic cabbage to her estranged son in her will, which he smashed on the rocks along the shore as an act of catharsis. That woman was miserable to her very core. And she kept a picture of disgraced politician John Edwards on her nightstand, which was totally creepy, but I digress.)

Then today, I spent a couple hours working on Fern Dell. If you recall, we cleared out a massive tangle of vines (massive by the standards of a Florida transplant) to build a primeval-looking garden that we’ve nicknamed Fern Dell. It was no small feat to clear all that vegetation out and free up the trees to live their best lives (and as I mentioned before, I had help). But it has also been a feat to prepare the soil and plant the ferns and whatnot because there are so many established roots. And we hauled in a lot of stone to build a path through the new garden.

My old neighbor came walking down the trail behind our house and saw me working out there. “How did you get all that planted? Was it difficult cutting through all that?”

I explained that I had to use a mattock in places, and it eventually got the job done.

“What is a mattock?”

“It’s a tool, sort of like a pick-ax, but with a different shape.”

She was dumbfounded that I would get out in the backyard and swing an ax for the sake of building a garden. She was looking at me like I was some sort of alien with strange customs like drinking milk through my finger.

Only an hour before that conversation, we were loading the stones for the path into the back of my SUV at Lowe’s. The gentleman we have to mow and edge our lawn (we do hire someone for that, my plants are a part-time job in themselves) happened to be walking through the parking lot back to his truck and saw us. He ran over to our car and started helping load the heavy stones in. He didn’t even ask if we wanted help. He just started doing it.

We are really good friends with him and I took the occasion to invite his daughter to our daughter’s birthday party. But it made me think how he’s probably treated as some sort of untouchable in our town because of what he does for a living. I mean, even the Amazon delivery guy looks down on yard work, and it’s not like he’s jetting off to Davos to talk about trends in macroeconomics to corporate elites anytime soon.

I started this post off with the Rule of St. Benedict, who insisted that “to pray is to work and to work is to pray.” To be autonomous, to exert great effort, were for St. Benedict cornerstones of a contemplative life. You don’t just work because you have to. You work because there’s ultimately some form of wisdom in it.

I can certainly say this was true for my father coming back from Vietnam. For him, he had glimpsed some life-altering truth in the jungle and it was the suburban rat race that required not thinking too hard about anything. I mean, that’s the essence of a mid-life crisis, isn’t it? You look around at all the crap you’ve bought and the meaninglessness of the “work” you performed to obtain it all, and you ask yourself “For what?” People who engage in hard physical labor tend not to have that sort of restless energy. There’s also something about physically creating things that makes you not question your dignity or purpose.

St Benedict’s ideal used to be omnipresent in American society, but here it was described as the “Protestant work ethic.” There’s no Protestant work ethic anymore. In modern western societies, labor is not regarded as a contemplative or essential character-building activity. It’s the occupation of people who didn’t have the upbringing or financial resources to jump through the necessary hoops to have a “better” life. No one chooses to do it. They do it because they have no better options.

I listen to “liberal” politicians nowadays who used to invest a lot of time sucking up to blue collar workers speaking with open contempt about hard work. Hillary ran an entire campaign on such elitism – to be blue collar meant you had bad values. Biden recently advised coal miners to “learn to code.” Of course, “learn to code” has become a euphemism for this specific sort of disdain. If you have to work hard to get by in this world, it’s your fault. Nevermind the fact that this phrase is being used by aging politicians who probably unplug their computer every time they have a problem. “Learn to code,” they say, as if it were something they could do themselves.

Is this supposed to be progress? Can you imagine the people who settled New England listening to the people who live in New England now? They’d be like, “WTF, you sound like the vapid, self-absorbed, antisocial aristocrats we came over here to get away from.” (I’m sure many of them do think these things, right before they move to Florida.)

But what’s funny is how little material wealth people have to have in order to start talking like a spoiled heiress. You see this even in children who do not come from wealthy families but are accustomed to getting everything they want. How do you reverse this sort of behavior once it sets in? Do people have to be humbled by some great economic disaster? It’s a profoundly strange phenomenon to me.

A homeschooling botany program (fun for curious adults too)

I have set aside a few books for studying botany with Elise (which I may or may not include in the upcoming academic year). As much as I love specimen gardening, this should be a mutually enjoyable unit for us.

As spines, I expect to use Botany in 8 Lessons and the Botany Coloring Book.

But this afternoon, I found myself strangely immersed in Carolyn Fry’s book, The Plant Hunters: The Adventures of the World’s Greatest Botanical Explorers. I am definitely going to work this history book into our botany unit.

We take it for granted now that our nurseries and garden centers have plants from all over the world available to buy. In our Florida garden, I have tropical plants from Indonesia, India, Africa, South America, you name it.

This book describes all of the historical expeditions that led to plants being brought back from all of these regions, often at tremendous personal risk. These would be plants used in medicine, spices, and just interesting and beautiful specimens desired for extravagant gardens and scientific study. The book also includes portfolio inserts that are reproductions of historical texts and drawings of plants from each period.

I feel like the fact that we have many of these plants in these stories growing in our gardens at home should make the historical information a lot more interesting to a child. Although these folks were all serious adventurers, so the content is not exactly dry.

Topics include:

  • Queen Hatshepsut funding explorations to recover incense trees and other plants (although not mentioned in the book, some of these plants were used to manufacture the chemicals used in mummification, another fun topic for kids)
  • Ancient Egyptian pharmacists
  • The origins of agriculture
  • How pepper, nutmeg, mace, sandalwood, cinnamon, and clove drove exploration
  • The development of physic gardens in England for cultivating herbs used in medicine (Nicolas Culpeper)
  • Carolus Clusius and Tulipmania (also a great lesson for discussing financial bubbles, not unlike stock market or real estate crashes)
  • The elder and younger John Tradescants, the first professional plant hunters
  • The gardening craze in 18th-century Europe, which led to the construction of massive formal and specimen gardens among royals and aristocrats (also pretty cool on this topic – Monty Don’s BBC documentaries on famous gardens in Italy and France)
  • Carl Linnaeus
  • Sir Joseph Banks and how the search for breadfruit as cheap nutrition for slaves led to the mutiny on the Bounty; Banks’ Florilegium
  • Alexander von Humboldt
  • Expeditions into the Amazon
  • Carl Per Thunberg
  • Lewis and Clark’s specimen-collecting
  • David Douglas
  • Joseph Hooker in the Himalaya
  • E. H. Wilson’s expeditions in the Orient, which brought us azaleas and clematis
  • The cultivation of sugar cane in the Caribbean and the slave trade there
  • The East India Company and the opium wars
  • How the cultivation of plants in certain regions contributed to colonialism
  • Robert Fortune and the cultivation of tea
  • The search for plants to use for rubber (could also talk about Thomas Edison’s home gardens – in addition to beauty, he was personally trying to cultivate plants that could be used for rubber and testing their attributes)
  • Orchid hunters
  • The illustration of new plant species as an art form (Codex Vindobonensis, Highgrove Florilegium)
  • Invaders of the plant world and the historical origins of conservation efforts
  • Modern plant hunters

Another fun and loosely related topic would be floriography, or the language of flowers. I am looking for a good children’s book (or very accessible adult non-fiction) on the history of floriography. I started thinking about including this after some Love Lies Bleeding (amaranth) seeds I had ordered arrived in the mail. This plant, a grain, is native to Central and South America and was used as a regular food source for Aztecs. (It was also used in religious rites, particularly one where the Aztecs would fashion little dough figurines of their gods and then eat them. The Spanish Conquistadors banned the practice, as it seemed like a twisted version of the Eucharist.) Anyway, amaranth has beautiful red-pink plumes and came to symbolize hopeless love for Victorians. I fell into a floriography rabbit hole trying to find out how it got such a gory common name and thought, man, I need to incorporate this into some random homeschooling unit sometime. If not botany, there’s always Shakespeare.

Holiday fun and a year of gardening aggressively

Rodney’s parents came down to Florida for Christmas, which was delightful, and stayed long enough to watch some bowl games. We were all very happy to see Clemson win, and are looking forward to the Baylor – Georgia game on New Year’s. (Sic ’em, Bears!)

I know Elise loved spending days on nature walks and feeding the turtles in one of our neighborhood ponds with her Mimi. She went fishing with her Papa, and caught a couple bluegill.

She has also decided Papa is the best babysitter. We left them alone while we ran some errands, and came back to discover Papa let Elise ride her boogie board down the stairs.

“You were supposed to be watching her!” Rodney said.

“I was watching her,” Papa replied coolly. “I looked like a lot of fun.”

And we sent Mimi back to Georgia with a lot of plants, including a cool air plant that sits in a swing.

Which brings me to gardening. I gave up on trying to remove the last bit of vines and fallen trees from what will become our fern dell (see our trip to Washington Oaks Gardens State Park for reference). I had to call in professional help, our most extraordinary gardener, Mr. Perez. Mr. Perez knows everything about Florida trees, and was able to help us clear the rest of the debris, including ridding our 40-foot oak trees of all of the vines that have been tormenting them for many years.

Mr. Perez also brought his daughter along to play with Elise all day. Watching her run around catching lizards and building forts with Elise reminded me of when I would tag along with my contractor father to job sites on the days I was out of school. Except I was older and would park myself on a pile of lumber with a volume of Immanuel Kant. (Catching lizards is indisputably a better use of one’s time than reading Kant.)

The only problem with all of this is that the fern dell now has a lot of sunshine that it did not have before we disrupted its canopy. This means only part of the area can be ferns. We decided to turn the area into a massive tropical garden instead.

And thus the planting begins. Here are all the plants we picked up for the new garden:

  • 2 Celia Hibiscus
  • 6 Mamay Croton
  • 6 large, white Birds of Paradise
  • 6 Hope Philodendrons
  • 3 Persian Shields
  • 5 Macho Ferns
  • 6 Kimberly Queen Ferns
  • 5 Foxtail Ferns
  • 2 Silver Buttonwood Trees
  • 3 Petra Crotons
  • 2 Ficus Trees
  • 3 Begonias
  • 42 Impatiens
  • 20 Elephant Ears

I am hoping to add some plumeria once Jungle Jack’s nursery in California is back to shipping them (presumably after the “cold” months in other states are over).

Croton gets its name from the Greek word for “tick,” as its seeds resemble ticks. It is a brilliant plant, with many bright colors, and is ubiquitous in the Caribbean and Florida. We bought two kinds of crotons, the mamay, whose leaves are long and twist in colorful strips that look like dreadlocks, and the petra, with broad leaves. Crotons are houseplants elsewhere in the world, but here they can grow to be several feet tall.

I already had one white bird of paradise, which was slightly mangled during our recent tornado-producing storm, but seems to be recovering nicely. When we cleared out the vines, our property lost some of its privacy, as there is a hiking trail that runs along that side of the property to the Intracoastal Waterway. I was vacillating between planting a large orange tree in that spot or planting a patch of birds of paradise. Unlike their orange counterparts, these white birds of paradise are massive and can easily grow 30 feet tall.

Philodendron is another plant with a Greek name, meaning “loving tree.” It’s such a strange category of plant, taking many forms, which include both aerial and subterranean roots (not unlike orchids). Folks have been cultivating them since at least the 17th century. I saw a house while we were walking the esplanade along the ICW that had large drifts of philodendron plants and decided to attempt to replicate that. They give a space a very jungle-like feel.

These are Persian shields. I thought they might provide a nice contrast to the avenue of ferns. These plants are actually native to Myanmar. The purple really starts to show if you plant them in the shade; too much light and the color will fade. I’m kind of curious how they got the name, so if anyone knows, please do tell me.

I am going to attempt to plant hibiscus in an area away from the house and pray that the deer do not notice that it exists. In my experience, there are three plants deer cannot resist – fragrant roses (which they will chew to the ground, thorns and all), phlox, and hibiscus. I planted two salmon-colored hibiscus near our entryway, but I had to pull them out because I dumped fish fertilizer on them and they quadrupled in size within a few months, blocking off our front door. There was much weeping involved, much like there will be if the deer find the new garden.

This is silver buttonwood. This is a plant you want to pet. I’m not kidding. It has soft, felt-like leaves, much like lamb’s ears. You can’t stop touching them.

Another typical houseplant that you can plant outdoors here are rubber trees or ficus trees. I am planning on surrounding it with a bed of bright red impatiens.

Totally unrelated to any of this, I found my dream garden hose. Now, I know this is a silly thing to carry on about, but if you love gardening, water hoses are kind of important. My biggest pet peeve in the world are hoses that squish the plants around them or get tangled up. We just had a couple move in next to us from New Jersey, and they had one of these installed. Once I saw it, I had to have it. It comes from Frontgate. You mount it on a pillar and the hose container rotates in a half circle around it. As the hose is elevated, it does not squish your plants! Genius! It also comes with a nozzle with a minimalist look that does all kinds of things (not pictured here).

The ghost of Mrs. Whaley and tropical fruit trees

Charleston socialite Emily Whaley, referring to the time and expense of maintaining her property, once quipped that some women own racehorses but she prefers gardening. Mrs. Whaley passed on to her great reward many years ago, but I share a chuckle with her spirit from time to time, as I imagine I am now also in “could have bought a racehorse” territory when it comes to gardening.

(Incidentally, Rodney and I did consider investing in a racing syndicate back when we lived in Lexington. Between that and having a kid who loves to ride hunter-jumper, I think we’d be Zuckerberg-rich if we had a nickel every time someone offered to sell us a horse.)

I’ve spent about thirty hours working in the garden since Saturday, pulling vines, removing spent vegetation, and laying hundreds of feet of fresh mulch. It was great to be out in the sunshine again. I know the winter solstice is still several days away, but it feels like the days are getting longer. (Maybe because we’ve moved closer to the equator? Or maybe it’s just me getting excited for longer days.) I am one of those people who sink into a mild depression with shorter/colder days, so this is wonderful change for me.

I have been hoarding newspapers to make a thick layer of paper under the mulch in places. I’ve been in a never-ending battle with baby oak under one tree, and I am hoping that if I starve it of light it might go away. I am evangelical about organic gardening, and was happy to discover that the only physical newspaper we subscribe to anymore (the Wall Street Journal) uses soy ink and thus won’t hurt the soil. So it could safely be used as an organic alternative to the plastic sheeting some people use.

(Digression: Endless passersby ask me what fertilizer I use and how I keep weeds away. I primarily use kelp and fish fertilizers on plants, soaking the soil at their base, but they are so rich that you do not need to use them often. If you start using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, you will melt the ecosystem of your garden. This is why people who use them are in this constant cycle of dumping crap on their plants. The best way to keep weeds away is to pull them on a regular basis and keep a heavy layer of mulch on the beds, which has the added benefit of reducing the volume of water you need. Things like plastic sheeting will destroy your soil structure over time, and it prevents water from reaching both your flowers and trees. You do not want anything that prevents air from getting down into the soil or compacts it unnecessarily. There’s no laborless way of maintaining a beautiful garden.)

Anyway, it was surreal unfolding layer after layer of newspaper to cover the ground. Your eyes wander over all the headlines, at it sort of overwhelms you how downright toxic the news is. We say this all the time about the nastiness and pettiness of politicians and the chattering class, and I know a ton of people who have now opted out of consuming the news altogether for the sake of their mental health. (When Dorian was approaching Florida, I spoke to several people who did not know there was a major hurricane because they had stopped watching the news altogether. Ditto with our recent tornado. They heard the crazy sound of the tornado as it rolled by, but they had no idea what it was. They also had no idea that anyone in town had had their property destroyed by the storm because they choose not to watch the news. And these are hardly stupid or illiterate people. Just nice people who want to remain nice.) But laying out hundreds of pages of newspaper and seeing the cumulative nastiness of the news, it just looked like intellectual poison.

All the news that’s fit to rot under pine nuggets.

Constructing the fern dell is turning out to be a larger garden project than I anticipated. I cleared out a bunch of the undergrowth in the wooded area immediately behind our house, but I am going to have to get rid of a bunch of serious vines (and evil baby oak) that are all tangled together. Once it is gone, it will help that part of the property have a park-like appearance, but it is eliminating some of our privacy from a public hiking trail that goes out to the Intercoastal Waterway. It’s also going to add a bunch of sunlight, which the ferns will not like.

I have decided that I am going to plant an orange tree and some birds of paradise there to close the area off. But then there began the trouble of finding a place with relatively mature trees that ships to Florida. I understood that Florida has a lot of laws and regulations to protect the state’s crucial agricultural industry, but they seem to be humorously specific. Like you can’t get a navel or cora cora orange tree from out of state, but you can get a clementine. And apparently there are not any restrictions on avocados, which I found somewhat surprising.

I started a banana patch a couple months ago as well (different side of the property) and have a dwarf mango tree from India on the front porch. It’s starting to look like I am building an unintentional tropical orchard.

I am also planning to plant a royal poinciana tree and plumeria out there. The royal poinciana became a mandate after seeing them all over Key West. They are such gorgeous, fern-like trees.

I have a powder puff tree that is fern-like as well. Caring about foliage is a new development for me. In northern southern states, the priority is what color leaves turn when fall arrives. We do not have much of a fall or winter here, so the fun is in finding trees that look primeval.

And that’s the garden update….

Some gardening before heading to Charleston

As a boy, in my own backyard I could catch a basket of blue crabs, a string of flounder, a dozen redfish, or a net full of white shrimp. All this I could do in a city enchanting enough to charm cobras out of baskets, one so corniced and filigreed and elaborate that it leaves strangers awed and natives self-satisfied. In its shadows you can find metal work as delicate as lace and spiral staircases as elaborate as yachts. In the secrecy of its gardens you can discover jasmine and camellias and hundreds of other plants that look embroidered and stolen from the Garden of Eden for the sheer love of richness and the joy of stealing from the gods. In its kitchens, the stoves are lit up in happiness as the lamb is marinating in red wine sauce, vinaigrette is prepared for the salad, crabmeat is anointed with sherry, custards are baked in the oven, and buttermilk biscuits cool on the counter.

Pat Conroy, South of Broad

We are headed to Charleston for a long weekend tomorrow morning. If anyone has recommendations for special places to visit in the Holy City, please send them my way. We will have our Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock, with us while we stroll around the city, so we are kind of limited in seeing museums and whatnot.

We are finding some time later today to get some gardening in and play on the beach. Elise and I bought a mango tree that allegedly will do well in a container, so we plan to put it on the front porch where it will get some sunshine. We bought two banana trees, and are starting a banana patch on the side of the house. And I bought a sea grape, which grow rather huge here. I am going to plant it in the front garden to cancel out my outrageous blooms with interesting foliage.

Sea grapes have interesting round leaves.

I am starting to develop a garden plan, so I am hoping to place orders for plumeria and other features soon. The garden center here has a ton of ferns in now, so I might get going on the fern dell and walkway first. It’s hard to do when we are traveling so much lately though.

Hegel, Michael Pollen, and gardening with children – what it means to feel at home

The German philosopher Hegel wrote about Heimatlichkeit, the sense of being at home, as a way of knowing. Europeans had taken this concept from the Greeks, who also believed that knowledge was a sort of feeling comfortable with one’s situation. It was the goal of parenting and citizenship in the ancient world to raise children who could feel in their bones what it meant to be Greek, to know they belonged in their city-state.

In contrast, someone feels alienated when nothing in their environment makes sense to them. The worst punishment in the ancient world was to be expelled from the community by the exact same forces that helped give someone a sense of home. To live in exile and lose one’s sense of home was worse than execution. If you have ever lived abroad, you likely know that homesickness can feel like physical torture.

I think about Heimatlichkeit a lot these days. Many people look at elements of our society, feel acutely alienated by them, and develop a passionate longing to return to a time where they felt at home in the world. That’s not really a story about change being difficult, so much as a falling away from the constellations of beliefs and practices that have real meaning to us. Civilizations can navigate and endure all kinds of disruptive events if they feel like they are defending a home. (It was the Heimatlichkeit of Americans and Europeans that took down Hitler as much as bombs.) But there’s no political vocabulary that offers an effective substitute for Heimatlichkeit.

The ideal held up by self-proclaimed elites nowadays is a sort of un-Heimatlichkeit. They talk incessantly about being a “citizen of the world.” That’s a nonsensical phrase. No person can feel at home everywhere, unless their own life is a vacuum. A hipster from Los Angeles may feel like he is a “citizen” of Europe because he went backpacking and toured some art museums, but that’s not a sense of real belonging. You only get to this perspective by diminishing the place where you originally belonged. And that’s exactly what they want you to do.

I think I can say confidently that I have very little in common with the author Michael Pollan now. But I used to. This is someone who used to grok Heimatlichkeit.

When he became a popular proponent of organic agriculture and clean eating, I read several of his books. I’m not sure I gleaned anything spectacular from them, mostly because I already agreed with those principles. I was buying locally-sourced, organic foods before they were easy to obtain and I never put pesticides on my own gardens or lawn. Not from any sense of moral superiority, but because these things are a way to be happier. In fact, one of the things I loathe the most about living in suburbs is the amount of poison people dump into the ground for no other reason than they are too lazy to pull weeds. (Again, where is your sense of home?) It’s a struggle for me not to point this out to my neighbors when they ask me how I achieve such massive blooms each year. The answer is simple: I respect that soil is a living thing and I don’t try to murder it. Really kind of simple, if you think about it.

But my agreement with Pollan pretty much stops with soil. I could never follow him daily because his progressive politics is eyeroll-inducing to me, and don’t even get me started on how he’s become an advocate for legalizing psychedelics. Whatever good he has done in reforming the food industry he’s cancelled out with the harm he’s helping inflict upon the social fabric of great American cities.

All that said, I have been reading his book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education and I am enjoying it immensely. It’s a reminder of how much I liked Pollan’s early writings.

Pollan takes a David Copperfield approach to talking about gardening in the book. That is, he starts with what are literally his first memories of “working” in a garden. In his case, that was climbing behind the lilac and forsythia branches in his parents’ suburban yard as a preschooler. You can appreciate how a child perceives scale from his description of his first “garden,” under those towering shoots of blooms. There he would spit out watermelon seeds, and then triumphantly one day realized a watermelon plant was growing out there. He had made that happen, there in the margins ignored by the adult world. He picked the melon and ran with it to tell his mother, but the melon went splat on the back porch, since it was being hauled by a young child with little agility. As you can imagine, tears were involved. (I wanted to tell him that I have shed real tears over plants as an adult.)

The first serious gardener he knew was his grandfather, one of the first real estate developers on Long Island and thus a very wealthy man. His grandfather had a professional gardener to assist him in keeping decorative trees and flowers, but his own domain was a half-acre vegetable garden. His grandfather maintained his gardens with military precision, waking up to hoe his vegetable garden every day and not letting a single weed survive in his beds.

The man could afford any luxury, but he lived in the dirt. His wealth came from the dirt and that’s what he put his wealth back into.

You are left with the impression that this is why he lived well into his 90s. He was a passionate man with a passionate sense of home. He had a reason to wake up each day because of it. Even when he moved to a condo in his last years, he had a container garden on the patio to tend.

His memories of his grandfather’s immaculate gardens stood in sharp contrast to his own father’s refusal even to mow the lawn of their suburban plot, much to the humiliation of his wife and children. His father became persona non grata in their neighborhood, and when the neighbors finally confronted him about the fact that his grass was so high that it had gone to seed, he responded by getting out his lawnmower and carving his initials into their suburban meadow. Pollan says it was a “fuck you” to their neighbors, but I think it was as much a “fuck you” to his wife and kids. Fuck you having a sense of home.

In reading that, I felt like I understood Pollan’s own behavior as an adult better. Imagine the pathology of growing up with someone who doesn’t want to make things beautiful for their family. Who cares so little about their home that they will go out of their way to manufacture outsider status for their children. His kid likes ingesting toxic mushrooms, you say? That’s just depressing. But at least he had his grandfather, who thought like a good Greek citizen and modeled it for the kids whether they were wholly receptive of it or not. Pollan did not grow up entirely without an aesthetic, which would have been tragic.

The more I read about Pollan’s accounts, the more I started to think about how I garden with our daughter and the significance of the memories we are creating. How she will probably remember even the smallest details about being out in the garden with me because gardening is such a big part of my own identity. This is what her mother loved to do and this is how she acted while she was doing it. This was how we made a home and it was important.

From Pollan:

In both our eyes [his and his grandfather’s], this was a landscape full of meaning, one that answered to wishes and somehow spoke in human language….

One of the things childhood is is a process of learning about the various paths that lead out of nature and into culture, and the garden contains many of these. I can’t imagine a wilderness that would have had as much to say to me as Grandpa’s garden did: the floral scents that intimated something about the ways of ladies as well as flowers, the peach tree that made legible the idea of fruit and seed, the vegetables that had so much to say about the getting of food and money, and the summer lawns that could not have better expressed the hospitality of nature to human habituation.

He recounts how, as a teenager, he proudly built his own garden on an especially small plot of land. His parents, after the lawn incident, moved into a new, more posh neighborhood with the intention of having their yard professionally maintained, as his father was entirely too lazy and uninterested in being outside to push a lawnmower back and forth or dig a hole for something beautiful.

They would only concede a corner of the yard that was completely out of sight for their son to plant vegetables. He was older, but still working along the margins of the adult world.

Pollan did many right things in setting up his garden. He ordered quality soil and organic materials. But he planted the vegetables in a jumble to maximize his small space. They were mixed together as they could fit, and were not in his grandfather’s neat rows. And he was certainly less religious than his grandfather in weeding.

He was rewarded for his efforts, however, with bushels of vegetables. He considered the garden a great success and convinced his grandfather to come see it. Of course, all his grandfather saw was a mess that reflected his hippie grandson. To him, the fact that his grandson could not maintain a simple vegetable garden with any sense of order mirrored a wasted generation of young people who weren’t going to be good for anything. And he let young Pollan have it. That was the end of Pollan maintaining a garden for a long time. Pollan got his driver’s license and spent as much time away from home as he could. You can’t work on your gardening skills if you are never at home.

Gardening with children can be really frustrating, especially if you have a talent for gardening yourself. Gardeners are hypnotized by order, even the ones with strategically messy cottage gardens. Their calendar revolves around the first frost and the last frost-free day. Full sun and shade. Flat and sloped. They plant according to what will not shock plants, which can seem like some unintelligible primitive ritual to the uninitiated. They can look at the plants and tell you what specific elements are keeping the soil from perfection. Gardening is about management and control.

Children, on the other hand, learn about boundaries by testing them. This applies both to what they can and cannot do to make things grow and how far they can go before exhausting all of your patience. Working with them can seem like deliberately introducing chaos into the order you’ve worked so hard to obtain. And the stakes can be high. Have you ever set a kid to work planting bulbs only to realize they’ve planted 50 tulips upside down? Trust me, it’s time to give up and fix a martini at that point. The plants will do their own job and find the Sun.

The only way to get past all of this is to multiply the time you spend with your children. Much like education, you have to introduce children to order gently and over time. You aren’t going to have much success dictating to your child how things must be. They will learn from your example and from their own successes and failures that if they want to create something beautiful themselves, they have to work deliberately.

You are helping them build an aesthetic. You are helping them understand what belongs, and a big part of that is helping them understand that they belong.

November blooms

Anthropocentric as [the gardener] may be, he recognizes that he is dependent for his health and survival on many other forms of life, so he is careful to take their interests into account in whatever he does. He is in fact a wilderness advocate of a certain kind. It is when he respects and nurtures the wilderness of his soil and his plants that his garden seems to flourish most. Wildness, he has found, resides not only out there, but right here: in his soil, in his plants, even in himself… But wildness is more a quality than a place, and though humans can’t manufacture it, they can nourish and husband it… The gardener cultivates wildness, but he does so carefully and respectfully, in full recognition of its mystery.

Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

Hurricane Dorian killed the bougainvilleas I had been growing around the arch leading to our front door. Well, technically, I killed them by moving them indoors and then evacuating for over a week. There aren’t any good places inside our house for plants to grow because we have a large porches running the length of the front and back of the house. The porches protect the house from the intense sun in the summer, but they do not let in enough light for house plants (except orchids). I wish we had defied the evacuation orders and stayed, because it only ended up being a tropical storm here and I lost a bunch of plants.

I decided to replace them with these mandevilla. Aren’t they beautiful? Since I bought several of the plants, I am hoping to get them to cover the archway and run along the railing of the front porch.


My cape honeysuckle also decided to bloom again this fall. Cape honeysuckle does well in (frost-free) coastal areas since the plant can tolerate salt. They are technically a vine, but you can train them to grow as a shrub 6+ feet in size. (They are very similar to bougainvillea like that.) The only downside to the plant is that you have to religiously trim back the tendrils it sends out along the ground, otherwise it will suffocate neighboring plants.

This plant will stop traffic when it blooms. I’m not kidding. I have never had so many people stop their cars in front of our house to ask what it is. As the name suggests, the plant is from South Africa.

Cape honeysuckle

Some of my azaleas are also blooming. They will do this again in the spring, along with the lavender azaleas. I have a hedge of lavender azaleas along the entire perimeter of our house, and it is incredible to see when it blooms. All of Florida is incredible when azaleas bloom, really.


Every year I tell myself that I am not going to plant bulbs, and every year I end up doing it anyway. It’s truly compulsive behavior and I wish gardening addiction specialists were something that existed because I would certainly seek professional treatment for it. I cannot walk past the tubs of bulbs in a garden center in the fall and leave empty-handed. And it’s not like I only get a single bag. Last year, I planted close to 200 gladiolus bulbs. My gardens are already packed with plants, so this is a huge problem logistically. I need one of those shock collars people get for dogs that zaps me whenever I walk into a garden center in the fall.

Gladioli make the ultimate flower arrangements.

This year, I have 120 Dutch iris bulbs and a few dozen Persian buttercups. Because, sure, why not.

Before we moved here, I did large beds of tulips. You can’t really do tulips here because it does not get cold in the winter. But I did consider chilling tulip bulbs in a drawer in our refrigerator for a couple months and then planting them in January. I can already picture the look on my husband’s face when he opens the drawer looking for celery and finds a couple hundred tulip bulbs instead. He’d probably have me fitted for a shock collar then.

Persian buttercups