Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned a Boring Yard into a Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too
Written by Cassandra Danz
Review and ruminations by Julie Carpenter
I am not a fan of winter. Granted, now that I’m older and my internal thermostat is broken, I’m far more likely to be able to deal with cold weather, if taking off and putting on layers of clothes every thirty seconds and opening and closing windows can be considered “dealing with it”. It’s no longer the temperatures that get me. At this point my main objection to winter is that I feel lonely while all the plants are sleeping. I miss the leaves, the flowers, the buzz of nectar drunk bees. All I get in winter is cold gray sky and blank expressions from naked trees. There’s certainly no use talking to them while they’re napping – and trust me, I’ve tried. (But why not have a long conversation with an evergreen you might ask, say, a pine or a cedar? The cedars are serious and somewhat taciturn, and just between you and me, the average Georgia pine has very little depth so to speak. It’s why they topple over on houses during storms. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very sweet…but no sparkling conversation there. Anyway, evergreens never want to discuss my favorite topic: spring.) After Christmas, I wish I could go dormant with the oaks, fall asleep among the roots, covered with a blanket of withered leaves and wake with the buds in the spring. But alas…that is not to be. So, I do the next best thing. I read and dream about gardens.
I have a variety of ways to get my garden fix during this difficult time. I buy stacks of garden magazines. (I don’t throw them away. I keep them or give them to some other poor seed junkie.) I also have a garden self-hypnosis routine that I will share with you at some point. But today I want to share my most important winter ritual. Every January, I find a sunny spot, or post up in front of a nice fire if it’s a gloomy day, and perform the annual reading of…Mrs. Greenthumbs, How I Turned My Boring Yard into a Glorious Garden and You Can Too!
And here is why. I love gardens and I love stories. And most of all, I love stories that have gardens. I like to think of stories as webs or root systems, whatever part of the story you see, there’s more to it deep underground. Gardens live and grow and stretch beyond their boundaries – much as my sentences tend to do. Like stories, gardens have tendrils and roots and unexpected flowers. Here’s a small section from Things Get Weird in Whistlestop which shows you exactly where my head is at when it comes to gardens and stories. This selection is from a story called The Bite,
“First, there was her neighbor Isabelle's garden. It backed up to Mary's rose garden like a stripper doing a lap dance for a man wearing an expensive watch. Isabelle's garden was almost the exact opposite of Mary's, lush, dense, and sensual, dominated by the whims of nature, not the firm hand of the gardener; Mary was constantly fighting stray tendrils of sweet peas that pushed through the fence slats, or peppermint or blackberries that simply bypassed the fence and thrust themselves up through the yard right between the knees of one of Mary’s grand hybrid teas. The tawdry scent of gardenia, lilac or tuberose often overwhelmed Mary while she tended her roses. She sometimes found herself hurriedly bending down to pluck a bit of naughty lemon balm or catmint from beneath her roses. The absolute bane of Mary's gardening existence was a giant butterfly bush that sprawled its scraggly arms across the fence and shaded out the raspberry colored Auguste Renoir in the corner. The old butterfly bush sometimes nudged off Mary's wide brimmed garden hat with a long twiggy finger. Mary wasn't much given to nonsense, but the shrub seemed almost sentient in its attempts to annoy her. “
Anyhoo…back from shamelessly plugging the book to the question of why I ritually read Mrs. Greenthumbs. The long and short of it is this, my stories have gardens, her garden becomes a story, and its root systems are part of her story. Mrs. Greenthumbs, was in her real life (real life isn’t quite right, because her life as a gardener occupies something very real in its own right, but it will do as shorthand) known as Cassandra Danz. I tend to refer to her as Mrs. Greenthumbs. I realize that it’s more typical to recognize authors by their last names, but the part of her I know is a gardener. I’d feel kind of awkward about addressing her by her last name anyway. In one of the very first chapters, she invites the reader for an imaginary walk in her garden and offers drinks. It makes me feel so at home that I almost feel we’d have to call each other by our first names if I went that route. (Sadly, Mrs. Greenthumbs, passed away at 55, but she lives on for me every winter when I read her lovely, lovely book about the story of her garden and by extension, herself.)
What’s so special about this book? The writing is lively and funny – she was a member of The Second City Comedy Troupe in Chicago and had a funny gardening segment on Regis and Kathy Lee. The book is actually quite helpful both practically (it even has an index) and emotionally. If you don’t think the emotional part is necessary for a garden book, you’ve never bought a David Austin Dark Prince rose for far more than you mentioned to your husband, then walked out on the day it bloomed, touched it and watched it topple to the ground DEAD because a vole just ate its roots. (Is there some sort of therapist that specializes in garden trauma?) Mrs. Greenthumbs takes seriously both the difficulties and joys of gardening. The first lines in the book are,
“A lot of people think that to make a garden, all you have to do is put a few seeds in the ground. These are the same people who think that conceiving a baby makes you a good parent. But the real secret of gardening is the same as the read secret of parenting – a lot of patience, a lot of love, and devotion.”
I find this beginning endlessly comforting; kind of like DON’T PANIC in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Besides, unlike other garden books, this book doesn’t stop at the garden any more than the dirt I pick up when I’m planting vegetables stops at the door. This garden story contains a lot of real life: Mai Tai cocktails, family dinners gone wrong, sex, and the unpleasantness of digesting a bean, cheese, and broccoli casserole. For example, when discussing her method of killing the bamboo in her side yard, Mrs. Greenthumbs says,
“The truth is, my husband chopped the bamboo down using a machete he had bought mail order through Soldier of Fortune magazine. I remember the sweat glistening on his torso. I felt like Ava Gardner in Mogambo. In a tropical frame of mind, I put on my muumuu and quickly mixed some Mai Tai cocktails. We sat on the porch, looking at the bamboo stumps and waited for the elephants to stampede. Gardening is more fun that you think.”
The best part of her bamboo story is the fact that…of course…it didn’t work, and the bamboo came back. I like that her gardening failures are part of the story too. There are too many gardening books where the writing is serious, academic, prescriptive and the author acts as if nothing has ever gone wrong: no roses covered in mildew; no boxers eating the newly planted plum trees and a whole bed of chocolate mint and then barfing in the kitchen; no blackberries beating up the raspberries like the Vandals sacking Rome. Nothing much puts me in a funk like detailed advice followed to the letter that still ends in disaster. It’s a garden for goodness sakes, if you don’t get the mix for your succulent right and it dies of a soggy bottom, it’s really not the end of the world. (For you anyway. The succulent wasn’t so lucky. But there are no garden books written from the point of view of a succulent as far as I know.) And I bet some of those snooty gardeners are just hiding the fact that they fell to their knees weeping when they realized Japanese Beetles had eaten right through their prize roses, just like the rest of us. Lighten up guys! As Mrs. Greenthumbs liked to say, the only truly serious garden mistake you can make is planting a willow tree too close to your plumbing. Everything else is a learning experience, or an addition to the compost.
The book is arranged by month, each month bringing up flowers, memories, and advice. Springtime is full of lilac hedges and tulips and advice about how to plant bulbs (no rulers here, as a married woman, Mrs. Greenthumbs assures us that she knows what six or eight inches looks like.) In the summer, she advises buying cheap roses to experiment with, tossing them democratically into the flower bed where daisies will hide their knobbly knees and telling them they ride the bus like every other plant in the garden. She explains what the florid terms in the garden catalogues really mean, and she recalls a showdown at a flower show with a snobby statuary salesman.
This book is a delight. Every page leaks sunshine. In the winter, when I barely believe that summer ever existed, this book gives me the faith to hang on. I can’t recommend it enough.
*We are trying to link to booksellers other than just Amazon. When we can, we love to link to independent book sellers. In this case, because the book is out of print, it's harder to find. The picture of the book is linked to Thrifty Books and the link in the text is to Amazon. Most other sellers either do not have it in stock or have only one copy. If you have a used bookseller that you typically use, it's worthwhile to see if they have copy!
Julie graduated from Tennessee Weslyan with a BA in English Literature, and she has an MA from University of Memphis in Professional Writing. She was accepted to the Writer’s Hotel in 2016 and 2017, serving as as a teaching assistant in 2017. Julie is a Pushcart nominee for “Letter to Essie” in the New Guard Anthology VII, and has published four stories at Fiction on the Web. She will have a short story collection , Things Get Weird in Whistlestop, published with Poetic Justice Press later this year. She is currently working on a novel called “Last Train Out of Hell.” She can be often be found blogging here on the Sacred Chickens website along with her cats, Uncle Morty and Jarad. (Actually, the cats don't blog. They're amazingly lazy.)