A few years ago, I went to see Chuck D of Public Enemy give a lecture at a college campus. He is older now and has moved on from defiant rap star to inspirational speaker. And he was just that, very inspiring. In fact I believe I have referenced this before on this very blog but like any good obsessive knows – the object of one’s obsession bears repeating (over and over and over again). has stuck with me ever since. I wrote his main message in bold caps on the inside of my notebook that night:
BE A NERD
Whatever it is that you are passionate about he said, whatever moves you, become a nerd about that subject. Learn all you can about it, immerse yourself in it and don’t worry about what others think. If you say you are ‘down’ for something challenged Mr. D, then put your whole self behind it and truly represent it. Become a “nerd” about what you love and you will find success, influence people and harness the reins of destiny to take you where you are meant to go.
Umhmm umhmm nodded the heads in the audience but I just sat still, stunned in a beam of sudden realization. Chuck D just gave me permission to be a total and complete geek. About plants. I came home from that talk, put a postcard of Chuck’s face on my fridge and proceeded to unabashedly embrace my nerdy passion once and for all.
So yeah, it’s not super cool and it probably wont take me to the heights of fame and fortune (unless you count a personal comment from Annie’s Annuals on one’s blog as a peak of success which, ahem, I do!), but there you have it. Plants are my obsession.
Case in point: I’ve got a small pile of catalogs, checklists and hastily doodled garden maps which I’ve been carrying around with me for the past few weeks. From room to room, in my purse, in the car, thinking I might steal a few moments along to line to study them further. My poor Annie’s Annuals catalog is so beaten, dog-eared and torn from over-handling you’d think it was a titty magazine.And it’s not even the current season! I written and re-written my “wishlist” out of it so many times that I’ve confused even myself.
There is a garden of delights in my brain that I carry with me at all times as I think about the plants I’ve been admiring. As we lay in bed the other night my husband tenderly asked me, “what are you thinking about?”.”Plants” I said, slightly chagrined. Twenty minutes later he sleepily mumbled “Are you still thinking about plants?”. I stared at the ceiling, mentally arranging and re-arranging the inhabitants of my dream garden. “Yes..” was my whispered answer.
If I had to explain to a stranger why I love to think about plants I’m not sure if I could. It makes my brain feel better might be the best I could come up with. But that fits the hallmarks of a “nerd” right?The minutia of details make me happy – is this plant native? invasive? drought-tolerant? fussy about soil? a self-seeder? I like to study all the qualities of a particular plant and make copious notes on my papers indicating which plant would thrive in which area of my garden. I like to think about color and bloom patterns and what plants I should add to enhance what is already there. This “bloom at the same time” concept is one I stumbled across on the Annie’s website tutorial series: how to have a fabby garden. They are masters of creating a color riot and I am an eager student.
I’ve started making notes each season as to what the overall look of my garden beds is, what colors are appearing each month. Then I design my plant shopping list to focus on those plants that will stitch together and harmonize (or highlight) the other established plants around them.
I have learned that patience is like the next level of gardening; one step up from going to a nursery with spring fever and cash-in-hand and just buying whatever catches the eye and planting it wherever there is room. That was my old way, but the more I develop on my plant-nerdiness the more I’ve come to realize that 50% of the thrill is in the planning. The most effortless looking gardens often have a very formal structure underneath in terms of what will bloom when. A good gardener I’m coming to believe is like a conductor, helping the symphony along with a long range view and a gentle hand.
Something else I have come to accept is that a garden is only as good as the quality of its plants, and that depends on the source of the plants. In wandering through my garden I’ve noticed that the healthiest, most robust of my perennials have come to me as starts from friend’s gardens, or from small reliable sellers. I have a gorgeous chartreuse grass and a thriving Bulbinella floribunda that I bought from Good Humus Farm‘s Annie Main a few years ago at a farm day. Another of my favorite areas is a bed of healthy and well-established California natives, a Penstemon palmeri and a heavily-scented Salvia clevelandii, both of which are massive and both of which I got as little babies in 4″ inch pots from our local Cornflower Farms in Elk Grove (see them in their infancy in this post).
Please don’t get me wrong, even though I can plainly see the benefits of starting with healthy plants, grown under optimal conditions from strong seed I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that yes, I still get sucked into colorful annuals at the demonic Home Depot Garden centers. I try my best to stick to easy performers like Pansies and Alyssum that I know will do fine in pots and will brighten up empty areas in between perennial blooms. However I’ve said this before here and I’ll say it again – buying actual plants for your garden should be the very LAST step of the process. The first step should always be building the soil. Soil, soil, soil. It’s my nerdy new mantra.
So just this week I finally got to order the load of garden materials I’ve been dreaming about since I wrote this piece about my unfinished garden projects. A dump-truck brought us a huge delivery of river rock plus 2 yards of organic compost mixed with steer manure (for added nitrogen) and some forest humus (for a little extra alkalinity). Two yards is a lot of soil-builder my friends, but I am excited to amend and mulch with it over ALL my garden beds. We are expecting a burst of rain next week so my goal is to get this spread and dug in as soon as possible so the rain will kick off the feeding process, bringing the nutrients down to the roots.
That means work work work. Like a true nerd I have been dedicating all my free time this week to my garden, at the expense of just about everything else. It’s a good thing I have a big wheelbarrow, three capable sons and the ability to live with dirty dishes and unfolded laundry. When I start to flag my motivation is my Annie’s wishlist (road trip to the nursery this spring break fo’ sho!!), the order of veggie starts I just sent off to a local gardener/propagator who is starting a seedling business (and will deliver the babies to me mid-April for planting), and my newest geek-out obsession – the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed online catalog. Awesome!
“Rosa bianca Eggplant. Phaccelia viscida, California native. Giant snapdragons, in red. Nemophilia menziesii in “PennyBlack’. Ornamental gourds or the heirloom variety of white pumpkinn called ‘Crown’? Is it too late for sweet peas? Maybe I should put an artichoke in that barrel out front? I must have that Nictotiana ‘lime green’ growing in the garden somewhere. And the perennial Petunia axillaris! Where can I fit that?? Is there time to get outside and shovel one last wheelbarrow of compost before the sun sets?…”
If you could have looked inside my head over the last few weeks this is likely what you would have found rolling around in there. Yes it’s dorky, and slightly obsessive, and the wish-list and to-do lists are never-ending. But it gives me a great amount of pleasure and feeds my enthusiasm for future learning. And if that’s good enough for Chuck D, then it’s certainly good enough for me.