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Vicki Green's Garden

Vicki Green's garden is one of the neatest and most immaculate gardens I've seen and it is a showcase for beautifully grown plants as well as art objects (she is a glass artist). The property was once wall-to-wall grass and now just a central portion is devoted to the green. A long pathway leads you around the perimeter of the garden adorned with lush plantings. Vicki is a master at pruning and her technique reminds me of the way Michael does it. She has trained many of her "shrubs" into small trees, such at the waxleaf privet and elderberry. A Wax Leaf Privet ( Ligustrum japonicum ) trained into an attractive small tree. I was taken aback by the size of the plants, some of which I grow, and my mind was racing. Driving up, I was immediately wowed by her 'Golden Spirit' Smoke Bush ( Cotinus coggygria ) although now I do recall seeing a very large on 117th St. However, this one is the most beautiful I've seen -   I also was surprised to see how large her 

Discovering Old Garden Books - Thalassa Cruso

I have to confess that I am a book hoarder. It takes an act of Congress for me to let go of a precious volume although I did diminish my library quite substantially when we moved to Washington. That said, I still find myself with around 200 gardening related books. In addition, there are my cookbooks, Hollywood biographies, and fiction. And, oh yes, I also have a collection of nothing but the children's classic "The Secret Garden" of which there are about 50 different editions. When I do decide to give up a book, I can guarantee you that I will find myself needing to consult that book a few weeks later. It never fails. 

Recently, I was conducting yet another futile attempt to weed out some books. Glancing through them, I noticed that I have many old books, titles that I picked up at library book sales and used bookstores many moons ago. I used to believe that old books might bring money some day. Ha! Never ask me for financial advice. But that isn't the only reason I buy them. I find old gardening book quite fascinating.

A book on the shelf caught my attention - "To Everything There Is A Season" by Thalassa Cruso. I had never even looked at this book and I thought it was something that had been published in the early part of the 20th century. Not so, as I discovered when I read the book jacket. It was published in 1973. 

Who was Thalassa Cruso? The name sounded familiar to me (does one forget a name like that?) but I really had no idea who she was, so I took to the Internet to find out more about her. Turns out she was quite the horticulture celebrity in her day and had her own program on public television in the late 1960s called "Making Things Grow". She was kind of like the Julia Child of gardening.

I immediately went over to YouTube thinking that I would probably find all of her old programs there. Surprisingly, there was only one episode. Further sleuthing revealed that it was uploaded by Michael Weishan, former host of "The Victory Garden" and a huge fan of Thalassa Cruso.  He wrote about her in a blog post and told how a co-worker located a single VHS tape with the said episode. The others, filmed in an archaic format, would cost thousands to restore to modern-day media format and well, I guess Cruso didn't have the popularity factor of  Julia Child.


However, while on YouTube, I kept seeing Cruso's name popping up all over the place under clips from "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. Apparently Carson was quite fond of her because, according to the Internet Movie Database, she appeared on his show nineteen times! (He referred to her as "The Mistress of Mulch"). We all know that YouTube is a soul-sucker and you can probably guess where this is going. Yes, I spent countless hours watching these clips. 

Caruso is an imposing figure with bangs and a bun. On the Carson show, she usually wears a dress and pearls. Her manner is gruff and to-the-point and she dispenses her advice in a stern British accent. Most of the segments begin with a brief chat between Carson and Cruso and then they move over to a table where Cruso demonstrates the art of dividing a fern or re-potting an azalea. Educational to the uninformed but it is quite apparent the reason Carson kept inviting her back - she, in her non-nonsense, take no prisoners manner,  is the perfect foil to play alongside him and the audience found the two of them together hilarious. Despite Carson's befuddled manner about what was going on, Cruso told a reporter that he was actually a very good gardener and knew what they were doing.


But, on to the book. It is divided by the months of the year with essays on a variety of subjects and plants. Cruso had a gardening column in The Boston Globe and some of these writings first appeared there. There is lots of potted plant advice and some chapters focus on her childhood in England or on topics of horticulture in the United States. 

Cruso writes in an engaging style and most of the advice is sound and practical. Although I don't do much with plant propagation, I was impressed with a method she describes for ensuring that a cutting that has rooted in water will take to soil. It calls for propping the plant up and securing it with pencils or sticks so that it hangs in the center of a container of water. You then begin to slowly replace the water in the container with soil. You do this a little bit each day until you end up with a wholly saturated container of soil. This should give the cutting sufficient time to take to the soil. It sounds good to me!

Some of her methods, however, sound like a lot of work. In "Vacation Time" she asks "Do you dread the family vacation because you can't imagine what is going to happen to your cherished house plants or carefully tended yard?" The work that follows is bound to ensure that you will be ready for that vacation. Houseplants are to be enclosed in plastic bags that are turned into tents by using sticks. For plants in the ground she recommends thoroughly watering flower beds by leaving the hose running overnight (uh.. I don't think so) and then covering all the exposed earth with a layer of 4 inch mulch. And if that isn't enough, you should cut off every bud and flower on every plant the day before you leave. 

One of my favorite passages is titled "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and discusses wildflowers on her property. The previous owners had left a large collection of gardening books behind and in them, they had left notes in the margins recording what was blooming at the time. It was a bygone era when families would pack picnic lunches and venture out into the woods and surrounding pastures and observe wildflowers.

Just as Cruso uses incidents like the ones just described  to compare gardening in her time with that in the old books she inherited, so the circle advances a bit more so that we readers can compare our garden activities with what was going on forty-six years ago. This is what I find so interesting.

Surprisingly, not that much has changed in forty-six years and Cruso's concerns closely parallel ours. She speaks often of weather extremes. The destruction of wild areas to make way for housing is also a common theme. In "Let's Not Spoil It Again", she says that a public outcry against overhead chemical spraying to eradicate mosquitoes had resulted in more insects and wildlife than ever before. The ensuing mosquito problem, however, prompted the officials to spray again, this time without a vote or warning, and the next summer she notices no butterflies. 

She strikes a cord on another unpleasant topic that I find myself thinking about more and more often as I get older - aging. I really like the following quote and I will end with it:

"For gardens, unlike the rest of us, do not have to accept the inevitability of old age. If we but help them a little, each spring will find them just as young as ever." 

Now, if we can just hope that our bodies and minds allow us to keep our gardens lovely.








Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Comments

  1. Really enjoyed this post Phillip, thank you!

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  2. What an interesting book Phillip. I think I remember that woman on the Carson show. I used to watch Johnny faithfully. I might even go down that rabbit hole of youtube and try to find an episode to watch to see if I remember right. Lucky you to have found the book.

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  3. Fascinating stuff! I'll try to find a video of Thalassa Cruso as you brought her to life so vividly in this post. I expect this book of hers will not be donated any time soon. You'd need to find another to part with to lighten up your collection.

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  4. Lovely,inmens discovery. Thank you por posting. "Let"s not spoil it again". She was a environmentalist,too . No more wild flowers now with everything urbanized and polluted. I enjoy my wild garden. I guess she would have one ,too.

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