More than Pretty in Pink

Image by Valentin Hintikka (Finland), via Wikimedia Commons

Image by Valentin Hintikka (Finland), via Wikimedia Commons

It gives me great pleasure to introduce Stephanie Djock. Her work reminds me that interesting poetry is like an interesting woman . . . you always find a delightful surprise or two.

–Sandra Knauf


There is a message there,
Somewhere in the soft pink
folds of the peony—
Its up-turned princess skirt of
Hiding an army of ants.

* * *

Stephanie Djock is a writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and an ever-expanding orchid collection and garden. She is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Hamline University, with an emphasis on speculative fiction. During the day, she teaches English to immigrants and refugees and edits educational materials.

Image from

Photo by Brian Schallhammer.



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Art in the Garden: An Interview with Deb Bartos

Deb Bartos

Deb Bartos – photo by Bridget O’Hara.

A few weeks ago in my Greenwoman newsletter I sent out a request–I wanted to get to know my readers better. My goal was (and is) a deeper connection with those who are, like me, in love with the wonders of nature and gardening.

Deb Bartos was one of the first who answered the call. I did not know that she’d been one of the artists to visit my garden last June when I was asked to host a Garden Artists’ visit. (Having painters in one’s garden, by the way, is a pretty humbling, and pretty heady experience. I wrote about it here.) Deb and I got to know one another a little better through some correspondence; I saw her beautiful paintings, requested an interview, and then we met at her art-filled home for some iced herb tea and cookies. Her garden is lovely and mostly xeric (except for the veggies, of course), a cottage garden filled with birdsong and even a charming magpie with an injured wing who is using the property as his recovery area. Her garden features raised beds for produce, lovely flower borders filled with roses, Russian sage, ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, daylilies, annual flowers, and even a brick labyrinth that Bartos installed herself. With a backdrop of Ute Valley Park and it’s rugged hogsback ridge in the close distance it was a lovely visit–just the garden you would imagine a local artist creating. Of course the visit between gardeners would not be complete without a little trade of plants. Deb said I could give her a couple of rose scented geraniums I had started from cuttings, and a few cucumber seedlings, and I left with daylilys and cosmos.

–Sandra Knauf

Flora’s Forum: Tell us a little about yourself, Deb: What got you interested in art? In gardening?

I loved art in school and the field trips we took to museums and the art projects we got to do in class. It opened up a much larger world of possibility than our small town in Kentucky normally provided. As a child, I stayed with my grandmother on weekends. She worked full time and had many chores at home. She set me up at the table with paper she got from work and a pencil to draw with to keep me busy and out of the way. Nana’s neighbor was a commercial artist, who painted Native American children’s portraits. I was fascinated by the beautiful work he did and the idea of doing art for a living. In the 1960’s Dad received Arizona Highways magazines from his sister who lived in Coolidge, Arizona,and I marveled at the scenery.

I took long walks in the woods behind my house in Kentucky, and loved the discovery of plants and animals in nature. My mom planted peonies, which didn’t do well around my father’s passive-aggressive lawn mowing, and she took me to the Conservatory in Cincinnati, across the river, where plants were protected and bloomed all year long in the greenhouse. My uncle grew tomatoes in a greenhouse and they tasted good all through the winter. He earned an award in the Kentucky Agricultural Hall of Fame.

Lavendar Fields, Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm near Albuquerque, New Mexico

Lavender Fields, Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm near Albuquerque, New Mexico

Flora’s Forum: What is your preferred medium and why?

I have tried many mediums and can paint in traditional oil, watercolor, and acrylic, but have found water-soluble oils to be my favorite for the variety of expression, the workability, and the easy cleanup of my brushes.

Flora’s Forum: Do you have a favorite artist/s? If yes, what draws you to that artist/s work?

So many. I’m drawn to the accurate and sublime color changes that occur in nature, the effects that only come from direct observation. Reflected light, detail in shadows, the brightness of contrast. Historically, I greatly admire the work of Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargeant, Joaquin Sorolla, Charles Sovek. I admire many contemporary artists, Matt Smith, Clyde Aspevig, Martha Mans, Deb Komitor, to name a few. I just discovered Don Hamilton’s work at the Governor’s show in Loveland, [he’s from Castle Rock, CO] and his work is my new favorite.

Flora’s Forum: Can you remember one of the first things you painted?

I still have a watercolor painting of a collie I did in grade school. This was a dog who met us in the woods and accompanied us on walks, and I always thought when I grew up I’d get a collie of my own, and I did.

Flora’s Forum: When did you know you were an artist?

In school. I won awards and got a scholarship to attend Baker Hunt Art Academy in Covington, Kentucky. I loved art and seeing what other people had created from their experience. I always wanted to be a commercial artist, like my Uncle Emil, who headed the art department at Dunlop Tire and Rubber, but was told this was not possible, as I would become a nurse like my mother and aunt.

Flora’s Forum: Younger readers may not understand that was the times back then, in the 1950s, not always having control of your vocation as a woman.

Bartos: Yes, career choices were secretary or nurse.

Flora’s Forum: Or teacher!

Water lily pond at the Denver Botanical Garden.

Water lily pond at the Denver Botanical Garden.

Bartos: I’ve enjoyed a long career in nursing, and also have been reclaiming my love for art over the years. Another passion of mine is in increasing the inclusion and importance of women artists in the history and ongoing story of art.

Flora’s Forum: Where do you gather most of the inspiration for your work?

Bartos: First hand, from nature. I am drawn by dramatic light and shadow on a subject. I love the masses and patterns of color in flowers and gardens. The dramatic transformation from backlighting gets me every time.

Flora’s Forum:Do you have a story for us about an experience involving your artwork?

Bartos: I’m a member of the Garden Artists group and of the Plein Air Artists Colorado, and go painting with them every chance I get. Last weekend, there was a marathon paintout here in the Springs where artists from across the state came together to paint all day, starting at sunrise (actually before sunrise) at 5 am. It was the first time (and maybe the only time) I completed 5 paintings on location in one day. It was a good challenge.

Deb Bartos - Monet's Garden, Giverny, France.

Monet’s Garden, Giverny, France.

Flora’s Forum: I love the Garden Artists group; it was a pleasure of having them over to my humble garden last year. I have to say I felt a little intimidated as my garden is not a fancy, expensive one with hired help!

Bartos: We love real gardens, ones that reveal the gardener’s hand and creativity.

Flora’s Forum: What, in your opinion, is the most difficult thing about art?

Bartos: The most challenging is balancing the marketing and sales part with the painting time. I’ve taken trips with my work to Taos, Pueblo, Denver, Loveland, and Evergreen so far this year. I go on these trips for both painting and marketing. [Deb’s work is in the museum at Taos, a Denver gallery, and in Pueblo at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center.] The biggest frustration I have is that no matter what, it seems there is never enough time to paint, as there are so many ideas I have for paintings, and I see new ones every time I go out the door, look out my window, or look at my photo files on my computer. I do think it has to be this way, as the experience of life adds depth to what shows up and how it shows up on my canvas.

Flora’s Forum: What are your goals? You mentioned a book and teaching classes in one of our earlier conversations–can you go into that?

Bartos: I’ve been creating a Shutterfly book that showcases some of my garden paintings, and would love to have a large venue for a garden paintings show somewhere. I want to increase awareness of my work, and find the perfect homes for my paintings that are for sale. I want to keep on painting, learn and grow as I paint, and enjoy time with other artists painting in beautiful places. I taught Art Appreciation for 7 years at the university level, and would consider a low key plein air class here in my garden, but this is my first summer with just a flextime part-time nursing job, so am enjoying the ability to travel and paint.

Deb Bartos - Window Boxes, Murano Italy.

Window Boxes, Murano Italy.

Flora’s Forum: Where may we view your work online?

My website is, and my facebook page is Deb Bartos Fine Art. I list the most current events and paintings there sooner than on my website.

Flora’s Forum: Thank you for taking the time to share your work with us, Deb. It’s been a pleasure.


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Today in USR–the pleasure of the garden

Today in USR–the pleasure of the garden’s perfume.

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Cultivating Creativity: An Interview With Simone Martel

Simone with roses

I became acquainted with Simone Martel and her writing not long after I started Greenwoman. She’d heard about the new publication and sent me a story, “Almost Too Happy,” about her slightly out-of-control garden and how it reflected her life. I found the essay true-to-life and completely charming. I was excited to publish it in Greenwoman #3.

I think Simone and I have been on a similar trajectory with both our writing careers and our gardening. We’re about the same age, we both live in a craftsman-style bungalow, we’re both do-it-herselfers and self-taught writers of fiction and nonfiction (she wrote a book about her first garden, The Expectant Gardener, published in 2000).

Oh yes, she also wrote a story in my anthology of garden erotica, Fifty Shades of Green! I believe it was the first time that either of us had written erotica. That was fun, too!

Late last year, I heard that Simone’s short fiction had been published in a collection, Exile’s Garden. I couldn’t wait to read it. I found tales ranging from the humorous (one’s about a sentient water lily, another about a garden club outing that meets with several obstacles), to the profound and unexpected (lovers meeting after a war, and how inspiration and hope in life can come from a job in a tomato field). I found each tale a verdant-themed treasure. It was then that I asked Simone if she’d like to be interviewed for Flora’s Forum.

Giveaway: If you leave a comment on this post you’ll be entered in a drawing for one of three copies of Exile’s Garden. (Giveaway begins at noon on May 13th; ends at noon on May 23rd. Winners will be notified on the 24th.)

—Sandra Knauf

Flora’s Forum: When did you start gardening?

Simone Martel: I was an only child with a big backyard, so early on I developed a fondness for flowers and trees, worms and mud. I invented imaginary games, too, which is a form of story-telling. Then, in my early twenties, I bought a rundown fixer-upper in Berkeley and I’d go out into the neglected yard to get away from the smell of paint remover and spackling. I just started trying to make a space, pulling up wild onion grass, pruning an overgrown lemon tree. It was quite a natural impulse.  Since I had tiny budget, my first plants–bearded iris, clumps of Shasta daisies–came from my parents’ garden and then others, poppies and scabiosa–from seeds I gathered on strolls around my new neighborhood. When I work in my garden now, I’m reminded that many of the plants have stories behind them.

Simone's pond. You can read about it this week on US Represented.

Simone’s pond from those earlier years. You can read about it this week on US Represented.

FF: How big a role does gardening play in your life today?

SM: It’s a responsibility! And like most responsibilities, it can feel like a chore sometimes. On the West Coast we never get a break from weeding. On the other hand, hardly a day passes without a meal on the deck or at least some time hanging out with the cats. (We have four.) My garden is where I relax when I’m not writing–though I’m likely to start deadheading instead of resting. I go back and forth between the two activities a lot. I think they complement each other. When I start obsessing over details (whether it’s tying up floppy perennials or tinkering with sentences), I remind myself to see the whole shape of the garden or the structure of a story.

FF: When did you start writing? How did you get into garden writing?

SM: I started writing in high school and college. My now-husband and I met when we were both editors on the high school newspaper. After college, when I started gardening, I also began reading garden literature, falling in love with words as well as plants. Garden writing fed my love of gardening and gardening itself changed the way I looked at the world. Again, the two are so entwined! In my mid-twenties I had an organic tomato farm that inspired “Calle Del Veneno,” the longest story in my new collection.

FF: Tell us about this latest book, Exile’s Garden. How did it come together?

SM: I’d sent the publisher, Edwin E. Smith, “The Garden Over the Hill,” a short story based on a disastrous garden club outing to Sonoma. When Ed asked if I had enough garden stories for a collection, I was surprised to see that, yes, gardening and farming crop up a lot in my writing.

FF: What is your favorite story in this collection, why, and what inspired it?

SM: The title story, “Exile’s Garden,” is the most romantic in the collection and a sort of love letter to my husband. It evokes the tough, bleakly romantic “film noir” world of the post-World War II movies we enjoy watching together. The young couple in the story, a soldier and a journalist, reunite after the war in a Mexican border town to start their new life together. The funny thing is, I wrote an early draft of this story before I’d started gardening, but the story wasn’t really complete until I had the couple come together at the end, in a cottage garden the woman has created during her lonely exile.

FF: Who are your favorite writers, fiction and garden, and why?

SM: Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, E.M. Forester are some favorites, and, with reservations, Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence. In their different ways, they all evoke the natural world, sensuous, romantic or dangerous. I love Chekhov’s stories, too, and Elizabeth Bowen’s strange short work. As for garden writing, to me the best of the genre is beautiful, inspiring and maybe a bit political. David Mas Masumoto’s farming memoir Epitaph for a Peach, and Second Nature by Michael Pollan (before he became a foodie), both come to mind. Mirabel Osler’s A Gentle Plea for Chaos is lovely, too.

FF: List three books you’ve read more than three times.

SM: More than three times? Those would be children’s books: The Secret Garden, Charlotte’s Web, all the “Little House” books. My favorites almost qualify as garden writing. My mom was a children’s librarian and I often spent my Saturdays at the Oakland public library. The library was a retreat for me–like a garden, only filled with books instead of plants.

FF: Where is your favorite place and time to write, and why?

SM: Usually I get writing business over with in morning, then in the afternoon I do creative work on a laptop in the kitchen or in my son’s old bedroom, depending on the sun and the light. Both rooms look out on the back garden, so I can gaze out from time to time. I can’t actually write in the garden. Too distracting.

FF: What’s your next writing project and your next gardening project?

SM: I’m expanding “Calle Del Veneno” into a novel about a brash real estate developer who sweeps into town to develop the land around Gloria’s farm and who clashes with the locals, including Gloria, the fieldworkers, and her own illegitimate son who lives on a commune forgotten by time. In the garden, I’m considering ripping out the cracked driveway to add more vegetable beds on the sunny side of the house. The rest of the garden has grown up so much that I’m mostly editing now, making choices about what can stay. The lawn keeps shrinking. The climbing roses are so happy, I probably should rebuild the old pergola under them.

FF: What are your dream projects in both areas?

SM: I’ve always fantasized about having a bigger garden in Italy or France, maybe, with grape vines, old stone, chickens and ducks. Lately, I’ve been joking about a condo with plants in containers–and no weeds! I know I’d miss a real garden, though.  Probably I’ll stay right where I am and continue to fiddle with what I have. It’s gratifying to look at my mature fig tree and remember planting it out of a one gallon pot twenty years ago. Time seems to move slowly in a garden, but still it moves…  There’s another book I’m itching to write, this one set in Silicon Valley, about a magic house, and the natural world at odds with the tech world. It would be a departure for me, although plants would be involved. Maybe talking plants.

FF: What a fun idea; I love it. Thank you so much, Simone!

* * *

Giveaway: Leave a comment, and you’ll be entered into a drawing for one of three copies of Exile’s Garden! Winners will be announced on May 24th.

exile's garden


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Cultivating Garden Style in the new Millennium

Cultivating Garden Style

How do you express yourself through your garden? What is your garden style? This is the subject of Rochelle Greayer’s book Cultivating Garden Style: Inspired Ideas and Practical Advice to Unleash Your Garden Personality, published by Timber Press last year.

I’ve looked forward to digging into this beautiful book for some time, and I’m happy to say I was not disappointed. Cultivating Garden Style is an encyclopedia, really, analyzing over 23 styles with creative, playful names like Retro Rockery, Tropical Noir, Forest Temple, and Playful Pop. The photography is exquisite, the ideas abundant. You could linger over this book for hours (I did). Each section goes into what you might include in, for example, a “Playful Pop” garden. In this style of garden you’d find bold colors, geometric shapes, and a fun attitude expressed in such suggested elements as chicken sculptures, colorful floor cushions, an electric-pink birdhouse, and a mix of chair styles from contemporary Adirondack to a bright green rocking chair that looks like it came from The Jetsons, But what, you may ask, if you’re more into a more earthy style? In Greayer’s book, a Cottage Au Courant garden may be what you are looking for. It’s still the cottage garden of yesteryear, but with 21st century adaptations. There’s the white picket fence, wooden arbor, and traditional flowers, the kitchen garden (potager), and the lush plantings, yet new twists abound: modern fabric on the outdoor furniture (why not try a leopard print?), a checkerboard planting for your lawn (tile alternating with groundcovers or grass), and a bright blue modern bistro chair that fits in just fine.

Graeyer was educated in London’s English Gardening School, and she has designed gardens for many international clients and hotels. She was even awarded a medal by the Royal Horticultural Society for her garden at the Hampton Court Palace Flower show. While it’s clear that this über-stylist is passionate about her subject matter, both gardens and style, Graeyer’s prose exudes a down-to-earth friendly encouragement on every page.

While I adore the concept of diversity in garden styles—in the 21st century we can borrow from any period, any country, any tradition, and that is thrilling!—at the same time I worried that this book might prove a little bewildering to a new gardener. There’s a level of sophistication here that’s off the charts, and I puzzled over some of the style subheadings. When two people read “eclectic private paradise” or “summer party” the same visual will probably not spring to mind. That was my only issue; that there were so many styles and accompanying terms, Greayer’s overall message might be unnecessarily muddied. (Actually, I feel that her expertise and enthusiasm calls for a series of style books, not just one.) That stated, it’s understandable that she wanted to put everything in her first book, and gardeners, if anyone, should appreciate abundance.

For me, this book brought up the question of how style develops for a gardener. I remember when I began my first garden. It was in the early ’90s, and I had grown up in traditional suburbia (a neighborhood where identical trees and shrubs and lawns stretched out as far as the eye could see). Although I had developed an aesthetic in art and design, I was anxious about putting my mark on the landscape. To me, and I’m guessing most feel the same, designing an outdoor space is serious business. In our historic neighborhood, I knew I was altering a landscape that had been around for decades. Now I would create a landscape that reflected my values, my interests. It didn’t help that one of the first things I wanted to do was to tear out the lawn, something that was anything but standard at that time.

At this beginning point, every gardener must have some idea of style for guidance. I remember checking out every book I could find on the subject at the library. I knew I was the cottage garden type. There were only several popular styles back then and I connected to the freedom, history, abundance, utility, and, well, chaos. I wanted everything: vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, shrubs, trees, a water feature. But, I wondered, what about style? For instance, should I incorporate a plant color scheme? You may laugh, but many books of that period pushed a color palette. I remember reading how a gardener’s addition of a single “jarring color” in a flower bed could throw everything out of balance. (Yikes?) I brought this question up to my mentor. Victoria was a horticulturalist, and a seasoned cottage gardener (she’d created the first cottage garden I fell in love with). “Should I stick with certain color groups with flowers?” I asked her. “Warm tones? Cool tones? I can’t decide—I like them all!” She told me, “Plant whatever you like. It’ll be a bouquet!” That’s all I needed. Her green light encouraged me to let the fun begin. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my garden (oh, the poor plants that have been sacrificed for my education), and I continue to make mistakes, but it’s come together into what is an expression of my values, interests, and aesthetics . . . in other words, me.

An interesting side note is that in the last couple of decades I’ve discovered that everyone has their own inherent garden style. This became apparent when friends moved from one home to another. Their new gardens were almost identical in style to what they’d had before, even in very different climates. Ah-ha! I thought, the gardens we create reflect who we are, no matter where we are! I like that. It’s only when you get too serious, too worried about what the neighbors think, that you lose your individuality.

Books like Cultivating Garden Style can help you discover your personal style and hone it into something extraordinary. It can bring up your level of garden design sophistication. My advice? Relax. Just go into the garden, summon your ideas, and set them free. Don’t be intimidated, don’t feel you have to pick a certain style and use only those elements. Greayer doesn’t. She describes herself as a Colorado native whose own garden is a combination of Handsome Prairie, Sacred Meadow, Forest Temple, and Homegrown Rock ‘n’ Roll.

There were many things to admire about this book, but I think what I loved most was the multitude of practical tips and how-tos that go hand-in-hand with creating a garden. You will find many important basic gardening questions covered: the abc’s on soil, composts, and mulch; how to lay out plants in your garden beds; primers on lighting, trellises, fountains; even how to hang a tree swing. There are fun crafts, like making planters out of recycled items or concrete, oilcloth (waterproof) placemats or a rug, plant hangers. There are helpful, but not overwhelming, plant lists—an example of two are “creepers, cushions, and rosettes” and “ornamental vegetables.” Educational pages about permaculture, xeriscaping, and bees, even one on the fundamentals of “fire scaping” (so very important as wildfires have increased 400% in the last few decades) round out the offerings.

I gave my copy of this book to my friend Denise this month. She is getting married this summer. She has just bought her first home, and she will start her first garden this year. She’s excited, and I’m excited for her. I know she’ll find much in this book to inspire and guide her.

Those of us obsessed with gardening will recognize author Rochelle Greayer as the publisher of the new and notable quarterly garden journal Pith + Vigor. Before that she co-edited Leaf Magazine and was a weekly columnist for Apartment Therapy. (She also had a popular blog, “Studio ‘g’.) It’s clear that she’s obsessed too—in that wonderful, happy way that gardeners share. The thought thrills me there will be more books from Greayer to come.

—Sandra Knauf

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Tillandsias for the Highly Creative

Tillandsia aeranthos

Tillandsia aeranthos

Browsing the new books at Timber Press this winter, I found a fix for my garden longings–Air Plants by Zenaida Sengo. As a fan of the horticulturally unusual, I’m attracted to these spiky-sculptural plants. (Carnivorous plants also turn me on, and the undersea creature look of succulents mesmerize me.) The tallandsias we usually see at the nursery can be quite small, miniature marvels if you will, and the fact that they don’t require soil gives them the ability to go anywhere there’s good light. Pictures in the book show them wired to screens and collected in frames, dangling artfully from fishing line, in sand terrariums surrounded by gleaming quartz and fluorite. This was exactly what I needed: plants, creativity, and FUN.


A confession: I’ve bought a few tillandsias over the years, but none lasted. Contrary to my life’s work and passion, I am not a natural green thumb–all my plant successes have been hard won, with many casualties along the way. In this book I knew I’d find expert advice to remedy my failing. I sat down to read Air Plants, and I read it straight through in one sitting. (You know it’s good when that happens).

The author of Air Plants, Zenaida Sengo, is a long time tillandsia guru at Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco. As an artist who fell in love with horticulture, this book is a perfect combination of her know-how and flair in both disciplines. It’s also a very beautiful book, thanks in large part to the talent of photographer Caitlin Atkinson.

I learned (in some cases, relearned), my air plant ABCs: that tillandsias are epiphytes (plants that anchor on other plants), but that they’re not parasitic, and they are of the family Bromeliaceae, kissing cousins to the bromeliads. Air plants come in two general types; xeric, those that can survive on less water, and mesic, those that need more moisture as they come from areas with moderate to ample rainfall. You can easily tell the difference between the two by their appearance: xeric tillandsias, like other xeric plants, have moisture-retaining leaves (called trichomes) that are more feathery or hairy in appearance, and this gives them a white, gray, or silvery color. Mesic tillandsias have smoother “slicker and greener” trichomes, because in their natural habitat, finding water is not an issue. Reading about their water requirements, I found out why my air plants had died. While I had been told “a dunk in a container of water once a week” would be sufficient, in Sengo’s book it says a soaking of 1-2 hours might be more desirable, up to 5 hours if the plant exhibits curved, dehydrated leaves. In Colorado’s dry climate, these plants need to be soaked. You can also hydrate air plants by misting them a few times a week (if they’re xeric, the mesic require more) or by holding them under a faucet for a couple of times a week.

Tillandsia regina, Curtis's Botanical Magazine, London., vol. 141, 1915, via Wikimedia Commons

Tillandsia regina, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, London., vol. 141, 1915, via Wikimedia Commons

Those details will enable me to do right by my tillandsias next time. And there will be a next time, as I started hunting for specimens immediately upon finishing this book. That’s how inspired I was. Come to me tillandsias, I won’t hurt you ever again! The book is filled with exciting ideas for displaying these beauties in design and décor, and there are even crafts (I really liked the hair adornments). I’m thinking I’ll construct a screen structure that I can hang as an art object in our sunny east-facing dining room (perfect for winter interest), and I want to put together at least one “other worldy” terrarium.

Zenaida Sengo

Author Zenaida Sengo

To get a little glimpse of Senga’s air plant skills you can visit her website here (and here’s the page where the hair adornment is featured). And here’s the listing on Timber Press!

–Sandra Knauf

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Everything She Needs is at Her Feet—the Garden Poetry of Barbara Crooker

Small Rain by Barbara Crooker

I was happy to hear that Barbara Crooker, whose poetry has been read many times by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac and has also appeared in Greenwoman, has a new book out, Small Rain. Crooker’s sixth book of poetry, is described as “an exploration of the wheel of the year, the seasons that roll in a continuous circle and yet move inexorably forward. Here, gorgeous lyric poems praise poppies, mockingbirds, nectarines, mulch and compost, yet loss (stillbirth, cancer, emphysema), with its crow-black wings, is also always present.” I read her book yesterday and the writing is sublime, the themes deep. I recommend it highly.

Barbara agreed to share a couple of poems today, along with some insight into her gardening life. Thank you, Barbara!


Dianthus microlepis by KENPEI, via Wikimedia Commons

Dianthus microlepis by KENPEI, via Wikimedia Commons


My mother comes back as a dianthus,

only this time, she’s happy, smelling like cloves,

fringed and candy-striped with a ring of deep rose

that bleeds into the outer petals.  She dances

in the wind without her walker, nods pinkly

to the bluebells.  She breathes easily, untethered

to oxygen’s snaking vines.  Lacking bones,

there’s nothing left to crumble; she’s supple,

stem and leaf.  No meals to plan, shop for, prepare;

everything she needs is at her feet, more rich and moist

than a chocolate cake.  How much simpler

it would have been to be a flower in the first place,

with nothing to do but sit in the sun and shine.

Barbara writes:

The garden is a source of deep pleasure, and is also a source for many poems. In the front landscaping (azaleas, rhododendron, mountain laurel, holly), I usually plant annuals. When my mother was in a nursing home at the end, a visitor brought her a pot of pinks (dianthus), and she gave them to me to take home. After she passed, I planted them outside, and was delighted to see them come back after the first harsh winter.  She’s been gone almost seven years now, but I feel her presence keenly when they open their pink skirts, and dance in the May wind.

Sumac Leaf Circle by Rebecca Siegel via Wikimedia Commons

Sumac Leaf Circle by Rebecca Siegel via Wikimedia Commons


Autumn returns, and again we are cast thistledown together

on the winds, wrote Tu Fu in 755 AD, and I feel the cold air

blowing, the years falling by like so many yellow leaves.

Down in the meadow, some larkspur, a few black-eyed Susans

still bloom, but it’s late in the season, everything

going to seed.  The afternoon sun licks strips

of gold on my arms.  A drowsy silence, hummed

by bees. The thunk of an apple, finally ripe, falling.

We tilt at the balancing point, between summer’s too-much

and winter’s not-enough; the sumac flickers red in the hedgerow.

Last sweet raspberries.  The old cherry tree turning orange

peach orchid gold, a sunset of leaves.  Small sulphur butterflies

dance on the lawn.  Who could paint a sky this blue?

The pages of my notebook flutter in the breeze.

This poem pretty much describes my back yard, or some of it:  the little wildflower meadow I replant every year (corn poppies, California poppies (another poem in Small Rain uses them as the subject), Icelandic poppies, cornflowers, larkspur, coreopsis, rudbeckia), the old apple orchard (on retirement, my husband added two more apple trees, two pears, two peaches, one plum, one sweet and one sour pie cherry), the sumac (and goldenrod, thistle, milkweed) in the wild hedgerow, and the raspberry patch we put in almost forty years ago. When we bought this house way back then, the developer put sod in the front plus five small shrubs, and gave us a bag of grass seed for the back.  Everything else we put in ourselves, using a pick axe to break through the shale. The old cherry tree in this poem was put in the first year we lived here, but it split apart in a storm and has been replaced by a newer one.

The parts of my garden that aren’t in this poem are:  an iris bed, six mixed perennial beds, a row of flowering shrubs (red twig dogwood, two butterfly bushes (on purple, one pink), bridal wreath, tri-colored spirea, two weigela (one red, one pink with variegated leaves), forsythia, hydrangea, pussy willow, mock orange blossom, Viburnum, flowering quince, Viburnum Juddii, and sand cherry), a row of Rose of Sharons and lilacs, two day lily beds, a foundation planting of roses and mums, an herb garden, and a vegetable patch.

And a dogwood tree.  Hundreds of bulbs are mixed in; I like to have flowers from February to frost.  And there’s a compost bin (also a poem about it in this book).  Of course, you don’t see the enemies:  voles, rabbits, skunks (the callas need bone meal to flower; the skunks love to snack on this), and deer. . . .

—Barbara Crooker

Barbara Crooker

Barbara Crooker

Barbara Crooker’s work has been read many times by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac. Her other books are Radiance (Word Press), Line Dance (Word Press), More (C&R Press), Gold (Cascade Books), and Barbara Crooker: Selected Poems. She lives and gardens in rural Pennsylvania.

You can get a signed copy of Small Rain from Barbara at, or via Amazon,


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