Monthly Archives: February 2014

Zombie Victory Gardens!


I discovered Zombie Victory Gardens a couple of weeks ago after noticing a Facebook friend’s super-cool new profile picture (above). I recognized the WWII Victory Garden poster—but it had a zombie twist.  I thought, “WHAT is this?!? I love zombie stuff!”

I immediately checked out the website. After investigating (there is a lot on this site, including “Beyond Survival” offerings on gardening, small livestock raising, and even movie reviews), I downloaded ZVG‘s free Gardening Guides. What fun! I loved the comic-book style, and at the end of each story is gardening how-to info!

From Issue #1 of Quick! Plant Something! Gardening Guide (on Raised Beds and Soil . . . and Fighting Zombies)

From Issue #1 of Quick! Plant Something! gardening guide (on Raised Beds and Soil . . . and, of course, fighting zombies!)

And here’s an example of the how-to parts:

Quick! Winter Sowing! From Quick! Plant Something gardening guide Issue #2

Quick! Winter Sowing! From Quick! Plant Something! gardening guide, Issue #2

Curious about the creators of this inventive method of gardening ed, I read the “About” paragraph, which said:

Kathy Voth and Leah Ashley Esser are the brains behind Zombie Victory Gardens. They believe that thinking outside the box, a sense of humor, and teamwork are the keys that make anything work. They currently spend much of their time working in their gardens, writing, photographing, and prepping all the things it takes to get a new concept off the desk and out into the world.

How intriguing! I wanted to learn more. I did some additional web surfing and found that both Kathy and Leah have extensive experience in other fields (ha). Kathy Voth worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. There she helps farmers, ranchers, and land managers on-site, pursuing her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably and sustainably. She also writes articles and books, and edits videos to help her clients turn their livestock into landscape managers. Leah has a degree in psychology with an emphasis in animal behavior from Colorado State University. She worked her way through college running a pet sitting business and helping with pet behavioral issues. She assists Kathy with projects in the field, researches plant histories, nutrients, and toxins, and sends materials to clients. They also work together at On Pasture, a venture they started last March.   It is an online magazine for those who raise livestock on pasture. Leah writes that they “translate science and other farmer/rancher experiences into practical steps their readers can adapt to their own operations.”  Aside from this considerable amount of work, and ZVG, Leah also helps out as an assistant at RE/MAX.

Kathy Voth, in her natural habitat, helping ranchers and farmers.

Kathy Voth, in her natural habitat, helping ranchers and farmers.

Leah Ashley Esser, sometimes known as the "cow whisperer."

Leah Ashley Esser, sometimes known as the “cow whisperer” and also, possibly, the “cow lollipop.”

Do you feel like a slacker reading about all this? I kind of do (and I’m not!).

This information still did not satisfy my curiosity, so I wrote Kathy and Leah and asked if they’d like to be interviewed for Flora’s Forum. Of course (since obviously they have nothing else going on) they said “Sure.”

And I said, “Whoopee!”

The interview is below. Leah and Kathy said they wanted to present a special offer to Flora’s Forum readers. If you order a hoodie, T-shirt, or apron from their website—they’ll send you a FREE poster! Just add the word “Green” and a poster name in the Comments section of your order.

So . . . here’s our interview!

Flora’s Forum:  I learned that you’re both from Colorado, which thrilled me because that’s where I live. How did you two originally meet and how did you come up with the idea for Zombie Victory Gardens? 

Leah: We met shortly after I graduated from CSU through a mutual friend. Kathy found I wanted to work at a zoo with big cats and said, “I work with cows and need help. . . . cows and cats both start with “c” and have the same number of letters. . . . wanna give it a try?” It’s that kind of logic that allows us to come up with great ideas and work well together! Our motto has become something like “Hey, that looks neat/ fun . . . we can do it, it’ll be easy!” We like thinking outside the box and trying new things all the time. Most of the time it pans out great. Sometimes not so much. 🙂

Flora’s Forum: I too, have had a lot of fun with that “leap before you look” philosophy! Where did you two learn about gardening and small livestock raising? 

Kathy : We’d both had an interest in urban gardening and had done research on our own. We found there’s a ton of info out there and it can be overwhelming, contradictory, and frustrating to try to figure out what to do and where to start. Which, to us, didn’t make much sense, since people have been farming for eons. So not only did we decide to take the basics of what we knew and “wing it” in our own yards, once we’d had some success, we wanted to make it easy for other people. We started by just trying to put easy gardening info out (and stories about what we’d tried that worked and didn’t work), but we shortly found that was kind of boring and adding a survival component and zombies made it more fun.

Leah: I’ve always been an animal person and Kathy has worked with livestock for years, so small farm animals seemed like a natural “survival” type extension to what we were already doing. We’ve learned a lot!! If you haven’t read our articles about slaughtering chickens, I would highly recommend it.

Flora’s Forum: Maybe I will, but to tell the truth, I’m still recovering from the duck slaughtering piece. Aside from your educations in animal husbandry, psychology, etc., and your extensive experience, you’re both artists/crafters and writers! (I love those zombie skull/fruit and veggie earrings!) What is your arts background and who does what? Who writes? (I love your blog posts, btw.) Who makes the cool jewelry? Who takes the photographs? Who does the art/Photoshop? Posters?

My favorites. And you can also wear them for: Día de Muertos!

My personal favorites.  You can find them here, and you can also wear them for: Día de Muertos!

Leah: Thanks!! We both do all of the things listed above. I don’t know that either of us have a background in arts or crafts, but we both like to do a lot of those things. We both have extensive computer background knowledge. Kathy is better at the Photoshop stuff, but we both work in tandem on almost all our projects. We both write, using the other one to bounce ideas off of and as editors/proof readers. When we get really tired of the “hard work” of researching or writing (or anything that makes our brains tired) we go play and make jewelry. Again, we’ve both learned a lot and most of our new projects come from a “How hard can it be? We can totally do that” mentality.

Flora’s Forum: I saw that you’ve partnered with Karen Cox at the West Virginia Extension office—she held zombie garden preparedness classes based on your idea. How did that come about and what was the reaction? Can you tell us a little bit about your outreach work? Your speaking engagements?

Kathy: Karen Cox reached out to us and asked to use our materials to put on a workshop series. She was great to work with and we really appreciated her getting the word out, not only about ZVG, but about backyard gardening in general. Her turnout seemed to be good and we had great feedback from her participants. We must give her credit—she wrote up all her own course work, using some of our marketing materials and the gardening guides we had available. However, she took things to a whole new level and did many hands-on projects.

Leah: We haven’t done any speaking engagements for ZVG. Kathy does those for Livestock for Landscapes. 🙂

Flora’s Forum: I’ve read some of your blog posts—the highly entertaining and informative one about Kathy’s herd of 130 goats, and the one about “harvesting” the ducks. (To share, the women had quite an experience learning that ducks, with their longer necks, are trickier to, well, dispatch, than chickens using the traditional, and made for chickens, killing cones. One duck actually escaped—it wasn’t pretty.)

I can see how those kinds of real-life experiences can spill over into the inspiration-for-zombie stories realm! We’re talking real preparation of real food. Are you still raising chickens, ducks, and goats? (As a postscript, after six years of experience Kathy created a CD about goat raising, including how to use them for fire management. You can find it here.)

Leah: Kathy still has two pet goats. We still have egg hens (and a goose to chase off predators), which we love. We only raised meat birds in the summer months and have done two batches per year for the last couple years. After losing both meat and egg birds to predators multiple times (bears and raccoons) and then going through the slaughtering process a number of times (including the duck fiasco) I think we’re done raising meat birds for a while. We also found that the meat quality is great, but the amount of time we put into raising and slaughtering isn’t exactly cost effective. . . . HOWEVER, we’re known for “forgetting” how hard things were and just remembering the highlights, so you never know where we’ll be again in a couple years.

Flora’s Forum: What is going to be new in the garden this year? Are there any favorite varieties of vegetables/flowers that you’re particularly wild about or are excited to grow this year? 

Leah: I LOVE growing edamame!, and tomatoes, and herbs!! I finally figured out the key to making backyard gardening in Colorado easy (at least at my house)—a soaker hose on a timer, run at night. I’m working on getting better at planting things I know we’ll like AND use (rather than a little of everything and lots of things I’ve never tried before). Kathy has found that she’s better at some things than others (we’re not sure if it’s the amount of light, the water, or something else entirely), so I know she was planning on growing tomatillos, green beans, and tomatoes since those have done well in the past. We’re both into herbs, especially basil, and always have a special raised bed for those.

Flora’s Forum: I love the characters Kathy Sue and Les in ZVG’s gardening guides. (I especially like Kathy Sue’s outfits of mini-skirts and boots, which she wears for both zombie killing and gardening!) Are we going to learn any back story in future issues about those two? Would you like to tell us anything about “Les”? (I’m guessing he’s Kathy’s husband?) It’s cute in the story that he has a cot and she has a canopy bed! There is chemistry between those two! 

From Quick! Plant Something! Gardening Guide - Issue #2, Starting Seeds

From ZVG’s Quick! Plant Something! gardening guide – Issue #2, Starting Seeds

Kathy: We have some basic back stories for both of these characters, but we’re not planning on focusing on what happened before the zombie apocalypse. We’re more interested in what they’re doing now. Spoiler—they’re not ever going to be a romantic couple—sorry! We just took our favorite attributes and stereotyped characters we liked a lot: Les—the type-A, serious, logical, “less is more” manly man, and Kathy Sue—the type-B, feminine, whimsical, “we can do anything we want AND it should be fun” creative female, and dropped them into the Zombie Apocalypse together. We figured most people would be entertained by (and able to relate to) some exaggerated characteristic(s) they see in themselves or their close friends. Bottom line – we get a huge kick out of writing them and we laugh a lot. They are the extremes of our personalities (and of some of the feedback we get from our spouses).

Leah: And yes, Kathy’s husband (Peter) gets to model for us. He, like Les, sometimes rolls his eyes at our requests, but graciously goes along with our crazy ideas.

Flora’s Forum: Thank you two so much! This has been a lot of fun and I know our readers will feel the same!

—Sandra Knauf

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Filed under Garden Writers We Love

My Gender Bender Hen

These are not the best photographs but they are untouched and they are  of Aphrodite. The first one shows her undergoing her yearly molt, and the second is of the very-changed “hen” several years later. Photocopied from Greenwoman Zine, Issue #1.

These are not the best photographs but they are untouched (except I colored the combs and wattles)  and they are of Aphrodite. The first one shows her undergoing her yearly molt, the second is of the very-changed “hen” several years later. Photocopied from Greenwoman Zine, Issue #1.

This is probably the most extraordinary story that I have published so far—and it’s true. I wrote it years ago and it appeared in the first issue of Greenwoman Zine and in Colorado Gardener a couple of years back. I also read the essay on KRCC, our local southern Colorado NPR affiliate station, on their “Western Skies” program. I remember someone wrote the station that they, too, had witnessed a similar transformation.

Many times I’ve thought, why doesn’t everyone know about this?!?

I guess that’s why I keep putting it out there. It is just too good a story to not republish. I mean, the story is amusing enough, but that’s the small part. It’s the science, the mystery, and the reality of how little we really understand, that blows my mind.

Unfortunately, what is considered “normal” and “acceptable” is still hotly contested, as this winter’s Olympic games in Russia remind us.

Sigh . . .

* * *

My Gender Bender Hen

Some years back, before it was “cool,” I was an urban chicken raiser, mistress of a flock of five hens. One late spring morning, at feeding time, I decided to check my charges’ legs for mites. It wasn’t something I did often, but there had been a case the year before and I wanted to be on top of things. The air was happy with bird song, sweet with the perfume of lilacs as I eyed the girls pecking at their breakfast, a mix of grain, dinner leftovers, lettuce, and beet trimmings from the garden. The black-skinned, partially feathered legs of the two white Silkies, Flora and Fauna, looked smooth and healthy, as did the legs of Athena, our Rhode Island Red. Even Mrs. Bush’s gams (she’s the Araucana) looked all right. Then I got to our mixed breed hen, a pretty black and white speckled bird. The six-year-old hen’s legs looked fine too—except for the spurs. Yes, spurs, those long claw-like things roosters fight with. Aphrodite now had one on the back of each leg. My eyes traveled up to her head. She had also grown long, dangling wattles and a huge red rooster’s comb.

I stared in disbelief. She’d been crowing for a few months, but I had heard that hens would sometimes do that. This felt unreal. As if I had just seen our male Labrador Retriever squeeze out a puppy. Impossible. I had held this chicken’s first egg in my hand over five years ago; it was streaked with blood from the effort, something I found poignant, wondrous even. We’d eaten her eggs for years, our daughter Lily even witnessed her lay one. As a resident of Colorado Springs, an evangelical Christian stronghold, my first thought was Salem, Massachusetts, circa 1600. As a lover of all things green, all things animal, I was an admitted nature worshipper; heck, I could probably be labeled a non-practicing Pagan. Could I be accused of witchcraft? Or, even worse, could this be an environmentally caused mutation?

It felt very Twilight Zone-ish, breaking the news to my family. My husband went into immediate denial, suggesting that I was somehow mistaken about the chicken’s sex (for six years!?!); our 13-year-old daughter Zora responded with a rather sarcastic, “Oooohh-kaaaaay”; her sister, 10-year-old Lily, laughed out loud. She laughed because Aphrodite has always been awful. Haughty, domineering and gorgeous, a mixed breed bird bought at the State Fair at a premium price, with a graceful, tapered body speckled in black and white, long slate blue legs, golden brown eyes, and, well, she did have a dainty comb and minuscule wattles. Aphrodite has always been our most beautiful and least liked chicken.

After several days, in which a supernatural aura continued to surround our home, I sought help. I sent short emails to several universities which specialize in the Poultry Sciences. In reply, Dr. Wallace Berry at Auburn University wrote back: “Sex changes such as with your hen are fairly common, especially in older hens. This happens when something damages the ovary, usually a viral infection. The remaining ovarian tissue tries to grow back, but takes on some of the characteristics of both ovary and testes. In fact, it is referred to as an ‘ovotestis’. It will secrete testosterone which makes the hen appear and behave as a male. However, she (he) will not be able to effectively produce sperm or sire chicks.”

Well, there it was. A logical biological explanation. The chicken wasn’t enchanted, nor did she make a conscious decision to go butch; it just happened. The incident made me think about that first egg with its crimson streaks, religious debates about sexual orientation, and how mysterious our world is. What babes we are in understanding it, in understanding ourselves. Aberrations in nature are the norm. And the scientific proof was indisputable—Aphrodite transformed into Hermaphrodite—without any hocus pocus at all.

—Sandra Knauf

* * *

Footnote: A very young Zora Knauf (then age 13 or 14) came up with the title for this piece!


Filed under Garden Writers We Love

Love & Roses & Local Chocolate!

From the Radiantly Raw website - chocolates with superfoods: goji berries, coconut & cardamon (or almond), rose cream truffles.

From the Radiantly Raw website – Valentine’s Day  SUPERFOOD! Chocolates with goji berries, coconut, cardamon, almonds, and other healthy ingredients.

It’s almost Valentine’s Day, therefore it’s perfectly acceptable to get obsessed with chocolate! We recently discovered a new and exciting offering at our favorite grocer, Ranch Foods (they specialize in grass fed/pasture raised/non-antibiotic/non-hormone treated/non gmo-fed meat and eggs and also have other goodies – local honey, organic fruits and vegetables, jams, breads, and more). Anyway, this chocolate was in the freezer, in adorable, small packages, two pieces for $4.50. Yes, pricey, but it was locally made, all organic, raw, soy free, no sugar added, etc. The brand is Radiantly Raw (you can check out their website here) and the chocolates were in the freezer as they are, indeed, raw, and the ingredients will soften at room temperature. I chose “Hot Chicks”—cute molded baby chickens—to try as a sample. The ingredient list, all organic, in its entirety: cacao (cocoa), coconut oil, honey, vanilla extract, cinnamon, cayenne.

Now that’s what an ingredient list should be—comprehensive to non-chemists!

We were impressed! I thought the heat of the cayenne interesting, and although Zora didn’t like it as as much (which is odd, because she actually has a salt shaker filled with cayenne to sprinkle on many foods), she still thought the candy was excellent.

I was happy to make this discovery because these last years I have found it hard to find chocolates of quality for Valentine’s Day. Sadly, most stores, including our local chocolatiers, seem to now use corn syrup, sugar beet (gmo) sugar, soy lecithin (gmo), artificial vanilla and flavorings, and other stuff that I refuse to buy. Last Valentine’s Day I waited with a line of people at a local shop to buy a chocolate filled heart for my sweetie. When I went in, I saw that the prepackaged offerings were made in some big factory, filled with artificial ingredients, and the only thing that was local was the label! I walked right back out.  This year we will buy a few chocolates from Radiantly Raw to savor. We may also try our hand at crafting our own molded chocolates. I think it might be fun! If you’re interested in joining me, I found this link with recipes for raw chocolate candy. I haven’t tried them yet, but the ingredients are similar to what is used in the Radiantly Raw chocolates—and they look delicious.

* * *

For my second cupid’s offering, several weeks ago my daughter (and Greenwoman Publishing’s Deputy Editor) Zora suggested, well, practically insisted, that I share this personal story. It appeared in the last issue of the magazine. Like the chocolate we sampled, it contains “real” and sometimes spicy, ingredients. I hope you enjoy it.

Finally, I hope that your holiday is filled with nutritious sweetness and lots of LOVE.

* * *

Natural Magic by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, 1905

Natural Magic by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, 1905


Love & Roses

(Dedicated to Andy)

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said as I cleared the breakfast dishes, “you can’t work again this weekend.”

“I have to. I have to finish this job.”

“But you worked last Saturday, and the Saturday before. I can’t remember the last time you spent a whole weekend at home! Come on, don’t leave me with the kids again.”

He poured another cup of coffee. “Do you think I like working all the time? I’d rather be home with you.”

It doesn’t feel that way. Hurt blooms in me, and escapes in the form of anger. “Maybe you shouldn’t work for yourself. I know plenty of people who don’t and they have weekends off, vacations, even, if you can imagine that.”

“I’ll never work for someone else again. I like working for myself.”

“And I’m left with the kids, constantly.” I glared at him. “I feel like a single mom.”

“Maybe you should get an outside job.”

“Yeah, and you could hire a bookkeeper, and we could put the girls in day care—and you could do half the work around here too, cook the meals, take care of the yard, the pets, the bills. Sounds pretty sweet to me.”

The situation deteriorated. We smacked each other around verbally on the issues of parenting, money-spending habits, neglected chores. My mind was a red fog of betrayal—all I could think was: He’s abandoning me again. A beautiful Saturday in May, and I’m going to be alone with the kids.

The fight ended with a hissed, “I fucking hate you!” from me as I stormed out the back door, slamming it.

It was good the girls were still asleep or they would have witnessed another fine display of parental maturity; a thought that brought shame. Contrary to my hateful words, I did not hate my husband, and I knew he wasn’t trying to hurt me. We were just stressed-out parents with a lot of responsibilities, trying to keep a roof over our heads, fighting to swim in that upstream river of life, and to not give in to the more than occasional emotions of suffocation and isolation.

* * *

I walk into the garden and the dewy yet crisp Colorado air envelopes me like a balm. I don’t notice. What I do notice is that there are a million chores outside too. My irritation surges again before the escape, the changed atmosphere, begins to sink in and slowly soothe.

I look around and decide to work on the rustic arch I’m building, a project that came about after my husband took down four small too-close-to-the-house weed trees. While I wasn’t happy to see the trees go, I knew just what to do with them, how they’d fit into the scheme of our cottage garden. The day before I had dug the post holes, two foot deep into our clay soil, and set the branchless trunks as posts. Today I’d work on connecting it all with the branches I’d removed.

After almost an hour of sawing, nailing, and wiring, enjoying the exertion and creation, my tension and hurts have mostly, but not totally, melted. I step back and admire my incomplete handiwork. How I love rustic garden structures. The imperfection, asymmetry, and the roughness all appeal to me because those qualities mirror my own untamed gardening style. The arch also works well with our DIY budget and, I think, with the style of our 1920s bungalow. I study the sturdy arch, my first. It’s pleasant to the eye, and I am surprised. I’ve never been mechanically inclined, yet . . . I did it! I’m happier now, partially cleansed of bad feelings. I consider going in and trying to make amends. I’ll finish the arch later, after I’ve had time to reflect on its developing form.

As I gather up tools and head toward the house, I notice the tall rose canes covering the side of my husband’s workshop, our old one-car garage. Eyeing the brambles, I think, with no small shame, how the dead wood outnumbers the living. Three years of intense drought and neglect on my part has taken its toll. The shrubs, a hardy antique variety planted decades earlier by another, nearly scream, “Over here, help us!” I have handsaw and pruners in hand, but I am gloveless and sleeveless. I look at the house and push away the thought of going inside. I’m not ready. Not yet.

I begin cautiously, with some dead canes, the ones I can safely saw without actually entering the briars. It goes well. This isn’t difficult, I think, you just have to pay close attention—I probably don’t even need gloves. The thorned old wood begins to pile up in a heap. I take a deep breath and smile to myself. I move in closer.

I soon earn a couple of scratches, but I’m engaged in my work and reluctant to stop. After a few more, I begin to wonder if I have a not-so-latent masochistic aspect to my personality. The scratches on my arm sting slightly, softly singing in agreement (“You’re a little weird . . . oh, yes, you are.”) My mind wanders to those souls who
actually enjoy pain. I imagine the Marquis de Sade would relish the thought of bare-skinned rose pruning. He’d dispense with all the clothing. But I’m not the Marquis. I’m just impulsive and have a higher pain threshold than most, and besides, I’m making such progress. The truth is I’m still not ready to face my husband. If I go inside now, to a house full of family and demands, it will be hard to return to these canes—and I am so enjoying this solitude and productivity.

Gingerly, I squeeze in deeper, past a gentle honeysuckle who will do me no harm. I am in the thicket. I find myself wedged between the garage and the roses, with only a couple of feet in which to maneuver. It’s darker here, like a medieval forest. The morning, still young, is cool in these shadows, the air fresh. The canes are beginning to leaf out, the birds are singing. It’s lovely, and I begin to forget about the scratches. I discover the dead wood here is especially hard and thick and the thorns menacing. After another ten minutes of exertion and yet another bloody scratch, I begin to imagine that they are consciously vicious. The thorns resemble sharp, curved talons. Dragon’s claws.

That image, wed with the romantic dappled light, conjures fairy stories. I think about the briars that held Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom captive for one hundred years. They too were treacherous, all enclosing. I start at a sharp pain and draw back—a large thorn is impaled on the tip of my index finger. Could this be Nature’s retribution for the lover’s quarrel? Wincing, I pull the thorn out and the garnet blood makes a jewel drop on my skin. I stick the injured finger into my mouth and immediately think of Aurora, Sleeping Beauty. Surely this is how she must have felt when pricked by the spinning wheel. The almost-premonition of a stab, then, too late, it is done. The deep sleep begins. Only after a century, and numerous bloody, failed attempts by velvet-cloaked suitors, is the true prince able to enter and awaken her. The protective brambles part for him, he is blessed.

I move thoughtfully now, wielding my slender saw like a sword, my mind now focused on consideration and good thoughts for the roses—these exquisite sentinels. This is how the prince of kisses would think, I am sure of it.

I do not get scratched now.

Soon these canes will be covered with soft baby buds, pale pinkish-cream, cradled by endearing dark green sepals. These symbols of youth (gather ye rosebuds) will grow, swell, and open into almost luminescent-white blossoms with a spicy, lemony scent. Full blown, hardy, irresistible roses, so much like blossoming young women. Soon they’ll be wide awake and ready for pollination. I think of how, in years with rain, these canes have exploded. I have laughed out loud at the sight of greedy squirrels stuffing whole blooms into their mouths. Snow-white flowers, rose-red blood. As I prune and saw, my mind begins to make more associations between love and roses. Do roses really mean love?

Well, new love is heady, and like attar of roses, bears no comparison. Like perfume, like a dream, it can engulf us, make us unaware of the outside world, to everything but itself. New love reminds me of a selfish, pampered, hot house tea rose, a Miss America bouquet, stripped of its thorns, nestled in tissue paper, put in a box and wrapped with a big bow. I remember how my husband and I, so young, once bloomed as hot and perfect as those tea roses. In our springtime, those years together before becoming parents, we had few cares and fewer thoughts of the future. We were content to revel in one another. Now I know that early type of love is fleeting, too precious for the rigors of time, too fragile for hardship to last. I’ve seen those pampered rose bouquets. Sometimes the blossoms die before they even open.

I recall my horrible words. The thorns. The flip side of love. The opposite of those velvety, color-soaked, petals strewn on beds of love. The slashings of reality, the smothering trials of everyday life. I think of how all love has thorns, and how some can scar for life. I have seen love as destroyer in my own family and with friends. Roses of Delusion. Delusions of who we are, who our lovers are. I have seen the thorns that destroyed Aurora’s other suitors for a hundred years destroy others; I have felt thorns that, a few times, have come close to destroying my own love.

“You’ve made quite a pile there.”

Frowning at the difficulties of love, I didn’t notice that my husband had walked up and was watching me.

I peer through the greenery, smiling awkwardly at the handsome king, and wipe the sweat from my brow. “Yeah, I kind of went crazy. I’m pretty scratched up, but I’ve just about finished. It looks a lot better, don’t you think?”

“It looks great. I’ll help you get those canes in the Dumpster.”

“Really?” I wiggle out. “Thanks.”

We’ve apologized the way we always do, without words. As he walks away, hauling a bundle of dead canes, I contemplate the roses I’ve pruned. The antique roses, hardy, with ancient, wild parentage, are built to last, so unlike the pampered hybrid teas. In fact, there are antique roses in Europe, still living, that bloomed during the time of the Brothers Grimm, and in France, Josephine’s rose garden survives. While there are never guarantees that love will survive, I feel that through the stings and scrapes of life, the love I share with this man has proved to be a variety that through drought and hardship, will insist on living and blooming, year after year, rooted deeply, tenaciously, into the soil.

—Sandra Knauf


Filed under Garden Writers We Love

Spring Dreaming With Amanda Thomsen

Illustration by Laura Chilson

Illustration by Laura Chilson

I was surprised a few days ago to learn that not one, but two, friends were starting tomato seeds. Could it be possible? Yes, indeed, it’s that time again. Time for gardens to begin sprouting in our winter consciousnessif not on our kitchen windowsills. These days, I’m fighting that impulse as I’m buried (almost literally, you should see my office) in paperwork. But it matters not. The seed beckon. Soon I’ll be happy to jump in, too. I’ll buy some more seeds, as a girl can never have too many seeds, and I have had my eye on a very nifty soil block maker.

Today, though, I thought I’d share an interview I did last summer with Amanda Thomsen, author of one of the best books out there for brand new gardeners (I’ll tell you about it in a moment and Dan Murphy shares his review at the end of the post). These days Amanda is busier than ever with work, her daughter Hazel (one of the most entertaining and adorable toddlers in the land), and, of course, a multitude of other projects. In fact, she just told me this morning that her garden was to be a part of the soon-to-be-published book by Niki Jabbour, Groundbreaking Food Gardens: 73 Plans That Will Change the Way You Grow Your Garden. The book looks great and Amanda is one of the 73 “superstar gardeners” featured. (Amy Stewart, Barbara Pleasant, Dave Dewitt, and Jessi Bloom are also included.) You can check it out here, and pre-order!

Now to the interview! Originally Published in Greenwoman Magazine Issue #5 this summer.

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Gardeners in the know, know Amanda Thomsen.

She’s the lady with the cool blog, Kiss My Aster!, who also blogged for Horticulture, who now blogs and writes articles for Fine Gardening. and who has published her very first book on gardening named, you guessed it, Kiss My Aster, (subtitled: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You). Her Facebook page has thousands of “likes,” and she’s the one behind those sexy-fun Ryan Gosling gardening memes (one of my recent favorites: “Hey girl, I think we should start composting with worms . . . but only if you’re into it . . .”)

Thomsen is retro-chic-zany-slightly naughty-witty-brainy. Think Lucille Ball meets Dorothy Parker.


With her star on the rise, it’s not a surprise to learn she just left a large Chicago landscape architecture firm. She attributes that to possible “mid-life crisis,” but I’m thinking garden celebrity/writing career trajectory. This summer she’s in much-needed chill-out mode, hanging out in the home garden with beautiful just-turned-two cherub Hazel and her dapper and supportive husband Dan, figuring out what’s next. She says she’ll definitely be writing and entertaining and she may start a business.  As she puts it, “I just need some time to decompress from the last few years of crazy. . . But I might take on a few small gigs.”

Greenwoman: My first question is how in the heck have you been able to balance all of thiswriting, gardening, toddler, marriage?!?

AT: This balancing act has been tough. I literally got the okay on the book the same day I peed on a stick and found out that I was going to have a Hazelnut. From there it’s been a race. At the job I just left, the hours were incredibly long and unpredictable. Seventy hours a week was not uncommon. And then it just never left my mind; it was just landscaping, but it was one of those always “on call” situations. 2013 has been pretty intense with speaking gigs, interviews, and whatever else that has come my wayDan has been great at taking care of Hazel while I’ve been distracted, and it’s brought them close together. Hazel goes to daycare and that’s hard. But I went to daycare and look at me now. HA. I know that glorifying busy isn’t a great thing, but being busy is my default setting. It actually brings me tremendous peace to always be moving forward.

Greenwoman: Let’s backtrack. Who or what inspired you to become a gardener?  A writer?

 AT: When I was little I wanted to do three things when I grew up, 1. Be a writer, 2. recycle and 3. wear red lipstick. Happily, I have achieved these three goals. Although I always wanted to be a writer, I did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to make that happen, growing up. No one pointed me in the right direction. I’ve taken a few writing classes but overall, nothing that was memorable. I have always been super creative and have just looked for ways to demonstrate that!

My parents were the prototypes for yuppies. For some reason, and I think it was my Dad’s Indiana upbringing, they were SUPER into Crockett’s Victory Garden on PBS and did, literally, everything he did. We have a 30’ x 50’ Victory garden each summer and I just grew up in it. They had a greenhouse added to the house, canned up everything from applesauce to giardiniera. It was a delicious way to grow up and I didn’t realize that EVERYBODY didn’t have that until I was, like, 20. Maybe older. I didn’t realize there were jobs in gardening and horticulture.

Greenwoman: I love your style (and I’m not just talkin’ about the plants). Who are your style icons? Not only in gardening, but fashion, writing, film, whatever comes to mind.

A.T. : I’m obsessed with Betsey Johnson, Elsa Schiaparelli, old movies (preferably with Edith Head as the costumer), John Waters, David Lynch, Francesca Lia Block, Hello Kitty, Amy Sedaris, Pearl Fryar, 90s Riot Grrrls  and Frida Kahlo.

Greenwoman: You have this funny, sassy, sexy, free-spirited, curse-word-strewn, delightfully naughty blog for a few years (also titled “Kiss My Aster!”), and you’re a landscaper, and suddenly you’re blogging for Horticulture magazine’s website (which lasted for several years) and now you blog for Fine Gardening (and write articles). I don’t want to disrespect these fine publications, but, well, they can be at times just a bit, shall we say, dry. How did you get together with them?

A.T.: Horticulture asked me to join this contest they were having for a blogger. I did and I won. It was hard on me to blog exclusively for them and not on my personal blog at all, not even about personal stuff (I was pregnant and had shit to SAY) but that was the deal. Fine Gardening has been a great, laid back home for my more horty things to say. I leave the eff-bombs at the door and get my freak on over there and I’ve loved it. AND they’ve given me a chance to write articles, which is seriously one of my happiest achievements in life. Like, “Hi. I’m not all fluff and Ryan Gosling. I can talk to you about biennials like a badass.”

All these magazines KNOW that if they are going to survive, they have to get new, younger readers and I’m happy as a salami at a mustard party to help do that for them.

Greenwoman: I got to read your book, Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You, before I sent it to Dan Murphy, who reviews it in this issue. I found it charming, witty, and a great primer for the beginner gardener who wants to dive in to creating their own landscape but who needs a helping hand. How did the idea for a book come about?

A.T.: I was dreaming about how to make books more interactive when I thought of the idea. Originally it was going to be SO comprehensive that I thought I’d need help writing it. You know, a backyard bible of sorts. Then I got this wack-a-doo idea of having this hipster gardening book that was illustrated with, you know those terrible IKEA instructions with no words and very vague symbolism? I wanted to do it like that. Carleen Madigan at Storey literally found me in a dumpster and asked me if I had ideas for books, we met up in Boston while I was there speaking and I just LOVED her.  She was totally the midwife of this book (to which she would reply that that is disgusting).  I literally wrote the whole book for her and if I could make her laugh then I was golden. I wrote the whole book and then they found the illustrators, which completely adds everything. The illustrations are WAY better than the writing!

Greenwoman: What was the most fun part of writing your first book?

A.T.: Hands down, the funniest part was the timing. I had a year to write the book and 10 months to make and give birth to a baby. Simultaneously. I can say, with confidence, that even those closest to me didn’t think I could do it.  TAKE THAT, HATERS!

Greenwoman: What was the least fun?

A.T.: For the most part, the book was a breeeeeeeeeeeze to write. I just talked out loud to myself about what I’d say to someone asking the questions and wrote it down. People ask, “Oh, isn’t it hard to write a book?” Ah, not this one.

But when it came to researching the height and widths of trees and shrubs for the whole country and not just my area? I remember having to dye my hair pink to just have a diversion. It was tedious stuff, and I hate tedious!

 Greenwoman: Another thing I am highly impressed with is your treasure trove of kitschy-fab garden imagery (See Kiss My Aster’s Facebook photo hoard). You have well over a thousand highly share-able, comment-able visuals from zombie gnomes (also gnome tattoos and murdered gnomes) to vintage garden cheesecake images, and everything in-between. Could you talk a little about your love of imagery and vintage?

A. T. : I remember the year we got cable TV; I was going into 7th grade. My sister and I were OBSESSED with TCM and watched old movies (with an emphasis on Esther Williams!) all summer instead of playing outside.  That was the start of a lot of my hoarding, both images and stuff. I love glamour, I love fun. I love to keep it light. My house is an amazing shrine to me, filled with beautiful vintage tschotske next to a Darth Vader helmet, next to an inflatable Hello Kitty. Plus, I wear vintage just about every day.

Greenwoman: I’m wondering if there’s a serious gardener out there who has not seen one of your Ryan Gosling “Hey, Girl” gardening memes. I know I’ve shared a few! How did that get started?

AT: Oh man! I was at work, driving down Old Elm in Lake Forest, Illinois and the idea just hit me. I pulled over and took notes in my phone. When I got home, I begged Dan to watch Hazel while I made the first crop of them. I posted them and then immediately went on a totally extravagant, totally unlike me and unaffordable, girls’ weekend with my bestie in New Orleans. My phone was going bazoinkers the whole time I was there! It was very cool.

I clearly did not drink enough while I was there if I remember all that. A certain unnamed bestie DID drink enough to not remember it, though.

Greenwoman: Finally, what’s germinating for you now? Do you have another book in the works?

I’m in love with a new book idea that’s in my head right now, I hope they’ll let me do it. It’s the kind of book I’d shit myself over if I saw it for sale and that’s what I aim for! Mainly, I’m taking 2013 to trick out some rad new gardens at my new house.

 Greenwoman: I’d love to pry for details on the book idea but I won’t—I’ll eagerly await the surprise instead! Thanks so much, Amanda, for having a chat with us today!  

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Now, here’s Dan Murphy’s review:

Kiss My Aster

by Amanda Thomsen

Storey Publishing, LLC (December 2012)

The title alone should clue you in pretty quickly that this is not your typical book about gardening and landscaping. Indeed, Amanda Thomsen’s Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored by You is a novel approach to landscaping 101. Most of the information is not necessarily new, but the presentation is quite unique, making it appealing for those that are looking for a book about gardening that is different, fun, and also informative.

Kiss My Aster is a graphic novel as well as a choose-your-own-adventure book. Each page features illustrations by Am I Collective that accompany her writing, and at the end of each section, the reader is presented with the option to skip ahead or back in the book depending on what they would like to learn. A common option is to skip to the section entitled, “Hire a Guy,” for any readers who may be feeling overwhelmed at any point in the process.

The scope of this book is broad, briefly covering all aspects of designing, constructing, and maintaining a landscape. The titles of each section are as amusing as the title of the book, including “Not Your Stepping Stone” which is about creating a stone pathway in your garden, “Drip It Good” concerning drip irrigation, “To B&B or Not to B&B” discussing the various ways that trees can be purchased, and “Soil, Yourself” which explains the inorganic components of soil. Games like bingo, word find, and mad libs appear throughout the book in order to keep the wandering minds of readers entertained.

While the artwork is fun and the information is useful, the humor can be a bit distracting and over the top at times. Still, this book is meant to be useful while simultaneously entertaining, and it accomplishes both well. After all, where else are you going to find illustrations of pink unicorns and tips for warding off vampires while also learning about how to keep your lawn green without the use of synthetic chemicals?

Dan Murphy

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Okay, I couldn’t help myself. Ending on a (at least to me!) highly inspiring note. One of my favorite Kiss My Aster-Ryan Gosling memes:

If this doesn't get you excited about spring planting, I don't know what will!

(Now, if this doesn’t get you excited about spring planting, I don’t know what will!)

Sandra Knauf

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