Monthly Archives: May 2015

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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