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 consciousness—if 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 this—writing, 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 way—Dan 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?
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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:
(Now, if this doesn’t get you excited about spring planting, I don’t know what will!)