Of my quiet and, I may say, exemplary childhood and youth in the pleasant burg of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, there is little to say. I was lucky to have a mother who is a keen gardener (a passion she inherited from her father, an estate gardener) and who imparted to me her love of flowers.
I had my first garden at about the age of five; it consisted of a small, square plot planted with hardy annuals: love-in-a-mist, bells of Ireland, and Shirley poppies. Very cheerful and gratifying to my youthful eye, but woefully lacking, you are no doubt thinking, in structure and color sense. Children are just terrible at garden design.
Let us fast-forward to the years just after my serendipitous departure from graduate school. My first job, at the University of Chicago Press, coincided with a growing infatuation with orchids; at one time, I had more than 100, occupying every south-facing windowsill in my apartment. (I still have a treasured specimen of Cattleya trianaei ‘Aranka Germaske’ FCC—pure white and fragrant, and the agreeable creature almost always blooms in time for the holidays.)
At about this time, I encountered two books that were to prove fateful. The first was Graham Stuart Thomas’s Perennial Garden Plants. Here were elegant, precise descriptions of hundreds of plants I had never even heard of: hellebores, toad lilies, gaudy salvias from Mexico and South America, jewel-toned crocosmias, torch lilies, and agapanthus from South Africa. It was clear that you could spend a lifetime growing these plants and still have something new and fascinating to discover.
The other book was Green Thoughts, by Eleanor Perényi. This book showed me that writing about plants and gardening could be pithy, funny, and even scholarly. Green Thoughts wasn’t just a gardening book; it was literature.
Well, I thought, this gardening business is for me. I persuaded our landlord to let me plant a small bed in front of our apartment building, which was on Chicago’s north side. It was barely more sophisticated than my first garden of annuals, but it was a start. And it taught me something about gardening in Zone 5. (I can remember one winter when the temperature fell to –24°F.)
In 1986, after eight years as a manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, I was offered a job as managing editor at Beacon Press in Boston. (Zone 6! Yee-ha!) There a new opportunity presented itself in the form of the neglected walled garden adjacent to the brick townhouse that was then Beacon’s home. The garden’s chief denizens were a diseased cherry tree, a terrifyingly vigorous ailanthus, and lots of ivy, which I suspected was little more than a rat condominium. Out it all came (except for the ailanthus, although I did limb it up); in went rhododendrons (in the shade), viburnums (in the sun), regal lilies, hellebores, brunnera, ferns, and (I think) hardy geraniums. Aside from the scolding I got from our director’s assistant for cutting down the cherry tree (it had been the gift of one of our authors), it turned out reasonably well.
But of course, it wasn’t enough. And so, in a fit of perfectly groundless optimism, I sent my résumé off to Horticulture magazine, to which I had long been a subscriber. Astonishingly, they hired me as an editor. And for most of the fourteen years I was there, it was a pretty good ride. I got to meet and learn from some of the best gardeners in the world; often I got to see their gardens as well. It was a superb gardening education, and I was very lucky to get it. I also discovered that gardeners, on the whole, are pretty nice people, and I made rich and enduring friendships that span the globe.
In 2004, the opportunity arose to work at Timber Press. I had loved their books for years, and after fourteen Boston winters, I was ready for a milder climate. So in November of that year I moved to Portland, Oregon (Zone 8! Double yee-ha!), and started at Timber Press as executive editor; eventually I became editor-in-chief. And of course I started a new garden. But for that, you’ll have to read About My Garden. What else? I’ve written a lot of articles (some of which you can read here) and two books. And I’m on the board of the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon, one of the country’s great community-based gardening organizations.
So much for what I’m willing to say on the record. You want the juicy stuff, you’ll have to get to know me better and buy me a couple of martinis.