starting over: page dickey’s new book ‘uprooted,’ on making a new garden

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THE WORD “downsizing” was spoken more than once, when Page Dickey and her husband were making plans a few years back to leave their beloved home and big old garden, called Duck Hill, in Westchester County, New York, for a new one.

Well, the new piece of land turned out to be bigger than the last, and it has fostered in Page a whole new relationship to gardening—especially, a more intimate connection to nature and the property’s wild-ish areas.

Starting over, and the surprises along the way, are the subject of Page’s new book, called “Uprooted: A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again” (affiliate link).

Page Dickey is a popular garden writer and author of numerous books, including her newest called Uprooted. And she was the co-founder of the Garden Conservancy Open Days national garden-visiting program. I welcomed her back to the podcast to hear about what happens when a gardener transplants herself–and we touched on topics from native plants to forcing bulbs in a coldframe.

Read along as you listen to the September 28, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

margaret and page in zoom event oct. 6, + all her events

I’M DOING a Zoom event with Page Dickey to celebrate the publication of “Uprooted” on Tuesday October 6, 2020, at 7 PM Eastern Time. It’s hosted by our local independent bookseller, Oblong Books of Millerton and Rhinebeck, New York. We plan to talk in greater depth about our relationship with the wilder parts of the garden and with nature, an important element of her new book. The event is free; sign up here.

Page is also doing talks for the New York Botanical Garden October 20 at 1 PM, and Berkshire Botanical Garden October 22 at 6:30, and for The Garden Conservancy November 5 at 2 PM. All her events are also listed on her website’s event page.

page dickey’s ‘uprooted,’ a story of starting over

Margaret: So congratulations, Page, another book. [Laughter.]

Page: Thank you. I think my last.

Margaret: So down to business: the book. It begins with an Anton Chekhov quote. It says, “I am in the condition of a transplanted tree, which is hesitating whether to take root or begin to wither.” And it looks like you took root, Page. So tell us a little bit; set the scene about this transition for us.

Page: Well, I think in the beginning, and certainly when I didn’t know whether I might wither, it was very hard to leave my old garden. I’d been there for 34 years. My husband joined me for the last 14 of them. And it was a place created over the years, with just a tremendous amount of love and passion. To just walk away from that was difficult.

But after much searching and lots of panic, when we really couldn’t find anything right away, we had decided to move to Northwestern Connecticut. And we found a plot of land that took my breath away, because it was full of fields and woods and wild land, and a view of the Berkshire Hills. It started me on a new adventure. I think that’s when I realized I wasn’t going to wither. [Laughter.] [Below, the new house in Connecticut.]

Margaret: Oh, we didn’t have to irrigate, don’t worry. She’s going to be O.K.

So you had been at Duck Hill for those 34 years. And so, you came to start again, and as you said, this piece of property was breathtaking; it took your breath away. But how do you know where to begin? Because both of us, we were much younger gardeners, much less experienced gardeners-

Page: I’ll say.

Margaret: …when we began, where I still live, around the same time as when you went to Duck Hill—and your work at Duck Hill. We were experimenting with different things. We were in a different stage, as I said, in our experience. Where did you begin? How did you know what to do first, when you got to this new place? Do you know what I mean? What did you say? “Ah, I’ve got to…” Do you know?

Page: Yeah. Well, first of all, there were remnants of a garden, a sort of cottage-y garden, in the front of the house. Although it crossed my mind to just wipe it all out, but of course I didn’t. It was mostly just peonies. And so, I knew that I wanted to play with that, and that would be my perennial garden, you might say, or place for perennials and bulbs, a place we walk through every time we go inside and out. It would a fun place to have that sort of a garden.

But I realized almost immediately, I didn’t want a garden like I had at Duck Hill. Duck Hill was full of hedges and boxwood topiary. It was a series of rooms, and it was very enclosed. And this new place where we lived was open to the sky, and open to the fields, and open to the view. I realized, I didn’t want a hedged-in garden anymore. I wanted something that related to that wildness.

So I think I knew, pretty much right away, that I wanted a lot of natives in this little garden. Things like Amsonia and Baptisia, and asters, and so on.

But then at the same time, as I was thinking about what to do about this little garden, I was starting to explore in the woods. I think we have about 11 acres of woods, and I got so excited about the woods. We have high, rocky, limestone dramatic woods on one side, and low, rich, damp woods on the other side. I got so excited about this wild land, that all of a sudden we were the stewards of, that I was almost torn, half interested in creating a new garden, half of me just wanting to start walks, start paths in the woods, and start cutting down the invasives. That was a whole new world that excited me, right from the beginning. [Below native columbine in the woods at Page’s.]

Margaret: I was thinking about that, as I was reading the new book, as I was reading “Uprooted,” again how different “gardening,” the word gardening, what it means today compared to when we both began gardening.

Page: That’s so true.

Margaret: Yeah, how we couldn’t wait to get, back then, the new collector plant, usually from another country, often Asian or Eurasian. Some rarity. And now, we can’t wait to discover the latest fungi that’s coming up this time of year, if we get a rain. Or the butterfly chrysalis that’s hanging from something. And, as you say, the native plants. It’s such a tremendous change in thinking, in horticulture, I think.

Page: Yeah. And Margaret, it has a lot to do with your and my evolution as gardeners. And our age, I think, and our wisdom, perhaps. But it also has to do with people like Doug Tallamy, who came out with this wonderful book called “Bringing Nature Home.” And other people like Doug Tallamy, who opened our eyes to the whole idea of having habitats that support birds and butterflies, and what that means. Which of course, means caring more for and planting more native plants.

Margaret: Yeah. For me, besides Doug’s work, at University of Delaware also, I remember when I first read about—and this was quite a number of years ago—but the variety trials of native plants by Richard Hawke, at Chicago Botanic Garden, and then, also at Mount Cuba Center in Delaware.

Page: I love those trials.

Margaret: Yeah. Where they take all the cultivars of some native, and do them side-by-side and see which ones-

Page: Exactly. Like the new summer phlox called… I think it’s called ‘Jeana’ that has quite small flowers, but attracts more butterflies than any other native summer phlox, which I thought was so neat. I confess, I immediately went out and bought it.

Margaret: Me, too. Me, too. You’ve been exploring. Just tell us, so the garden you… Partly out of a nod to the past, to the previous owner, and also because of the practical consideration that you could walk by it every day, you let that space in the front be the perennial garden. Are there other areas that you’re gardening in a more horticultural way, versus the work that I want to talk about a little more, in the woods, so to speak?

Page: Yes. Yes. There are few holdovers, you might say, from Duck Hill. One, I love gravel. And now we have a couple of gravel terraces that kind of lure you out from the doors into the garden, or into the land, really. But in one of those gravel places, I’m playing with things just seeding, not necessarily native things. Annuals and bulbs, and plants that like to grow in gravel. Things like ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost,’ that incredible Eryngium, and Scabiosa ochroleuca, which is a dancing thing that loves to grow in gravel.

And then, I also… a couple of things. I still wanted cutting flowers and a place to grow lettuces. So I did make a little patterned cutting garden, that gets wild and woolly this time of year, because lots of things seed in the gravel and I just let them flower, like cosmos. So those are really holdovers or echoes, you might say, of Duck Hill. [Above, verbascum in the gravel at Page’s former garden.]

[My husband] Bosco was craving a greenhouse, because he had one at Duck Hill. Craziness, we built a little greenhouse, which is high, high maintenance. But it’s what he loves more than anything, and it’s his playground.

So, yes. And then I planted fruit trees because we used to have a little orchard, and I love orchards. I love rows of trees. I love grids of trees. In one spot where there were already some old pears and an old apple, we just went with that, and put in some fruit trees.

Margaret: So there are some elements of horticulture/agriculture.

Page: No question.

Margaret: Yeah. And so, then in the woods, are there some discoveries? I mean, you said taking out invasives and that’s a lifelong task, of course. But are there some plants, did you discover some things in there that you-

Page: Oh my goodness, yes. Well, first of all, somebody called it the Marble Valley. We’re near the Housatonic River, and the soil here, the rock formation, is very alkaline. It’s a calcareous soil. So there’s wildflowers in the woods I had never seen before. I mean, they weren’t just Jack-in-the-pulpits and trilliums, there were things like Desmodium and Packera obovata, which is a little groundcover, which is the only plant—the leaves are the only foliage that the larvae of the endangered northern metalmark butterfly like to eat. All the butterfly experts get very excited at the thought that we have all this Packera obovata. It only grows in limestone, rocky places.

All kinds of discoveries like that. And then in the low woods, at one point it opens up to what turns out to be a fen, which is a calcareous wetland, which is rich in native plants. And there, I see things that I grow in my garden, in their native habitat. All kinds of Joe-pye weeds, and the swamp milkweed called Asclepias incarnata, and vervain. It’s just so thrilling to see these things in their native habitat. And of course, asters, New England asters. Yes, I mean, eye-opening new discoveries, and that’s been the thrill.

Margaret: Here we are, decades into gardening. [Laughter.] And here we are, again, we started out as plant collector-y kind of people, the latest rarity was the thing, and more designed plant combinations. And here now we both are, walking around the fringe of the places that we live, noting diversity and being astonished.

I know exactly where the little treasures are in areas where I’ve stopped mowing, up at the edge of the property, in recent years. Places I used to mow all the way up to the fence-line, way up the hill. It seemed crazy to keep doing it, and I’d see what happened. The other day, I was just up there for something, and along one edge of the fence is the big-leaf aster. I think it’s macrophyllus. It’s not that it’s a rare plant or anything, but Page, how did it get there? I have been subduing it for 30 years.

Page: It’s just so exciting to see these things in nature, and you had nothing to do with it. I just find it such a thrill. I have a little book now. I’ve always been a writer down-er, and I have this little book and it’s just divided into the front field, the back field, the high woods, the low woods, the fen. And then I write down every time I see a new native plant in there, because it’s just a fun record.

Same thing with me, Margaret. I’ve been letting more and more grass go to meadow. Who needs all that grass? Our grass is horrible, anyway. It’s not a carpet of… Anyway. And all this little bluestem has appeared. Every year, there’s more of it. Every year there’s more bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, and it’s so exciting. I can’t tell you.

Margaret: It is funny, isn’t it? I go around, marching around like a crazy person, seeing all the oak seedlings [above, one at Page’s]. And that’s another thing, you say oak, but there’s so many different ones. [Laughter.]

Page: Exactly. We have just so many oak seedlings here, and we don’t have a deer fence. I mean, I wish we did. But we have 17 acres and it’s just not in the budget. Anyway, I go around every couple of weeks and spray all these oak seedlings with Deer Defeat, which is just this organic horrible smelly stuff, which seems to help keep the deer away. And when I see an oak tree that really has a lot of sky above it, so I know it can grow and get big, we put a little wire fence around it. It’s very exciting to see.

Margaret: You’re protecting your babies. [Laughter.]

Page: Protecting our babies, yeah.

Margaret: As a counterpoint, you say in the book… A counterpoint to the wilder places that have really won your heart over, at this new property. Which, I guess, it has a name, too. The Church House, yes?

Page: Well, it was a church, yes.

Margaret: I see. You say in the book, “After compost heaps, cold frames were one of the features I wanted most when making the new garden.” And there’s this October ritual, a timely ritual, that you talk about—having to have the right cold frames to be able to force bulbs. An old fashioned garden hobby, that people did a lot more years ago than they do now. Just tell us a little bit about the cold frames, for a couple minutes.

Page: Well, we had cold frames at Duck Hill. Years, and years, and years, and years ago, I used to sow seeds of perennials in trays. And have them, over the winter, in the cold frames. Just the way Louise Beebe Wilder told me to do in one of her wonderful books. But for the last… I don’t know, 30 years, I would guess, I’ve used the cold frames to force bulbs. I order bulbs, all sorts of bulbs, but lots of different Narcissus, daffodils, and crocuses and Scilla and all sorts of things like that.

In October, I pot them up in nice clay pots. And then I sink them into… We now use shavings because we just buy shavings at Agway. And I sink them in shavings, in the cold frames. I’ve watered them. We shut down the cold frames, and then wait, usually about 14 weeks. And then I start pulling them out and bringing them indoors. It is so fun. It’s just this treat.

Just watching these little irises, or daffodils, or crocuses, or hyacinths come into bloom in your house.

I used to throw them away after they were spent, until I married Bosco. He, being a refugee, doesn’t throw anything away. And so he said, “No, no, no, we’re going to plant them.” So now, we plant them. The daffodils, we plant under the apple trees. I sneak the other bulbs in, among the perennials. And by gum, they keep flowering. They flower the next year and the year after that.

You don’t have to have a cold frame to do that. You can use an extra refrigerator. You can put pots of bulbs, if you have an outdoor hatch to your cellar, you can do it on one of those steps. You can do it in a styrofoam box, in your garage, if you can keep them from freezing. You just don’t want the pots to freeze.

But our cold frames are 3 feet high in the back, about a foot high in the front. They’re 3 by 3, wooden, with a heavy plexiglass top. I actually have three of them, so I have 9 feet of cold frames. Used to have 6 feet. And that works really well. We used to use glass. We used to use old storm windows, things like that. But the plexiglass is much easier and it doesn’t break. It’s much lighter.

Margaret: Well, I’m very jealous. I’m totally jealous, Page, of your bulb-forcing apparatus, so to speak. We’re out of time, but I wanted to say how much I’ve been enjoying the book. I’m looking forward to our conversation together for Oblong Books, which I think is going to be a little bit about the wild spaces, in more depth. So thank you so much for joining us today.

enter to win a copy of ‘uprooted’

I’LL BUY A COPY of Page Dickey’s latest book, “Uprooted: A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again,” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is comment in the box at the very bottom of the page, answering this question:

Are you gardening in your first garden, or have you, like Page Dickey, ever been uprooted? Do tell. (This is my second garden, but I have been here more than 30 years; the first was a 5-year effort when I was first learning to garden, before I had my own place.)

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “Count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, October 6, 2020. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

margaret and page in zoom event oct. 6, + all her events

I’M DOING a Zoom event with Page Dickey to celebrate the publication of “Uprooted” on Tuesday October 6, 2020, at 7 PM Eastern Time. It’s hosted by our local independent bookseller, Oblong Books of Millerton and Rhinebeck, New York. We plan to talk in greater depth about our relationship with the wilder parts of the garden and with nature, an important element of her new book. The event is free; sign up here.

Page is also doing talks for the New York Botanical Garden October 20 at 1 PM, and Berkshire Botanical Garden October 22 at 6:30, and for The Garden Conservancy November 5 at 2 PM. All her events are also listed on her website’s event page.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the September 28, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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