Trowel and Error

I have never had so many good ideas day after day as when I worked in the garden.” — John Erskine

My favorite summer pastime is working outside in my garden — a pastime that inevitably leads me back to the keyboard in my home office. The following gardening essay was published in 2009 in At Home in the Garden, an illustrated anthology of garden writings.  

Trowel and Error

After all these years, I still cant muster the nerve to call myself a real gardener. Real gardeners know that a garden is an ecosystem as well as an art form. Real gardeners spend hours studying seed catalogs, and can identify every plant in the nursery by its botanical name. Always victorious in the battle against slugs, real gardeners stay attuned to natures early warning signs and know exactly what to do when leaves turn yellow.

A real gardener I am not — but Im getting there.

Gardening as a metaphor for living is a cliché as old as the Gardens of Versailles. But I just turned fifty this year, and it occurs to me that plotting my lifes course has been as tricky as maintaining the perennial beds I started a few years ago. My garden has provided clues along the way.

A Midwest native, Ive always lived in established neighborhoods with mature trees, so Ive had to seek out plants that will tolerate plenty of shade and depleted soil. Even now, Im still experimenting, still trying to get it right.

Bob and Jane, my elder neighbors across the street, have watched my green experiments from their porch and offered advice. They often catch me watering a newly transplanted hosta or puttering around the herb beds in my pajamas on sunny mornings. Returning from vacation one summer, they brought me a ceramic garden marker that reads, “Gardens grow by trowel and error,” which pretty much sums it up.

In my early years of home ownership, I followed a much safer path.

Back then, I planted only what a master gardener would call “amateur annuals.” In my own defense, I was trying to raise a child while working at home. I wrote shorter newspaper articles — never had the nerve to start a novel — and barely had time to fuss with a potted geranium, let alone a crop of needy, exotic perennials.

I was also a house-proud perfectionist, always worried that Id be judged by my foliage and found inferior. Afraid of taking risks, I aimed for an instant gratification garden – a showy but conventional patch that didnt require much care. But now that Im more adventurous and, well, less pot-bound, Im finally reaping the rewards of an unruly perennial garden.

For starters, a struggling peony I planted three years ago produced several crimson flowers for the first time this spring. The blooms are gone, but Im still gloating.

By nature Im not a patient person. I hate waiting in line and sometimes Im too fidgety to meditate. But my stalled peony bush taught me a crucial life lesson: There are times when the best plan of action is to wait and see what happens. Seeds germinate and flower on their own schedule, and natural processes can’t be rushed. (Like that novel I want to start.)

Last year, in fact, I had almost given up on the poor peony and was ready to move it, which would have been a big mistake. Like me, it was just a late bloomer that needed a little more time, and faith, to take root.

For a day or so, I was tempted to cut those gorgeous peony blooms and bring them indoors to enjoy in a crystal vase. But since Im still a show-off, I left them outside for all the neighbors to admire.


–Essay and photos by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on each photo for a larger view. “Trowel and Error” is also reprinted in Writing Home, a collection of personal essays on home and family. —


Gardening Wright

As the sun colors flowers, so does art color life.”  ~John Lubbock

Despite all the work involved, owning and caring for a second home is a privilege — especially if that home was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. For me, one of the most exciting aspects of our Wright home in St. Joseph is that it’s so unlike our 1926 Craftsman-style Tudor home in Royal Oak. It gives me an opportunity to explore a fresh new era of interior — and exterior — design.

Designed in 1957 and filled with many of its original Wright-designed furnishings, our ranch-style Usonian home evokes both streamlined Scandinavian and Mid-Century modern styles. Whenever I’m sitting in the living room, for instance, I can almost picture the cast of Mad Men kicking back on the sofa with their cocktails. Anyone for a martini?

Likewise, the gardens at both homes are practically polar opposites. (If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ve seen plenty of photos of my garden in Royal Oak!)

In this post, I’ve included a couple of new photos from the Wright house. In the detail shot of the planter near the front door (bottom photo), you’ll see a large ceramic sphere that blends with the red brick and concrete used in and around the house. This area gets a lot of sun, so I’ve mingled succulents with the perennial grasses. The sphere was a gift from our longtime family friends, the Hemmings, as a memorial to Doug’s dad, who died last summer. Doug’s dad always enjoyed gardening, and I’m sure he would have appreciated this tribute.

We purchased our most recent piece of garden art (top photo) from the annual Krasl Art Fair on the Bluff in St. Joseph last weekend. It charmed me as soon as I saw it. Constructed from rusted scrap metal and embellished with rocks, this quirky sculpture features a part that moves like a weather vane or a mobile when the breeze blows through.

For now, we’re enjoying the sculpture on the terrace, which overlooks the woods and St. Joseph River (terrace shown in photo above). The piece looks right at home surrounded by the natural, untamed landscape — just the way Wright himself would have liked it. My next challenge is learning which plants the deer won’t eat. Any suggestions? –CL

— Photos of the Charles Schultz exterior by Cindy La Ferle. For a larger view, please click on each photo. —

Call of the wild

Camping is nature’s way of promoting the motel industry.”  ~Dave Barry, The Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need

A sentimental favorite of mine, this essay originally appeared in The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) Sunday Magazine in 1996, and was republished last year in Wild with Child: Adventures of Families in the Great Outdoors by Jennifer Bove. Have you been camping yet this summer?

Mother and Son Answer the Call of the Wild

Thanks to my previous career as a travel editor, I know how to rate a mattress and a motel bathroom. I’m right at home in a wicker rocker on the front porch of a country inn, sipping a tall glass of iced tea while watching the sun dip behind a mountain range.

But until my son joined Cub Scouts two years ago, my getaways did not include wilderness adventures. To me, communing with nature meant reading Thoreau or potting begonias. Spending a weekend in the woods of rural Michigan — with a chorus of bull frogs, sundry snakes, ticks, two dozen little boys and their suburban-Detroit mothers — didn’t sound like my idea of a good time.

Like most parents, however, I’ve learned to adapt. And while I am not exactly what you’d call a happy camper, the Scouts have taught me to appreciate the Great Outdoors. In fact, this fall I’ll embark on my third annual “Mom & Me” camping weekend with Nate’s pack.

In addition to strengthening mother-son relationships, Mom & Me weekends were designed to refute the theory that women will not sleep with insects.

I’ve also learned that the travel writer’s motto, “Always pack light,” doesn’t apply to north woods camping. It’s much wiser to cram your suitcase with back-up sets of everything, including socks and underwear, and to expect emergencies. On our first outing, for instance, Nate fell into a bog within fifteen minutes of our arrival at the camp site. He had to borrow my hiking boots until his own dried out the next day. Meanwhile, I had no choice but to tour the swamp in soggy tennis shoes.

“These weekends really are an endurance test for the parents,” one mom confided, half-seriously.

The following year I stuffed half a dozen pairs of boots into the back of our Jeep, but forgot my own raincoat. Of course, that was the weekend it poured and poured …and poured.

I’ll never forget the sight of six devoted moms building a campfire in the evening drizzle. (We were determined to do this thing right: We were going to roast every single hot dog and melt every marshmallow we’d hauled along with our Dura-flame logs.) Our boys, however, were smart enough to hide from the rain. Searching the campground by flashlight, we finally found them in one of the cabins playing Life, the board game of the moment.

“Bring the hot dogs in here,” one nine-year-old demanded as he scooted his car-shaped marker across the board. “I’m getting ready to sell one of my houses and I’m having a midlife crisis!”

If we’re very lucky, the hike to the public restrooms is only 15 minutes (uphill) from our campsite. The trick, I found, is to keep a spare flashlight in your sleeping bag so that you can grab it quickly if nature calls at 2:00 a.m. — which isn’t unusual for middle-aged moms.

Nobody sleeps much on these weekends. The kids are buzzing on caffeine, having consumed several gallons of Pepsi and Mountain Dew. The moms, smelling like a bonfire and desperately wishing for one hot shower, toss fitfully in their sleeping bags while the boys play flashlight games and tell ghost stories.

“Did you hear the one about the one-eyed man who went berserk in the north woods and was NEVER FOUND…?”

After two nights like these, the long drive back on Sunday is tolerable only with a mug of instant coffee and the promise of a warm bath. Completely exhausted, Nate and I typically ride home in silence.

But on the way home from last October’s trip, he mumbled, “Thanks for the weekend, Mom. Great weekend.” Brief but sincere, it was a rare expression of unprompted gratitude.

Catching a glimpse of myself in the rear-view mirror, I remembered I wasn’t wearing any makeup. My eyes looked older, and in an instant I saw the years racing past me like the cars on the expressway. My boy looked older, too, his lanky body slouched on the seat next to me.

Suddenly, that weekend — my endurance test — seemed awfully short. I was proud of myself for hiking through swamps and building fires in the rain. — Cindy La Ferle, August 1996

— A slightly different version of this essay is included in my own essay collection, Writing Home. Photos by Cindy La Ferle —

Summer in the slow lane

“Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability.” — Sam Keen

Fourth of July weekend is summer’s unofficial kickoff, starting with family picnics and ending in a blast of public fireworks.

According to my calendar, there are roughly 12 weeks of summer left. For many of us, it’s tempting to cram those weeks with action-packed vacations and side trips — if we’re not already booked with weddings, showers, graduation parties, and other special events.

So what happened to those old-fashioned, “lazy” days of summer? I’ve outlined a way you can enjoy the season without running yourself ragged and finding yourself wondering where summer flew when August rolls around.  Click here to read “Your Guide to Productive Summer Loafing” in this Sunday’s Royal Oak Patch. How’s your summer going so far? — CL

— Bicycle photo taken in downtown Royal Oak by Cindy La Ferle —