Garden Dreaming

Garden Dreaming

  • By Cathy Caldwell
  • /
  • January 2019-Vol.5 No.1
  • /

I don’t know about you, but I found the growing season of 2018 to be discouraging.  Ridiculous amounts of rain followed a dry spell, and most of my garden plants seemed to just put their heads down and give up — even the zinnias (but not the stiltgrass).  And discouraged is not any way to start off a new year in the garden.  So I’ve decided to spend my winter hiatus gathering as much inspiration as possible so as to be ready to launch myself into spring gardening renewed and refreshed and ready to go.  I’ve looked far and wide and I’m here to share what I’ve found —  from books to podcasts to television shows.


It’s winter, so we gardeners have the time to settle in with a good book.

Here’s a book that is bound to inspire:  Big Dreams, Small Garden: A Guide to Creating Something Extraordinary in Your Ordinary Space by Marianne Willburn, a Master Gardener in the Washington,DC area.  The publisher describes the book as follows:

“An ideal guide for those who struggle with limited resources, Big Dreams, Small Garden leads you through the process of visualizing, achieving, maintaining, and enjoying your unfolding garden. It gives you tips for making a sanctuary in less-than-ideal situations and profiles real-life gardeners who have done just that—including the author herself.”

Willburn managed to pursue her dream garden during some tumultuous events, including her husband’s layoff during an economic downturn.  You can hear all about it on this podcast, Having faced a few obstacles herself, she’s bound to be source of encouragement and enthusiasm.



For many of us, budgetary constraints are the obstacle between our dream garden and our reality garden.  Here’s a book that directly addresses that issue:  The Budget-wise Gardener: With Hundreds of Money-Saving Buying & Design Tips for Planting the Best for Less by Kerry Anne Mendez.



Television Shows

Yes, you read that heading correctly:  television shows.  Sitting in front of the tube is not something most gardeners would endorse, but I happened upon a BBC television series that I can’t wait to start watching.  It’s called  Big Dreams, Small Spaces, which follows the efforts of a British garden guru named Monty Don as he consults with homeowners beset by garden issues of all types:  poor sites, empty pocketbooks, the consequences of bad choices, and on and on.  This makeover show is a little different in a number of ways.  First, Monty Don is a pretty witty guy; his first reaction to one back yard is: “One could make it good, but not using anything that’s here.”


Monty Don with his first big-dream gardeners.

Another difference is that after Monty Don comes up with a plan, the homeowners are left on their own to do the work,  thus offering a much more realistic take on the gardening enterprise.  Then Monty shows up occasionally to check in on the project — with more witty remarks.  When a gardener asks him when is the best time to prune trees, Monty replies, “The simple answer is about six months ago.”  The show consists of three seasons’ worth of episodes, and you can binge-watch them all on Netflix, Dreams, Small Spaces/80232852/.


Here are a few of the rather discouraging sites that Monty Don has confronted.

A  very steep slope


In Season 3, Episode 3, Monty helps a couple with differing ideas about what constitutes a beautiful garden and a father-daughter duo who wish to turn their steeply-sloping yard into a cancer patient retreat.





In another epsisode, the homeowner describes the problem as her ‘concrete driveway’ of a garden.






But this “after” photo shows what’s possible for those who persevere.  If Monty Don and his home gardeners do not discourage easily, then I suppose we shouldn’t either.





I figured there’d be a few podcasts aimed at gardeners, but who knew there would be so many?  Here are a few that are highly recommended:

In Defense of Plants  ( ) describes itself as a show “designed to cure plant-blindness around the globe.”  The introductory matter on the website is so arresting that it seems worth repeating here:

“It would seem that most people don’t pay any attention to plants unless they are pretty or useful in some way. I reject this reality outright. Plants are everything on this planet. They have this amazing ability to use our nearest star to break apart water and CO2 gas in order to grow and reproduce. From the smallest duckweed to the tallest redwood, the botanical world is full of amazing evolutionary stories. I am here to tell those stories. My name is Matt and I am obsessed with the botanical world. In Defense of Plants is my way of sharing that love with you.”

And a survey of Matt’s recent podcast topics is a veritable cornucopia of intriguing plant stories, including:

“When Palms Grew in Wyoming” (Episode 189, 12/2/2018)

“Demystifying Orchids” (Ep. 179, 9/23/18)

“Pollinator Pathway: A Design Challenge For The Planet” (Ep. 133, 11/5/17)

“Legumes and Their Nitrogen-Fixing Partners” (Ep. 123, 8/27/17)

“Plant Architecture” (Ep. 119, 7/30/17)

Here’s the one I’m listening to now:   “In Love With Native Plants” (Ep. 187, 11/18/18), in which the host, Matt, meets with Aubree Keurajian who has just recently started her own native plant nursery in Connecticut.  She calls her new operation Ungardening: Native Plants and Restoration.  Aubree collects seeds in her local area in order to propagate only local natives.  She discusses the need to collect seed sparingly or risk wiping out most of a local species. She and Matt then move on to discuss  “messy gardening” — a whole new concept to me.

The SodShow ( ), hosted by a Dublin-based garden designer named Peter Donegan,  sounds like a lot of fun. Each episode features a chat with a fellow garden professional — including designers,  head gardeners at public gardens, and nurserymen and nurserywomen.

A Way to Garden ( ) is also an NPR radio show, hosted by Margaret Roach, who gardens in the Hudson River Valley of New York.  She’s been at this for 10 years, so there are lots of episodes to choose from.  The podcast is just one feature on the website, which identifies its focus as “horticultural how-to and woo-woo” and “the source of organic gardening inspiration.”  Recent episodes include “What I Learned about Pollinators and other Beneficial Insects in 2018,” and “Go Ahead, We Dare You: Widen Your Plant Palette, with Andy Brand.”  You can view a list of episodes at

Weathering Weather Woes

I am spending some of my “free” time this winter wondering if next summer will be as hazardous to plants as last summer.  If so, is there anything to be done to prevent the weather-related ravages of the summer of 2018?

My research on this topic has not uncovered any sort of silver bullet (beyond planting in well-drained containers!), but I did learn a bit about HOW extreme weather causes problems for plants.  For example, excessive rain like we had last summer can reduce the amount of oxygen in the soil, resulting in injury to a plant’s root. For this reason, drowning plants look like drought victims.  Heavy rain can also make plants more susceptible to many fungal diseases, and it can not only damage plants, but also compact soil and cause erosion.  Univ.IllinoisExt./How Weather Affects Plants; “Excess Water/Edema- Annuals, Bulbs, Ground covers, Perennials, and Vines,” Univ.Md.Extension.

I made one happy discovery:  scientists ARE working on how to help gardeners with these problems.  Here in America, we have Dr. David Wolfe, a Cornell professor of horticulture and a leading authority on the effects of climate change and rising atmospheric carbon dioxide on plants, soils, and ecosystems.  Dr. Wolfe’s advice for gardeners is contained in a chapter titled “Gardening Sustainably in a Changing Climate,” found in the book The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening (2011).  Sadly, this book is no longer in print, but his advice is summarized on the website of the Cornell Botanic Gardens, “Advice to Gardeners from a Climate Change Expert,”

What to do about the excessive water problem?  One thing that’s recommended is to locate any low spots in your gardens where water tends to pool in heavy rain; then try to improve drainage from these areas. This sounds difficult to accomplish in the average garden bed.    But you can also improve drainage with soil amendments, such as compost, and that’s quite do-able.

And what about the early spring frost that comes along after a lengthy warm period and destroys the buds of those flowers you were looking forward to?  One solution is to avoid planting on north-facing slopes and low-lying shaded areas that are more susceptible to frosts.  Planting on the south side of a wall may help by reflecting the sun’s heat sooner in the day.  For plants whose blooms we treasure, we may need to start keeping a supply of “frost blankets” on hand, too.


Learning about these books, shows, and other resources has definitely heightened my enthusiasm for the next growing season.  If you have other recommendations, I hope you’ll add them in the comment section below.  Happy New Year!


  1. Dell Erwin

    Good research in this article provides readers with helpful, interesting information. Well written and easy to read. Like having an intimate conversation with another plant lover.

  2. Barbara

    Really enjoyed reading this article. You cover so much ground—pun intended—and all of it you present in a way that makes me want to read all the books and listen to all the podcasts. Though my gardening days are over, I’ll cheer for you and all those who love plants and try to make our earth more beautiful.

  3. Carolyn Rhondeau

    Hi Cathy,
    I took down a few notes as I like to listen to podcasts at night. I might watch Big Dreams, Small Spaces also to see what Monty Don comes up with on his show. The BBC shows can be quite fun and I watched a couple episodes of the British Bake-Off with my family at Christmas and got some chuckles! Thanks for your research presented in this article.

  4. Annie Witherspoon

    So much good information, Cathy!!! You booted me out of my post holiday gardening lethargy with inspiration to listen to valuable podcasts, watch gardn gurus do make overs, and books to captivate the imagination!

Leave a Reply to Cathy Caldwell Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.