Sunday, August 19, 2012


Because I garden, I’ve always thought of the children’s rhyme, 'Mary, Mary quite contrary, How does your garden grow?' as a sweet poem.

It wasn’t until I guest blogged on Ellis’s blog,  that I learned another explanation. I wanted to quote the poem corrrectly, so I googled it.
Oh My Google! The rhyme has been seen as having religious and historical significance, but its origins and meaning are disputed. According to several sites, the nursery rhyme I thought so quaint and charming turns out to be a condemnation of Mary Tudor’s, gruesome cruelty to Protestants. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and was nicknamed Bloody Mary.
The earliest record of the rhyme was in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (1744). In this record the rhyme was:

Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,                               
How does your garden grow?
With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,
And so my garden grows.

In one accounting, How does your garden grow refers to the growing number of bodies planted in graveyards because of Mary’s executioners.
With silver bells evoked a vision of delicate tiny bells sounding delightfully dainty chimes. Mary’s sliver bells, used on a man’s genitals, produced screams of horror and pain.

Though I had no idea what cockle shells looked like, I never imagined them to refer to thumbscrews that smashed and shattered Protestant’s fingers.
The most common modern version is:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

Another theory sees the rhyme as connected to Mary, Queen of Scots, "how does your garden grow" referring to her reign over her realm, "silver bells" referring to (Catholic) cathedral bells, "cockle shells" insinuating that her husband was not faithful to her, and "pretty maids all in a row" referring to her ladies-in-waiting - "The four Maries".

Since no proof has been found that the rhyme was known before the eighteenth century, it begs the question of the implications since Mary I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots, were contemporaries in the sixteenth century.
That rhyme always put me in mind of a pretty girl tending her garden, using a pastel colored watering can to gently sprinkle her tiny treasures. Or maybe the Home Depot version of mulch and compost and Weed B Gone, but I never envisioned a sociopath wearing a crown.
It’s fascinating to discover that what we consider a children’s rhyme might have had roots in politics and religion. I’ll never look at my garden sign, “How Does Your Garden Grow” in quite the same way.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


GARDEN DATE: 7-1-2012
Sometimes fate hands you the answer in life, writing and gardening. My dilemma between the bench and the branch resolved itself with no action on my part. Except the action of sitting on the bench one early morning last week. Before I could lean back, I felt the shift as the back railing of the bench fell off landing in the hostas behind it.
My garden, like my writing, is a work in progress in which I thrill in reusing, recycling and repurposing everything I can. At first I thought the back railing would be fuel for the fall bonfire but now I see a wonderful opportunity to position the entire thing, spindles down, in front of a flopsy stand of yarrow. I could spray paint the wood with one of those faux stone looking treatments and set it up as a small stone fence. The bench now functions as a sturdy platform for several potted plants. And, the long narrow piece of wood that held the spindle to the bench back will be perfect for staking something tall or tired.
This morning, I’m roaming the garden, cutting flowers for a bouquet and enjoying the cooler morning temps. I’m hoping to spot the hot air balloons from the ‘Eyes to the Skies’ Festival. I heard the tell-tale blast as the burner is turned on but I haven’t seen any balloons. They may be farther away than they sound indicates.
I’ve left my Sisters in Crime mug on another bench but now I return to it, ready to enjoy my coffee. This bench has a sturdy back but the seat slats had rotted away at the bolts. I repurposed two old, long benches from a picnic set, using one as a new seat and one to keep my feet out of mud and dirt.   
I’m watching goldfinches, two males and a female, flit through the flowers. They seem partial to larkspur. It’s barely 6:30 and the air is turning muggy. I realize this bench has a wonderful view of the garden. Don’t know why I never thought to sit here. It is steps from the garage and in the spring, the area is bare. Now however, with coneflowers, larkspur, marguerite daisies and Russian sage all about me, it’s a veritable hideaway. I love the feeling of being surrounded by garden.

It’s the same sense I get when I change the perspective of your story. When suddenly you think to yourself, “Why haven’t I ever put them in that situation?” or “Why haven’t I told the story from this point of view?” Just changing the setting, changes the feel of the story. It’s the difference between looking over the landscape of the plot and seeing the conclusion down at the end of the garden path to sitting inside the plot and wheedling your way to the end of the path.
I’m already rethinking a plot line that’s been giving me ‘starts and stops’ for a while. Amazing, I’ve moved my butt to another bench and my brain is re-tuning. There’s a joke in there somewhere. 
Anyway, I’m off to move some 'potted plants' in the current plot to another location in the story. 
Hope this bench lasts long enough to finish the book! 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Conundrums in the Garden

One of my gardening books has this quote, “Gardening requires short term foresight and long term vision.”
So in my garden I’m always trying to second guess the viability of new plants, the optimum positioning of said plants (see earlier blogs about transplanting issues) and the long-term success in the garden. Today, I’m rethinking cutting down a low hanging branch that blocks sun to the solarium garden. The plants are pulling toward the sun and growing gangly and weak. I thought that with a bit more sunlight for one to two hours each day, the Ribbon Grass, Siberian Iris, Dusty Millers and Phlox would do better. Before this branch grew heavy with leaves, the plants did well. I’ve already moved the Iris as they seemed to fare the worse in the increasing shade. 
That branch dips just enough that it provides shade to the bench in the garden—one of my favorite spots to sit and journal. The bench is falling apart and won’t make it through the winter to next season. The strip that held the spindles to the bench split off. You can't lean back, only sideways against the short arm propped against the tree. It will end its usefulness as fuel for our fall bonfire. The conundrum: Do I cut the branch and give the garden more sunlight? Do I leave the branch and transplant the Dusty Millers and Phlox? Do I leave the branch and replace the bench with a sturdier one. Do I cut the branch and rearrange another area to accommodate the bench? Do I cut the branch and put up a hammock?
That quote reminds of writing stories, only I never would have phrased it that way. To me, the short-term sense of story and the long term arc of the series have always waged a low-key war in my head. It is one thing to adjust a plot and tweak a weak premise that won't hold the weight of the story, but quite another to ‘cut’ a heavy branch. Once it’s cut, it’s gone. I’m not a fan of the dream sequence solution or the resurrection theory (unless that’s the genre) so I’m stymied at times at how to proceed. If I kill a character, I must have a clear sense of how that loss affects the current book but how the lack of that character going forward affects the arc of the series. If I cut a main character do I have a plan to introduce another one to fill in that void thereby creating a new direction and growth pattern in the series or was that character’s death just perfect for that book and I don’t have a long-term vision of the ramifications.

Gardeners know that you can’t dig up one section of a garden or cut down a tree without impacting and perhaps ruining your original plan. Perhaps in the dappled shade, plants never grew to their full height. With more sunlight, they might reach that height and throw off the look of the garden or overrun a more delicate plant that had co-existed before the growth spurt.
When you’re working in a series, that original arc most likely changes as you just have to use a great short-term plot point. You can amend the story or soil (I put coffee grounds around the base of my Niko Blue Hydrangea hoping it blooms blue and doesn’t turn pink. The hydrangea is still there but in a different shade. If you amend a character’s behavior, i.e. amnesia, hypnosis, AHA moment in life, death bed promise to loved one, etc. the character remains but in a different shade of his/her personality. You get the altered behavior you want, if only short term.
I don’t have an answer yet—this branch-bench conundrum is a work in progress. Isn’t it always?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The AHA moment!

GARDEN DATE: 2012.5.6
I’ve underestimated the weeds and work and overestimated my stamina, which means I’m woefully behind in my schedule. I’ve not completed the next leg of my weeding plan to reach the sitting area.  
Planning my garden work reminds me of outlining my book.  I usually underestimate how much I have to write and overestimate my time. I’m almost always crunching as I get closer to deadlines.

I’ve learned through gardening, not to expect one season a garden to make! Gardens are works in progress—exactly like books. Editors demand deadlines and so books cannot be tweaked as much as gardens.
Before I begin a book I develop a loose outline with points of where I want to be with the story, time-wise or story-wise. I walk the story through my head, just the key points.

In my garden, I want the entire path before I begin to develop a plan on weeding, pruning, and mulching. All this has to happen before a plant or seed goes into the ground.
I have an idea when I’m writing of how I want each segment to look, just as I have ideas on how I want each part of my garden to look. Does it happen that way? Not usually.

In the garden, I look for spots where I can develop an ‘aha’ moment. My neighbor and fellow gardener, Robin, so named the little areas where I’ve placed a pot on its side at the base of tall peonies and next to bushy yarrow, or the circled a birdbath and new plant with small  rocks. In order to lay those rocks around the birdbath, I had to first weed that section of the garden.  The pot on its side has been there all winter, waiting for the yarrow and peonies to grow up around it.
I try for those ‘aha’ moments in my writing; a piece of business that stays with the reader for later examination. I may tuck a turning point clue into the ‘garden’ of the story. And so stories go, some need extensive preparation to get the ‘aha’ just right, while others have an ‘aha’ that’s been lying in wait for the story to grow and expose it.

What impedes my garden and writing schedules? Distractions, new ideas and review. How sweet, a robin is splashing about in the birdbath. Wish the top were more secure. It’s not a tight fit since it’s not the original top. Fortunately, the robin is light enough to safely bathe.
After four hours of weeding, I had to stop working before I finished the piece I’d set as my goal. I became distracted by a patch of weeds outside my designated area but that garden seemed in more urgent need of weeding.
Stories do that. I set myself a goal and an arc that I’m going to hit and then I realize there is a notion, a storyline that must be written NOW or it will become overrun by exposition. While I was weeding I thought of a way to take up more garden space and keep the weeds down and clear area for pots in the garden. I plan to plant cascading petunia in the center pot and let the plants trail down the slope. The cap is an old birdbath that broke over the winter a few years ago. Never throw away garden pieces. Never throw away old stories, pieces of dialog, and interesting names and ideas. You never throw away a ‘pot’ that didn’t work somewhere else in the story. I hope this will be an interesting ‘aha’ moment  once it is planted. It’s a wonderful idea but it took me away from the weeding plan.

Sometimes, I’m plotting along and new idea invades my process. I have to stop and fiddle with it and it just right. You combine a couple of things you have lying about in other manuscripts and it is---a new idea!
Forging ahead requires looking behind. That backward glance shows you what you missed. How could you miss a Maple sapling, two feet tall when you pulled the wild garlic and chokecherry starts growing all around the young tree?

When I read what I’ve written the day before, I find saplings of too much narrative sprouting where there should be dialog. How did I miss several boring paragraphs? Too anxious to move on weeding, writing? Not expecting a sapling, hiding in plain sight? It happens…and so does the compost pile. But that’s another story!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Convergence of Cardinals

Three weeks ago my husband heard a tap against the tall tower window at the front of the house. Tap, tap, and tap again and again. The source of the continual tapping was two cardinals intent on reaching something in the window. They started flying at our window at first light and continued until dusk. They took turns flying from their perch in the crab apple tree outside the window, up to the glass, fluttering their wings and tapping the pane with their feet, as through trying to land on the reflected branch.
They drove Martin Marmalade crazy. He sat on the second floor landing and meowed at them for the first day. He ignored them after that, recognizing that he couldn’t reach them and accepting the tapping as ‘white noise’ in a cat’s life.
My husband, not so much. His first attempt to dissuade them from pursuing the new desirable but elusive perch fell short of his intended result. He used our telescoping dust mop, the head being long and blue like Marge Simpson’s hairdo. He carefully placed the handle across the ceiling light fixture and leaned the mop end against the window.
Imagine the joy the cardinals felt when they spotted that fabulous nest – theirs for the taking! The assault against the glass increased, both birds stepping up the tapping. After a few days, we noticed only the male would return to tap against the glass. We thought the female wised up, or maybe she was on a nest in a real tree, but what of the insistent male? We surmised it had become personal and a guy thing with the bird.             

My husband, understanding the challenge, but wanting the tapping to cease, fought back with a guy thing of his own.  If you can’t make out what is at the top of the pole, it’s a coat hanger with a series of his old ties knotted at intervals to scare off the cardinal. And so, the trident made from old, out-dated, ugly ties, did the trick and frightened the feisty cardinal. We waited a day then removed the pole. The next day at first light he returned, tapping with renewed vigor since his feet and beak had rested a day. Or maybe he sent in a ringer who thought messing with us would be a lark. So the pole is back and keeping our red feathered friend at bay.  But I ask you, who is the real winner? I think the cardinal is sitting pretty somewhere, laughing his little beak off at our window display, tweeting, “Gotcha’!”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


   At season’s end, gardeners view their perennials with an eye marking development and appeal. One makes notes with ideas for the spring.
Writers do the same. At the end of story you make notes for the next story or maybe you realize you need more re-write.
   If a plant didn’t do well in a spot, I investigate the possible reasons for stunted growth or minimal flowering.  With a new purchase, a plant I’ve never grown before, I read the planting label, clarify the label with someone at the plant shop, and follow suit. If I’m purchasing a replacement plant, I look at the area where its predecessor died.
If an idea didn’t do well in one spot, perhaps I needed to move it to another location in the story.
   Was there too much shade to expect good growth? Perhaps the Lavender Twist Weeping Redbud grew too quickly and overshadowed the small Dogwood.
   Was the soil too alkaline or too clayey? Either amend the soil with an additive or dig out the clay and haul in better soil.
   Did the neighbors overspray of the weed-killer they use to manage their side, land on your plant? How does one amend a neighbor?
Maybe it was a great plot twist, a slender clue dropped gently into the story, but the characters were moving too quickly and trampled over it without stopping to discover the gift at their feet. Perhaps the story line had already developed so strongly that the twist seemed insignificant and was overlooked. But it was a great twist! What to do?
   This spring, I reviewed my transplant from last fall, a variegated red twig Dogwood bush. It seemed easier to move the bush than to move the larger shrubs and trees.
It’s always easier to move a small piece of business (regardless how wonderful) than move an entire story. Hard to move a grown ‘tree’ like location. Easier to send your protagonist out of town to follow up a clue and drop your seedling there.
   This would be the dogwood’s second move. Its first location was such a good choice that it grew profusely but I neglected to take into account that its growth would soon block the already narrow opening to the yard which gave access to my husband on the riding mower. If he couldn’t use that pass through to get from front to back his mowing pattern would be altered. And that’s another story!!
Every now and then a secondary character or sub-plot develops so quickly that you don’t notice that they are about to become an impediment to the story. The story line starts revolving around them. The pattern of the story could change drastically. That character or sub-plot has to move to the back of the stage.
   I moved the dogwood to a mulched area. I gave it two years to re-establish. During those two years, my gorgeous weeping shrub which grew slowly (partly because the top portion had been cracked in an ice storm) took hold and grew amazingly well in those two years.
The risk of moving that rising character is that they might become over shadowed in another part of the story. It’s all about balance and finding where each character belongs and thrives within the story.
   The dogwood survived the transplant and has new shoots. I suspect that in addition to needing sun it also needed different soil. Before the dogwood lived in the mulch I had planted a Callicarpa in the same spot. It languished until I transplanted it to the main garden. In the last two seasons it has developed the style of growth it’s known for and blooms beautifully. I believe that the soil under the mulch is tainted or at best stripped of nutrients. I’ve decided to leave the area to the redbud.
When a story or character doesn’t fit in the spot you thought would be perfect, you have to move on and let what works in that spot develop on its own. That just may be the thriller novel that works itself up from ground into your head. Or a pretty spot to put a bench.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Table Legs in the Garden

Sunday April 2012

The sun is attempting an end run around the clouds. Sitting in my garden at 7:30 a.m., I want to believe there will be sun today.
I’m in my garden most Sundays having a coffee and enjoying the view. Today I’m delighted by what has ‘popped’ especially in view of our early spring. Sitting in my garden always turns my thoughts to writing--gives me time to think through problems in a plot or character development. I don’t know why staring at weeds, dried out stalks from last season and new blooms struggling to break the cap of dead leaves, reminds me of writing but it does.

Today, I notice how crooked all the posts and shepherds’ crooks became over the winter. I haven’t yet brought out the wind chimes or the pots that hang from the crooks. I’ll have to boot up and stomp the metal bar at the bottom of the crook deeper into the ground. Now that reminds me of how I have to, in some stories, push down hard to develop a deeper level of engagement for the reader.  If I don’t secure the story with some strong groundwork, I could have to go back and straighten that premise after the story has grown and attached itself to it. Takes more work and you run the risk of breaking a beautiful stem or offshoot.
Last season, on a morning walk, I discovered five turned wooden table legs with balls for feet at someone’s curb. I carried two and drove back with the car for the remaining three legs. Don’t know what had become of the sixth leg. Maybe the table hand only five. More likely an earlier ‘picker’ needed only one.

I set them in the ground upside down with the ball at the top. They’re in all parts of the garden, highlighting a clump of plants, shoring up an old birdhouse post or just standing about.
They remind me of twists and clues. Do I need to firm up a ‘leg’before I can add a piece of business? Can I use a table leg to develop a clue, or theme, or a quirky McGuffin?

This is how my mind works in the garden. I’ve ‘plucked literary table legs’ from my discarded manuscripts and from fabulous stories I’ve absorbed. Sometimes they become an important bit of business and sometimes they’re just table legs in the garden.
Enjoy the garden on the ground and the one in your mind.

They remind me of twists and clues. Do I need to firm up a ‘leg’ before I can add a piece of business? Can I use a table leg to develop a clue, or theme, or a quirky McGuffin?

This is how my mind works in the garden. I’ve ‘plucked literary table legs’ from my discarded manuscripts and from fabulous stories I’ve absorbed. Sometimes they become an important bit of business and sometimes they’re just table legs in the garden.