Burnt Toast by Virginia Sole-Smith
The Burnt Toast Podcast
Weeds Are Not a Moral Failing
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Weeds Are Not a Moral Failing

Gardening as the antidote to perfectionism and productivity culture, with Anne Helen Petersen.
48

You’re listening to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, anti-fat bias, parenting, and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith.

Today, I am so delighted to be chatting with my good friend (and newsletter colleague!) .

AHP is the author of four books and she also writes the newsletter

, where she recently launched the sub-newsletter Garden Study. We have been bonding over plants via text for a long time now, so I asked her to come geek out with me about all things garden culture.

Anne Helen Petersen

Confidential to the 30 percent of you said on the reader survey that you don’t care about gardening: This one’s not for you! But also I think it is for you. I think somewhere in your hearts maybe you do love gardening (but are just intimidated by it?) and you’re going to love this episode because talking to AHP always means you end up talking about social issues, culture —it just always ends up bigger than what do I do about my hydrangeas (but we can go there, too).

Because AHP and I can talk gardens for SO long, this is a paywalled episode. To get the full conversation — where we answer your gardening questions! — you’ll need to be a paid subscriber.

PS. If you’re enjoying the podcast, make sure you’re following us (it’s free!) in your podcast player! We’re on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, and Pocket Casts! And while you’re there, please leave us a rating or review. (We like 5 stars!)


Episode 104 Transcript

Our gardener origin stories:

Anne

I grew up in a house that had a ton of gardens. My mom’s a huge gardener. I grew up in really arid Idaho, not in the mountains—actually the lowest point in Idaho. But my mom had over 250 roses and a huge vegetable garden and all sorts of things and planted all of it herself because it was a vacant lot before we built our house. So, many of my memories as a kid are “oh, your mom’s out in the garden.” And I was not really interested in it at the time. I was not that kid was like, “Mom show me how to plant a pea,” or whatever. There were some flowers that I liked in the garden. I really loved the bleeding hearts. And then when I graduated from college, I came to Seattle and was a nanny for several years and I got so bored when we were out walking. You know, the two year old that I was walking with, we talked to about trucks and stuff like that.

Virginia

There’s only so much discourse there. 

Anne

This was before phones, so I couldn’t even be a bad nanny and look at my phone all the time. I just had my own mind. I would go on a walk 2-3 times a day in this little Seattle neighborhood and I learned all of the plants. The parents of the kiddo I was nannying for had a Sunset handbook, which is the bible of gardening out here in the West. Also, the house that I was living in at the time with my friends had a pretty substantial garden. I was like, okay, I’ll do some gardening out here and that taught me a lot about those plants. Then when I was in grad school, the first place that I lived in Oregon, I had a pretty robust vegetable garden that was really fun to do. And then I moved to Texas and I was like, I know nothing. 

Virginia

Oh wow, totally different. 

Anne

I tried to grow some things on my balcony. It was horrible, just abysmal, and I didn’t garden again. Then I did a little bit of vegetable gardening in Montana, especially during the pandemic, like a lot of people. But then I moved to an island off the coast of Washington that had an incredible, luscious garden that was really mindfully put in by the previous owners of the house. It has like 40 to 50 rhododendrons and azaleas that succession bloom. It has a climbing hydrangea that’s 40 feet tall and probably 40 feet wide. There’s several of them that come together seamlessly.

Anne’s climbing hydrangea, Virginia is filled with envy.

Virginia

Which is ancient, those grow so slowly! Rhododendrons and climbing hydrangeas are some of the slowest things to establish.

Anne

It was probably planted in the 1960. And I’ve just fallen in love with gardening, like deeply in love with it, the last couple of years. 

Virginia

I love this.

My origin story is also mother-related. My mom is British. Gardening is the national pastime there. And it’s a big part of mainstream culture in a way that it’s just not here in the United States. (See: Monty Don as “gardening god” and fashion icon.) So my grandfather was a really serious gardener, my aunt, my cousins, just that whole side of my family. And I wanted nothing to do with it, like, zero interest as a kid and a teenager and even throughout my 20s. You getting interested in plants at 24 I feel like is quite a child prodigy with gardening.

Anne

I really have to emphasize how much this had to do with having nothing else to do.

Virginia

I went to college in New York City and then stayed in New York City through my 20s and so it was not really on my radar. But then we moved up to the Hudson Valley and when we bought our first house here, I was immediately overwhelmed because there was a yard. And then I had a friend that spring take me to lunch. I think we went to sushi and got sake and I was like, a little tipsy. And then she was like, “We’re going to go to Home Depot and look at seeds.” And I was like, oh, yeah, that seems great. And I got totally hooked that year. I started with a couple of pots and then by the end of the summer I was ripping up beds and remaking everything.

Virginia’s British gardening DNA.

Anne

That’s so funny that you started with seeds from Home Depot!

Virginia

The most basic gardening experts.

Anne

Yeah, like, maybe not even viable, right?

Virginia

No, none of them. But I just needed a little toehold. I needed one little piece to feel doable and then it was like all this genetic predisposition kicked in. It turns out you turn 30 and all of your British gardening DNA becomes activated. And now here we are 12 years later and it’s my main hobby and obsession.

I do think with gardening it feels like learning a foreign language at first. It’s not just naming the plants, also every plant has its own particular ecosystem and story and pruning strategy. I feel about it the way I felt about learning the New York City subway system the first year I lived there. I just had to plan on the fact that I was going to go the wrong direction and end up in Brooklyn all the time.

Anne

For me it was go the wrong direction and end up on—what’s that little island? If you take the F, you end up on that little island.

Virginia

Roosevelt Island! Yes. It’s because it was this thing that was put together with no master plan and it’s just like, it is what it is.

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Anne

I still feel that way about so much with gardening, too. Clematis still scare me so much. 

Virginia

Oh yeah, with the pruning groups. How do you ever know what pruning group you’re in?

Anne

Type one, two, three!

Virginia

So, we were both at one point vegetable garden gardeners. And now we have zero vegetable gardens.

Well, I have some tomatoes. 

Anne

Not even tomatoes. The closest I get is rosemary. 

Virginia

Tell me, why is it not vegetables anymore for you? What are your main garden passions at this point?

Anne

I loved vegetables when I was starting out because I think it is a great entry point. It’s a lot more straightforward. It’s like, I plant the spinach seeds at this time, you can see it in the books.

Virginia

It’s very mapped out. 

Anne

There are great books that show, here’s when you plant the spinach seeds, here is when you plant these other things. There are a lot of things, though, that I think oftentimes frustrate people because there are just there are vegetables that are very hard to grow. Carrots! Really hard to grow.

Virginia

Right! Shockingly hard. 

Anne

And we in the Pacific Northwest, we have great weather to grow a ton of crops, but bad weather to grow a lot of the fun stuff, like peppers. You can’t grow any sort of melons really, like maybe you get one. You can grow hard squash and that sort of thing. But most people, just like everywhere else, just grow a billion zucchini and then drop them off at everyone’s doorstep.

Virginia

I will not grow zucchini. 

Anne

I think also there was something lovely about planning every year. But then also like there was a lot of work, too. And every year is an empty bed. 

Virginia

Yeah, that’s true.

Anne

Most of my containers are annuals with a couple perennials, like each pot has maybe one perennial. So I wanted that space for things that were there during the winter, too. That’s the other thing. I think as you continue gardening, you figure out that in the winter, when I feel so gloomy and sad, I want to be able to look out the window and see something.

Virginia

Yes, the winter interest of it all. You talked about that in a recent piece. It is the funniest phrase. And yes, it’s all I want.

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For me, there were two pieces to giving up vegetable gardening. One was we were not eating a lot of the stuff. I realized I was growing vegetables for a lot of diet culture reasons, right? And a lot of the Michael Pollan, foodie, mid 2000s - 2010s stuff that I was then ready to get out of.

But two, it didn’t feel as satisfying creatively. With perennials and annuals, you play around much more with color. There are a lot of design elements. For me gardening is more of a creative expression. I don’t know, we can unpack that, maybe that’s very bougie and privileged, but it’s what actually I love about it.

Anne

For beginners: A perennial is a plant that comes back every year and an annual is a plant that thrives for a season and then dies.

We recently had a conversation in one of my newsletters about why would you plant annuals if they die every year? But a lot of gorgeous, gorgeous plants—especially plants with a lot of color—are annuals and that’s part of why people plant annuals.

Virginia

And they bloom the whole season, usually. Whereas perennials, like lilacs, it’s an amazing two weeks. And then the peonies are an amazing two weeks. There are a few perennials, like my Oakleaf hydrangea shrubs will bloom for a longer stretch but a lot of perennials have this brief spectacular moment and then they’re done. Whereas annuals can then tide you over.

Anne

And I’ll say, too, that I think part of the reason I vegetable gardened in the first place was that I could justify it as like I’m saving money by growing vegetables.

Virginia

Yeah, sure.

Anne

Actually, I think when I garden in grad school, there was some truth to that because I would eat the same thing all the time. The fact that I had two zucchini that I could take from a plant basically every day for two months of the year, yeah, sure. Although, zucchini are really cheap.

Virginia

Really inexpensive. 

Anne

Tomatoes, maybe a little bit more. There actually are all these calculators and stuff in different books that show you which plant saves you the most money. Like growing this saves you the most money.

Virginia

I do think tomatoes are one, once you’ve invested in the raised bed or whatever. There are a lot of sunk costs to gardening. But sure, if you have a place already to put them, buying a couple of seedlings or starting from seed if that’s your ministry—it’s not mine. Buying a couple of seedlings for $4 at the beginning of the season and then you will have pounds and pounds and pounds of tomatoes, but you will also spend lots of time watering and fertilizing and all of that has a value as well. 

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Anne

When I was very into vegetable gardening, it’s no mistake that it was also during grad school when I was very invested in productivity culture. Like if I wasn’t working on something, my leisure had to be work in some capacity. And now as I’ve tried to divest myself from productivity culture, I am so much more open to like, I’m just piddling around, just doing stuff. Even if I’m the only person who sees it, it doesn’t matter.

Virginia

Leisure can be just having something pretty and enjoying it. It’s easy to look at your garden and see only a to-do list at a certain point. But instead, just enjoying going out and doing a five minute like deadhead or the small little things. Just that puttering around is something so soothing and regulating to me about just like the quick evening garden putter or the early morning garden putter. It’s so nice.

Early morning garden joy.

Anne

Charlie, my partner says if he doesn’t know where I am in the house—because we both work from home—at least in the summertime, he’s like, “I know, you’re just out with your plants.” And sometimes it will be that, oh, I just went to take the garbage out and I’m just looking at my dahlias.

Virginia

My kids know the same thing. They know to come find me in the garden, always. And a lot of it is like, “I’m going to check the mail” and I’m just out there.

Anne

I find it’s so useful when I’m concentrating on something. I have days that are writing days where I’ll sit in one spot for a long time just trying to pound out a draft of something. And I used to check Twitter during that time. But now I’ll go out and I’ll look at my flowers. It really scratches an itch in a similar way.

Virginia

I agree! Without the nasty screen hangover part.

Anne

Right, because I’m still looking for things that have changed. And I think you could actually honestly do this if you had like three pots on your windowsill. Like, plants change so much. They change overnight. They change over the course of a day if they’ve been watered, right? There’s just so much that you can look for, not to sound weird and boring. You and I have talked a little bit about this. I think about how it’s kind of like a puzzle to figure out.

Virginia

I was thinking about how I’m doing less jigsaw puzzles right now. I realized the other week it’s because it’s garden season. It is this constant puzzle and there is a lot of constant troubleshooting, like why is this not happy here?

I’m in the Hudson Valley. We live on a small mountain, so it’s very rocky woodland. It claims to be zone six, but it really behaves more like a zone five because we’re up a little bit. And lots of shade. Lots of rocky soil, lots of dry shade. In my first garden, we had a Victorian with a small, sunny lot in town. It was such a shift to come here and figure out gardening in a rocky, woodland-y  kind of place. But that has been really satisfying too, I’ve actually really gotten into shade gardening here.

Anne

I should say that I am in zone eight. And I live on the water—it’s not fancy! There’s a lot of sand from the sandstone that’s the native rock here. And there are a ton of native plants everywhere you look just because it’s a very rural island. I live next to two houses, but the native stuff is taking over all over the place. This is, I think, kind of interesting and something that people don’t always talk about with gardening. The county regulations, especially with our island, are very specific about what you can and can’t plant on the shoreline. 

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Virginia

Yeah, that makes sense. 

Anne

Within so much distance of the shoreline. I have a grandfathered in lawn that you could never get away with planting now, but I’m slowly getting rid of it. 

Virginia

Because you need more garden space!

Anne

Totally, I am slowly tearing out the grass. Like, what if I just make a little bed over here? 

Virginia

What if this one just got a little wider over here?

Anne

Yeah, just a little bigger. But we also get a ton of wind coming in from the water and it changes what you can grow on one side of the house and the other. Things have to be very robust to stick up to that icy winter wind. Figuring it out is part of the fun, too, right? Like oh, this lupine loves it here. Why don’t I get more lupines and put it there? 

Virginia

Or will it please make more for me? That’s always satisfying, when something actually starts to really spread out. You moved into a very established garden, which was my experience with my first house. But with this house, the previous owners had put in zero garden basically. It was a total blank slate, which was wonderful in lots of ways. Because it is hard sometimes with an established garden when you’re battling against somebody else’s vision or, like, why did they put this here and it’s so hard to get out.

Anne

Fortunately, we didn’t have any of this, but I’m sure so many people listening have battled the weed netting.

Virginia

Yes, yes. I had that in my first house.

Pus there are trends in plants, right? Our first garden had so many small, striped variegated hostas, not the good fat hostas, but the little ones. People love to put those everywhere here. And I dug up millions of them in my last house. So I didn’t have that problem here. But I did have nothing, which was also intimidating and hard to figure out. I have spent years watching these beds that we did put in finally starting to knit together, like finally figuring out what works and will actually self-sow and make itself bigger here. My whole mission in life is always less visible mulch. I don’t want to see the mulch! I want the plants to knit together. And it takes a long time. 

Anne

Well and this where I think that gardening is sometimes a hard hobby to imagine, specifically when you don’t own the house, when you’re moving a lot. Because perennial gardens in particular, part of the reason the plants cost more money is because they last theoretically forever. And to be able to envision yourself in one place is really hard for a lot of people for all sorts of different reasons, right?

Precarity is the defining characteristic of our contemporary existence. So if precarity is the enemy of long term planning, I always think of having kids is like the the biggest protest that people make in terms of precarity. They’re like, screw it, I’m still going to have kids, right? And I’m still gonna have a garden. 

Virginia

Gardening is fundamentally quite illogical in a lot of ways. And sometimes it’s discouraging when you plant something, like will I even be here to see this? I do sometimes drive past my old house and there is a fence so you can’t totally see what they’ve done, but I know it’s not the same garden that I left them with. There’s a little heartbreak there.

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Anne

Oh, it is my mom’s greatest sadness that the people who bought that house, our house with all of those roses, they tore out all of the rose beds. All of them. 

Virginia

It is now my greatest sadness.

Anne

Can we talk about roses a little bit?

Because I actually think that there’s a really interesting generational divide. I think of them as Boomer plants.

Virginia

Agreed. And they are so high maintenance and they can be very fussy. The way you have to prune them back to the leaves of three or five or whatever it is. My British grandfather was big on roses and I remember learning about roses, but I have never planted a lot of roses.

Anne

But I think that they’re coming back now. I think that I’ve seen a lot of millennials getting into roses. 

Virginia

Okay. Well, stay tuned, guys. If there’s a plant trend, I’ll probably be on it. Even though my sun garden is so small and there’s so much competition. Because I have so much shade I have to really love a plant to give it some real estate because I just don’t have that much. I don’t think roses are going to be it, but I do really appreciate the big beautiful cottage roses, the ones that get like almost like peonies. I’m really here for that.

Anne

I have a couple that I inherited and one of them is a tea rose. It’s like a baby pink sort of thing that I would never ever plant and I keep being like do I need to love this plant?

Virginia

Can you give it to your mom? 

Anne

She just downsized and moved to my island, actually. But she is very specifically for the first time in her life not planting anything. She’s going to eventually have a few things. 

Virginia

I don’t believe it. That’s just the moving transition. She is a gardener.

Anne

I know. But she’s like, “Whenever I want to piddle, I’ll just come over to your house.”

Virginia

Well, that’s great for you.

Anne

It is great for me! She pruned all of my ferns this year. 

Virginia

I feel like she’s going to want that tea rose. Give it a year.

Anne

Alright. But I do have a climbing rose which I just love. That’s one great thing about roses is you can kind of be assholes to them if they’re in the right place they will still do whatever they want. They’re still going to come back. That’s something I admire about native plants, especially. You’re like, I’m doing everything that I can to eliminate you and they’re like nope this is mine.

Virginia

Yeah, oh my gosh my asters and my milkweed right now! They are just taking over. It’s a land grab, which is fair, it’s their land. But all the other stuff is like “I’m trying to do something here guys?” The asters are like, “Yeah, I don’t think so.” 

I want to make sure we talked about Garden Study the new sub newsletter of . You’re calling it Cup of Jo, but for gardens. I am obsessed with it. 

Anne

This is something you and I workshopped together.

Virginia

I’m being recruited. But I’m so far resisting?

Anne

I asked on Instagram: I want something that’s like Cup of Joe for plants. People gave me different answers of what they thought that could be and none of them were quite it. I was like Virginia, we should just do this and we’re like okay, here’s what our posting schedule would be.

Virginia

We’re not ruling it out.

Anne

We’re not ruling it out, like having a spin off of both of our publications subscribers get free access as they do to Garden Study now.

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Virginia

You’re continuing to evolve it.

Anne

Part of the reason it’d be great is, we garden in different zones! We have very different ways that we approach it and limitations on what we can do and can’t do and that sort of thing. We’d have so many great guest contributors. It’d be amazing!

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But as it is, Garden Study is also amazing. It’s basically a gardening blog for people who are incredibly enthusiastic but not judge-y experts. So much gardening content that I have consumed on Instagram, in books, wherever is from master gardeners. I love expertise, but not with these gorgeous gardens that just make me feel bad about my garden.

Virginia

There’s definitely a piece I want to write at some point, possibly for our garden blog.  There is a really fascinating story to be told about the elitism of American gardening culture. Like the Garden Conservancy, my mom and I go on some of their tours sometimes. Throughout the summer you can go and tour these fancy gardens. But it’s just billionaires with tons of money and land. We went to one last year, there was some billionaire who had a full time gardener who planted some million number of daffodils. So in the spring, it’s a glorious daffodil heaven. But you’re also on this weird estate.

There’s a lot going on with the way gardening gets talked about in a lot of those sort of elite, traditional gardening magazines and publications completely ignoring the fact that this is like a rich person with staff able to execute this vision.

Anne

Or like the money to take a weird spot in your garden and like have a landscape architect come in and fix it for you. That is not a reality for the vast majority of gardeners. A lot of people don’t even have the handy capacity to build a retaining wall. 

Virginia

No, that’s so hard.

Anne

I always will remember, I don’t know where I saw it, but it was this man’s backyard garden on Fire Island. It was small and he had all these great little nooks that you could tell that he cherished. And he didn’t have a staff, at least like it didn’t look like it. 

Virginia

It didn’t look like it needed a staff. 

Anne

No, it was just something that you can tell was his hobby that he adored whenever he came up to Fire Island. I think they lived there most of the year.

But really what I like is other people who are like, “my peony is not blooming for the third year, what did I do?” I’ve had so many people volunteer to do garden interviews already because as evidenced by this podcast, people really like talking about their gardens but also no one in their like real lives often likes to talk to them as much as they want to.

Virginia

It is important to find your garden friends. It’s very important. 

Anne

We’re going to do pictures and, like, please don’t feel like you have to like make it look amazing or anything like that because I think what it does is it lowers the bar to say joyful gardening looks like so many things. It looks like two containers on your porch. It looks like a super weedy patch but you put some wild flowers in there that make you so happy every time that you see them. It can look like so many things. 

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Virginia

This is one thing that I think British gardening culture has done really well. I mean obviously England has a huge class hierarchy and there are the big estates like Great Dixter and the Vita Sackville West garden. But there’s such a culture of everybody has a garden there. Everybody with their semi-detached house and tiny backyard is doing these amazing things. The nooks and the prize winning whatever, in this very lovely way.

My favorite garden in the world was my Auntie Liz’s garden. She had a small cottage in Suffolk and the garden is tiny but there are little rooms and it’s this enclave of magic. Just exquisite. She was a brilliant gardener, but the attitude there is that everybody can do it and it’s accessible. And not just this inspirational, fancy Architectural Digest way.

Auntie Liz's garden.

Anne

Well, and also I think that the in-person associations can oftentimes become very hierarchical and exclusive. I think a lot of like old biddies who are a part of some of these things that like, unless you are also someone who has been doing this your entire life you’re not invited. Like garden tours. I love them in theory, but I also think people feel like they can’t have their house on a garden tour if it’s not, like…

Virginia

There’s a reason it’s all billionaires estates around here, right? The bar to entry is too high. It’s a problem for the future of gardening. I do think there’s an awareness in the larger gardening community that this shift needs to happen because this is not something that is hand down-able. 

Anne

There is a coffee klatsch that I go to on my island, where you just go and have coffee and it’s mostly all older ladies. It rotates between people’s houses and one of my favorite parts has been just going and seeing what their gardens are.

Virginia

Yes, it’s my favorite thing to do on vacation in a new town, walk around the neighborhood and see the gardens, I love it.

Anne

They all want to talk about their gardens. So that’s fun. You’re like, oh, you got this to bloom here. A lot of them are retired so they have a lot of time to spend on that.

Virginia

That’s how you get free plants from people. 

Anne

Everyone wants to divide all of their perennials. Division, for people who don’t know, a lot of perennials you need to essentially cut them in half or more than half in order to promote more growth. So you can take a spade to the plant and either throw it away, but hopefully give it away. Sometimes on Nextdoor, people will be like, oh, I have all these divisions out. I am on a committee of people who are in charge of the library garden. And two years ago, it was entirely planted with divisions from people’s houses on the island. 

Virginia

That’s so sweet.

Anne

I know, right? You can get a ton of stuff. If you just post even on like your local group, does anyone have any divisions in the spring?

Virginia

That’s so smart. 

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A piece you wrote this year was The Optimization Sinkhole. You talk about how we’re all conditioned now to want to upgrade and improve everything, especially in terms of domestic space. I really related because I had the same terrible coffeemaker that you tear to pieces. And I did upgrade but I was like, yeah, you’re right. I could have just not. 

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I do feel like gardening can so easily become this. I am aware often of having this never ending list of every corner of my garden, of our property. And we are surrounded by woods so then nature is here, the natives are coming in and the invasives are coming in.

I’m never gonna get every corner of my garden into some sort of state of perfect. Do you struggle with that?

Anne

Oh, I struggle with that all the time. 

Virginia

I feel like this gets us into renovation culture, too, which I would like to talk about a little.

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Anne

You and I are very similar in that we are perfectionist, type A, people pleasers. And so it’s difficult not to turn that lens onto the garden.

I think sometimes you can feel like, oh I have to weed everything. Everything has to be weeded all the time. Or, like you said, it’s easy to look at the garden and it turns into a to do list. Similarly to how it’s easy to look at your house and it becomes this room that needs to be renovated. Like, this needs to be fixed, always just constant dissatisfaction instead of reveling in the things that are amazing about it already. I think I recognize that impulse in myself, so when it starts creeping up, I can name it. Push it back. The other thing that’s been helpful to me is giving myself permission to be like, that’s next year’s project.

Virginia

Hmm. Yes, I think in terms of the five year plan of the garden a lot, and a lot of the five year plan is quite ambitious. But I have found some things that I put on that list, like when I did it when we first moved in and 2016, there are things on that list that I no longer want to do that I thought felt really essential, but the way we use the space has changed. I don’t need a hardscaped firepit area that I was sure we needed in 2016?! We don’t use our fire pit that much and it’s fine sitting on the grass.

Anne

Right? And sometimes things will come and wreck your plans. Like we had to replace our septic system in its entirety because it was their original septic system. It’s real bad. But the way that they had to do that is not only did they have to dig a huge hole to put in the new septic system, they had to take out the old septic tank and bury it in another part of our yard. Because the other option, just because of how our property is, was to either helicopter it out or take it out on a barge. Neither of which were viable options.

Septic chaos

So that tore up so much of the lawn. And we had to decide okay, what parts of the lawn still matter to us? Like, are we going to reseed that? Which is really easy in the Pacific Northwest just because of our conditions. So we could do a little bit of that. But then, oh, the grass was always scraggly there anyway, what if we do this? 

Virginia

Shade garden!

Anne

But seriously, like, there are other parts of my yard that I’m like, that’s a disaster zone. I have to make either big changes or I have to be okay with it being what it is. It was like, oh, these weeds are always going to come over from the neighbor’s yard and either I can be mad about it or I can, whenever I’m going down that path, just pick up a few weeds. Just the ones that are bothering me. But then also, thinking proactively, about things that can obviate the need to feel bad about things. So like you said, like, mulch plus ground cover. 

Virginia

Really helps. Love a ground cover. 

Anne

Things that are easy to take care of that you don’t make you feel like a failure all the time. Like, sometimes you want those challenges and then sometimes you just need a beautiful grass to feel like a success.

Virginia

My first few years, the garden did look a little rough, to be honest. I could do close-in shots of pretty flowers, but because there were so many new beds, there was so much kind of raw space. It was not really hanging together yet. I was aware of it not looking great. People weren’t rude about it, but you know, people will say like, “oh, it’s a new garden,” and these sort of kind but patronizing things where you’d be like, “I’m trying so hard, can you not?”

Now, in year four, for most of the garden it’s starting to really feel like a garden. And because I finally found the sun, the sun part looks like it’s like a Year 10 garden because things grow way faster in the sun. So now I’m realizing, I see problems and other people come over and just absolutely would have no idea what I was talking about. 

Anne

Oh my gosh, yes, 100%.

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Virginia

That is very liberating to realize, and also honestly screw anyone who judges  your garden. That’s weird. But if you’re someone who struggles with that, like the house needs to be picked up before we host people, that mindset can definitely show up in your garden. And it can helpful to be like, no, the garden doesn’t need to be weeded before we have a barbecue this weekend. Nobody cares.

The weeds are there.

Anne

Nobody’s looking at it. The only person who will even notice it is my mom. She will be like, oh, some dandelions over there. Yeah, Mom, go pick it.

Virginia

Jump right in.

Anne

But no one else. If anything, I feel bad because I think sometimes my friends know that I’m seeing things. But actually, I think when I go to their house, I might see like some nightshade invading their hydrangea, and I just go over there and kind of casually rip it down. Not cause I think they’re bad gardeners, just like…

Virginia

It’s a service I can provide while I’m here.

Anne

I’m just trying to be nice to that plant. So I think that that’s one thing that we can all benefit from is thinking about, like, no one’s judging you. I’m not judging you.

Virginia

Again, I feel like this is a place where a diet culture shows up.

I wrote a piece last year about I think there’s a version of diet culture happening in garden culture with the obsession with only natives and needing to be a purist about natives.

Anne

Do you want to describe how this usually manifests? 

Virginia

Part of the problem is we don’t even have clear definitions of natives. But it’s a plant that is native to your region. So, a plant that has been here for many hundreds, if not thousands of years in some form. So there are plants that are not native to a garden and if they get planted there, they will aggressively take over and push out the native plants. This is bad for local ecosystems because wildlife depend on all these native plants. So that’sthe backstory on natives. 

But what will happen is Anne or I will post something on Instagram, or I posted in a local gardening Facebook group looking for suggestions for a shrub that does well in this climate. And people will just reply “natives.”

You’ll post a picture of your lilac or your hydrangea or my tree peony, which is Chinese and beautiful, and people will be like, “Why aren’t you planting more natives?” in this very judgey way.

Anne

Or I like you and I were talking about how I could be like, “I have all these rhodies and rhodies are native,” and you’re like, “well, they’re probably just gonna point out it’s like some sort of hybrid that’s actually not.”

AHP’s favorite rhododendron

Virginia

No, no, that’s the Korean Rhododendron and how dare you. Obviously, all the local wildlife will flee it.

I think there’s actually a lot of anti-Asian racism bound up in the natives thing because most of the invasives are Asian in origin. It feels bad to me, being this mad about invasives, and calling something Japanese knotweed. I think there’s something there, that a lot of the invasives get identified by their country of origin in that way.

Anne

Right? Even like the blackberry that’s incredibly invasive here in the Pacific Northwest is called Himalayan Blackberry, for example. But I think there’s a difference that is often lost, which is when you’re planting a tree peony, the tree peony is not going to take over your lawn.

Virginia

It can’t, it’s the slowest growing thing in the world. 

Anne

It’s not going to take over anyone else’s lawn. It’s not going to change the habitat in your larger neighborhood. It is not an invasive. 

Virginia

No. 

Anne

It’d be different if I, instead of planting a new hydrangea in this little spot, if I was like, oh, you know what I should do? I should go get a bunch of blackberries from one of these Himalayan blackberry plants that are all over the island. I should bury them in my yard and start growing blackberries. There other things that are identified as invasive.

Virginia

Burning bush is a big one here. 

Anne

They’re just different. And it’s, it’s totally different according to your zone, like, something like Wisteria is invasive in parts of the South. And it’s not invasive here. You have to baby wisteria.

Virginia

You have to beg it grow. 

Anne

So a lot of this depends, too, on like, are you planting with any sort of knowledge or research? Because you can’t just depend on what is sold at the store. Not even your nursery necessarily, because so many people want wisteria so you’re still going to be able to get wisteria.

Virginia

I mean, burning bush is one of the most invasive shrubs around here and people love it because it turns bright red in the fall. You know, like New York, New England, we’re supposed to have amazing fall foliage. So they’re ignoring the fact that burning bush is not native here and it seeds itself everywhere. Like you see it in the wilderness, the woods, and it is a big problem. And it’s in every nursery for sure.

Anne

Right? Right. Because it’s asked for. So that’s different. You’re not like, hey, Facebook group, should I plant this burning bush in the corner?

Virginia

No, I’m like, “I had a lilac here. I’m thinking about something along those lines. What do we think?” And people are like, you should only have a native. So there’s just a purism about it. And there’s a lot of privilege involved. If you’re shopping mostly at Home Depot or big box stores for your plants, because that’s where they’re cheap, you’re not going to get a huge variety of natives. So, to require this of everybody is requiring everybody to have knowledge and expertise and the ability to order things from specialty stores or check out to different nurseries that specialize. It’s just not on everybody’s radar. 

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Anne

I will say that one of the cool things that a lot of places do more of now is local gardening associations or county extension offices—which sound like a very official entity but are actually just this very cool thing that’s nationwide where every county has an extension offices, agricultural office—they’ll do native plant sales. If you just want to have a garden that lives, like a native plant sale is an incredibly great place to get stuff that is going to thrive in your garden because it’s native, right?

Anytime people are incredibly prescriptive about how people should do something, if they’re not causing harm, it just, it bothers me. There can be people who that is their thing that they are obsessed with in the garden, right? It’s like, I want to have all these natives or I want above all else to have a pollinator garden. And just because you’re not focused on pollinator gardens doesn’t mean that you’re also not providing pollination. 

Virginia

Or that I’m actively trying to prevent the pollinators.

Anne

You’re just spraying Roundup everywhere. 

Virginia

Its a “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality. So in my property, we have three acres. Most of it is woods, but we have this half acre meadow area that we have spent a significant amount of money and time turning into a native wildflower meadow. And I feel I have done that. And now if I would like to have some non natives, if I would like to grow some giant hostas or some dahlias and poppies and things that are my obsessions, I’m going to do that in the other parts of my garden.

The meadow! (Plus Penelope.)

Anne

Also, like, people are like “lawns are the devil,” and I’m like, well, I inherited this lawn. I don’t fertilize it. And like most people in the northwest, I don’t water it. 

Virginia

So it it actually causing that much harm? Sometimes you need some grass to break it up.

Anne

I just think the main goal here is other people’s choices with their garden, if they’re not causing harm, is none of your business. If they ask for advice and are like, I’m looking for some plants here, a person could have suggested to you some native plants. 

Virginia

Without emphasizing the nativeness. Like, tell me actual plants that might work in the conditions I just described.

I think where it gets diet culture for me is like, if I were to limit myself to natives, I would feel restricted. I would feel like I wasn’t allowed to have all of the abundance of pleasure and beauty that I want in my garden. I think natives are beautiful. But milkweed is never going to be a dahlia. They are just two different concepts. And I don’t need to garden with a set of rules like that. 

Anne

And people get so legalistic about it in terms of, is it a real native, recent native or naturalized native? It’s like Paleo, where people are arguing over which foods did paleolithic people actually eat. 

Virginia

I mean, given that we were originally covered with ice, I guess there are no natives. I don’t know how far back we’re going. But at some point, it was very difficult to grow things here.

Anne

Yeah. And sometimes I do think that people seek out those rules when they feel like they need to have restrictions. 

Virginia

It’s a control thing. 

Anne

In that optimization culture piece, the top comment is someone who said, “I think that I took all of the energy that I fed into diet culture and I moved it on to my house.”

Virginia

I’m not saying I feel called out by that, but I felt called out by that. Can definitely relate. 

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Okay, we are going to do some listener questions!

And there are a bunch of them. We’ll try to do short answers so we can get through a whole bunch.

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Burnt Toast by Virginia Sole-Smith
The Burnt Toast Podcast
Weekly conversations about how we dismantle diet culture and fatphobia, especially through parenting, health and fashion. (But non-parents like it too!) Hosted by Virginia Sole-Smith, journalist and author of THE EATING INSTINCT and the forthcoming FAT KID PHOBIA.