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Internet transforms gardening

Tuesday, March 18, 2008 | 3:00 p.m. CDT; updated 6:20 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
The women behind Garden Rant (from left, Susan Harris, Michele Owens, Elizabeth Licata and Amy Stewart) have gathered only once, but they're constantly in touch.

Sometimes it is useful to state the obvious. The invention and universal acceptance of the Internet has transformed gardening, and for the better.

One of the great boons is in finding sources of exciting new plants you might see in your travels. In the old days, that meant trying to buttonhole the gardener, or thumbing blindly through mail-order catalogs or making endless phone calls. It was hit-or-miss, and usually miss. Now, type in name of the variety and voila: $10.95 plus shipping and handling.

The other great change is in the notion of an electronic forum where ideas and advice are shared and didactic instruction debunked.

The discourse can run to dull or worse, but it is a place for gardeners to come together as fellow travelers rather than strangers and where everyone’s diary, one’s blog, is personal but far from private. Post an entry, and expect a load of responses, most well-meaning.

“I think that’s the mystique of blogging,” said Elizabeth Licata, gardener and blogger. “These people are your friends, and they care about your garden, even though you’ve never met them and they’ll never see your garden. That’s kind of interesting. Astounding.”

A year ago, Licata became the fourth member of a group of garden bloggers with an attitude. Garden Rant (gardenrant.com), started in mid-2006, is one of my favorites: A blend of gossip, news, crusade and, yes, raw rant, it blows the cobwebs out of gardening’s mustier corners.

Licata joined Amy Stewart, Michele Owens and Susan Harris. Licata lives in Buffalo, Owens in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Harris in Takoma Park, Md., and Stewart in Eureka, Calif., but this being the Internet, their hometowns are little more than street signs in their virtual community.

The ranters have a worldview encoded in a manifesto that reads in part: Bored with perfect magazine gardens. Suspicious of the “horticultural industry.” Turned off by any activities that involve “landscaping” with “plant materials.”

Licata, 50, was recruited when the others realized they needed an extra hand to help post fresh entries on at least a daily basis. The rants come with a heavy dose of reality that is missing in a lot of gardening coverage. This week, Stewart refers to a magazine story in which the writer displays her powers of perspicacity by suggesting that pink may be coming back into vogue as a flower color.

“I just don’t know what to do with the news that a particular color has gone out of style,” Stewart wrote. “I can’t manage to keep all the weeds pulled in my garden; I’m certainly not going to yank out all the pink or purple just because it’s fallen out of favor with designers.”

Stewart also once suggested people post pictures of the ugliest part of their yards, and she gets my vote of the week by downloading a video clip from YouTube in which a pair of hens breaks up a fight between two rabbits. It’s called “Chicken Police.”

“I troll YouTube every now and then for odd videos related to plants, insects or garden-scale animals,” she said. The blog is also full of links, including links to each of the women’s personal blogs. Hey, they’re not only endearingly offended, they’re plugged in.

Stewart, Owens, Harris and Licata may be reading (or writing) from the same page, but they bring different experiences and sensibilities to the enterprise. At 38, Stewart is the youngest and the most established, having written several critically acclaimed books. “Flower Confidential” is about the global cut-flower trade. “The Earth Moved” dishes the dirt on earthworms.

She is also a columnist for a newspaper in California, the North Coast Journal, and owns a bookstore with her husband. She tends a city garden but in a place that allows her to raise chickens.

Harris, 58, a longtime Washington area resident, worked most of her life as a court reporter. This is now a part-time occupation as the Garden Rant and related work have shifted the focus of her life. One of her gigs is as a gardening coach.

She lives in a cozy house with a long wooded backyard that extends to a distant stream and beyond. Old trees are festooned with bird nesting boxes and a bat house, and the rear deck is swaddled in a rambunctious hardy kiwi vine. She has just converted her front yard into a decorative vegetable garden in what we take to be an embrace of the local food movement and a reaction against the idea that the American front yard must be lawn.

Owens, 47, is a former political speechwriter who has a town garden and a place in the country where she is a rabid vegetable gardener.

“The key thing about the blog is the readership,” Owens said. “The cliche about the Internet creating communities is absolutely true.” Though the women do not dispense practical gardening advice, they say they get a lot of response from professional gardeners.

“It’s a side gig, but a way of taking control and making your own career,” said Owens, who turned to blogging after being frustrated at not getting magazine editors interested in her story ideas. “I had a lot to say that wasn’t being said, certainly in the world of gardening magazines.”

Ironically, the blog has gotten her noticed, and she is writing for magazines. If you are not familiar with the blogosphere, it is worth noting that the toil doesn’t necessarily bring a living wage. But a blog site is cheap to set up and, with few or no advertisers to offend, you are free to speak your mind. In some cases, it gets you noticed, it leads to paying gigs and you get the satisfaction of establishing a forum for your views and creativity.

For the ranters, there’s the added joy of coming to the aid of gardeners who run afoul of the petty, ill-conceived and outdated rules about gardening laid down by local governments and homeowner associations.

Licata rallied to a friend in Buffalo who had been badgered by the city for having a front yard deemed weedy. The woman was growing native shrubs and perennials. After Licata ranted about it, blogmates e-mailed the city’s mayor, who paid a visit to the garden himself. The complaints were dropped.

The ranters also have railed against local officials for requiring a Utah woman to water her lawn and have come to the support of a group seeking to revive the use of clotheslines.

The women e-mail each other perhaps 20 times a day but have all met only once, when Licata invited them to Garden Walk Buffalo, an annual event in July when about 260 of the city’s gardeners open their properties to thousands of visitors.

The foursome found a lot of lovely and honest gardens, though Licata remembers Owens piping up about some of the aquatic displays. “It’s like Michele says, they have ponds the size of my car with fish the size of my dog.”


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