The Accidental Gardener: A Short Story About a Dog Named Oli and His Wondrous Wildflower Walk…

July 9th, 2010 § 7 comments § permalink

The Wildflower Walk in July at Ferncliff ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE

As a professional garden designer, I take a certain amount of pride in my work. My clients always seem quite pleased with the gardens I create, and I think I’m a pretty good designer. Yet every July I am served a very large dish of my favorite dessert – humble pie. In midsummer, visitors to my studio are invariably knocked-out by the entry garden, which I now call ‘The Wildflower Walk’. They ooh and they ah and they coo over the wide swaths of bright color and the natural feel of this welcoming, open space. “What a beautiful garden”, they exclaim. And yes, I have to admit, it certainly is quite stunning. But, thanks to the brilliant artist I live with, my ego remains fully in check. Why? Well, you see, I didn’t design this gorgeous wildflower garden – my dog Oli did.

I know. You’re probably wondering how this is possible. How can a Labrador Retriever design a wildflower garden? Perhaps you think I am exaggerating or maybe even making it up from thin air. Or worse, you might be wondering if I’ve gone quite mad, since clearly I am suffering from delusions. But I swear –on my Vegetable Gardener’s Bible — it is true. In fact, not only did my crazy canine design this garden, but he also planted it all by himself. Yes, I promise I will explain – but first, let me back up a little bit and tell you the story of my dog, Oli…

Midway Point on the Wildflower Walk at Ferncliff in July ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE

It was late in the summer of 2002, and I’d just finished building the studio-barn I now call home. There were no gardens here back then. In fact, the land was quite raw and, like most construction sites, it was a mess. I knew it would be a year before I could begin work on my landscaping projects and –frustrated with the ugliness– I spent most of my free time elsewhere. I’m an avid kayaker, and throughout that first summer, I floated my evenings away on local lakes and rivers. Late one August afternoon –hot, sticky and harried– I loaded my kayak on the car and headed out to the Connecticut River. Distracted as usual, in my haste I forgot my backpack at home. I didn’t want to miss sunset on the water, so I stopped by a local farm stand to grab a snack and a drink to take along on my paddle. Fate however, had other plans for me  –and indeed she moves in mysterious ways– because that’s when I met “Old Yeller”, as he was then called; a dirty, flea-infested, one-year-old, retriever pup with sad eyes and a ‘toy’ beer can. “Yeller” was chained to a foundation post and his legs were all tangled up in rusty links. Immediately a large crack –likely audible throughout the valley– split straight through my ribcage and broke my heart. Of course I thought about the dog the entire time I was out on the river, and the next day I stopped by the stand once again. He was still there; same beer can, same sad eyes. By visit three, my weakness must have been plainly visible, for the farm hand –three sheets to the wind– announced that the “flea bag” was headed to the pound by the end of the week. “If  you want him, take him” he said, “for free“.  It seemed that the wild pup had already worked his way through three homes, and his current owner –recently disabled from a stroke– could no longer handle him…

My dog Oli, in the studio…

Well, you know how this part of the story goes. Of course, by Friday, the wiggling, slobbering “flea bag” –renamed Oli– was bouncing around the back of my car on the way to his new home. He was, to put it mildly, a terror. Have you seen the film “Marley and Me ? Well, good for you, because I can’t watch more than 20 minutes of it. It’s just too close for comfort. And besides, my dog Oli, makes that dog Marley look like a saint. I kid you not. During his first year in my formerly-peaceful life, Oli did more damage than an F1 tornado. Goodbye car interior (including all back seatbelts and cushions), so-long sexy shoes, see-ya-later kayak seat and farewell furniture. Left alone for more than five minutes, Oli would rip through and devour anything in sight. His ingested-item list even includes a Mikimoto pearl necklace (yes, in its box, pulled from the top of my dresser), and we made more visits to the veterinarian than I care to remember. I was told by dog-loving friends that this behavior would ease up within a year. I was promised this was merely a prolonged puppy phase. I was advised that he had separation anxiety and that training would help. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Oli continued his reign of terror straight through the following summer, when I began working on my new gardens. Unimpressed with my horticultural pursuits, Oli uprooted perennials as fast as I planted them and devoured several young shrubs. He even stripped the branches from a rare Japanese maple, defoliating and destroying it within minutes, while I unloaded groceries in the kitchen. Yes, I still love him, but I would be lying if I told you that I never had a dark thought about my dog.

A bag of collected Lupine seed…

Around this time, I started thinking about planting a wildflower meadow on the west side of my clearing. My parents had created an impressive, self-sustaining field of wildflowers on their property, which bloomed from spring to fall, and I wanted to replicate that here. My father collected seed from the garden, and gave me two bags to take home. One contained pouches of Lupine and Adenophora, and the other was filled with Rudbeckia hirta. When I got back to my place, I brought one bag of seed up to the house, let Oli out of his crate, and started to unload the rest of my car. Then, the phone rang. You would think that I would have learned my lesson after the Japanese maple fiasco – but no. Of course not. Finally, at some point during my telephone conversation, I looked out the window to see Oli running full boar down the walkway – brown paper bag held high, head shaking to-and-fro, black seed spewing out in all directions. My scream could have stopped a train dead in its tracks, but it didn’t even register with Oli. He only seemed to run faster. I tore down the pathway after my wild dog, chasing him in circles ’round the ledge at the top of the drive – but it was too late. The bag of Rudbeckia was scattered everywhere – all over the walkway and throughout my carefully designed entry garden…

Rudbeckia hirta, in a design by Oli, the accidental gardener…

Eight years have come and gone since Oli hopped into my car on that fateful, hot summer evening, and I have given in to his chaos on many levels. Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them I say. So, I added more wildflower seed to his design; sprinkling Lupine and Adenophora throughout the walkway and into the surrounding mixed borders. What can I say – it works. And yes, he’s a genius. But athough he may be talented, Oli –now growing fat and grizzled about the muzzle — can still never be left alone in the house…

Oli and Me


Article and photographs © 2010 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

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Father’s Day Post Leads to Old Fashioned Push Mower Shopping… Thanks Dad! Happy Father’s Day!

June 20th, 2010 § 2 comments § permalink

Detail from a Schlitz beer ad, circa 1950

It all started innocently enough. This morning I wanted to publish a quick ‘Happy Father’s Day’ post for all the dads out there. My dad has always been a fabulous gardener, expert berry grower and lover of native plants and trees… But he hated mowing the lawn. HATED. And can you blame him? Lawn mowing is loud, smelly and invariably fraught with mechanical troubles. My father lives in a condo now, and he no longer mows his own lawn, but I will always remember him parked in a plastic lawn chair, clutching a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon, legs stretched out, glaring at the frequently broken-down lawnmower. Poor dad! Laughing at the memory, I immediately began searching for an image to capture the feeling. I couldn’t come up with anything good from 80s, but I did find this old Schlitz beer ad from the early 50s – and I love it! Get a load of that fabulous push mower!

Well, no sooner did I crop the photo and scan it to this draft post than an obsession with old fashioned lawn mowers overtook me. My clunky Sears Craftsman model -inherited from my dad when he closed up the country house a few years back and moved into a condo with my mother- has seen better days and it has been sputtering and moaning ever since I made the mistake of overfilling the oil-well last summer. You could say I killed my mower with kindness, but that would be too kind.

As much as I support the ‘un-greening’ of the American suburb -replacing grass turf with low maintenance ground covers, native plants, vegetable patches and other ecologically friendly options- I am not completely anti-lawn. Grass is beautiful, and I believe that a modest lawn, in an appropriate climate, is a wonderful garden feature that needn’t be an environmental hazard or drain. I live in Vermont – the lush, Green Mountain state – but I don’t have a large lawn. There’s just a petite patch of sod for lounging ’round Dan Snow‘s fire sculpture, and a few verdant paths leading to outdoor rooms. It’s not much more than a postage stamp, really, but I still need to cut the grass if I wish to maintain my tiny emerald carpet…

My petite lawn, surrounding artist Dan Snow‘s beautiful Fire Sculpture

Of course I considered an electric mower; quiet, efficient and ultra-modern, the newer models are very tempting. And I also weighed the possibility of a more economical gas model, but I dislike the smell of fumes and all the engine noise -never mind the obviously wasteful use of fossil fuel. So what to do? Well a modern reel lawn mower has always been at the back of my mind. And thanks to Mr. Schlitz at the top of the page, I’m all over the idea – like a dog rolling on freshly cut grass. So for the past few hours, I have been researching and reading reviews. Here’s what I’m looking at…

Scotts 2000-20 20-Inch Classic Push Reel Lawn Mower

With 242 five-star and 168 four-star Amazon reviews, the model above is currently at the top of my list. Retailing for a very reasonable $99.99, it’s clearly quite affordable and popular. The only negative I really see is the 6″ side-clearance, which makes a clean edge difficult and string-trimming mandatory (with my current mower, string trimming is not necessary).

American Lawn Mower Company 1705-16 16-Inch Bent Reel Mower

Running neck-and-neck with the Scott’s mower is the American Lawn Mower Company’s model pictured and linked above. I have read that both mowers are made by the same company. This model is four inches narrower, so it will cut a smaller path through the grass and get into tighter spaces. At $98.49, it’s also quite reasonably priced and although there are fewer reviews for this product on Amazon, they are mostly quite favorable, (69 out of 83 reviews are 4 and 5 star). In the end, this may be the one that wins out, as I am leaning in the direction of a narrower path. Like the one pictured above, this mower is made in the U.S. – important to me with the tough economy we are in.

Gardener’s Supply Company Reel Mower

Then there is the Gardener’s Supply Company Reel Mower, pictured and linked above, which is both lightweight, cute and well-made. It’s comparable to the American Mower Company model above, with the same width and blade height, but it has the advantage of a more comfortable looking handle and safer-looking guard. It’s more expensive at $199 – but from the photos and reviews I have seen, it is both popular and well-made.

Gardener’s Supply Company Reel Mower

The final contender is at the high-end of the price scale, ($299). Also from Gardener’s Supply Company, the reel mower above has received great reviews and also looks comfortable and easy to maneuver and use.

So what will I do? Well, I’m not sure yet. I’d like to try a couple of mowers out to see which model is easiest to lift and fold for winter storage. But there is, without a doubt, a push-style mower in my near future. Do any TGE readers own modern reel mowers? What do you think of them? Do you have a model you would recommend? I’d love to hear from you.

And for all the dads out there: Happy Father’s Day !!! I sure hope you avoid the lawn-detail this Sunday! Go find yourself a comfy hammock or lawn chair and a cool bev. Enjoy your day – you deserve it. Thank you for all you do! xo Michaela


Article © 2010 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden. Hammock Dad image is the property of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, (aka Pabst Brewing). Mower images courtesy Amazon and Gardener’s Supply Company, respectively.

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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