A Tale Of Two Women (And A Book Giveaway Treat)

This story of two women begins in 1961. That was the year Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the daughter of the founder of Warner-Lambert and the Gillette Safety Razor Company and wife of banking heir Paul Mellon, hosted an August picnic for some close friends at her home on Cape Cod. Two of the guests were President and Mrs. Kennedy.

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Gardening Is Nothing To Sneeze At

Hydrangea, OPALS 3-6, depending on variety.

Hydrangea, OPALS 3-6, depending on variety.

When Joe and I first moved into our Long Island home, I had my all-time worst allergy season. All at once, it seemed, the oaks unleashed gobs and gobs of pollen in clumps that rivaled tumbleweeds. Pale yellow dust coated everything with its evilness.

As a new homeowner, I wondered and worried how I would be able to garden in a world that was inhospitable, where merely stepping outside caused relentless sneezing, itchy and swollen and watery eyes, and a sore throat.


Thomas Ogren.

Fast forward some twenty-odd years and we have Thomas Ogren, a gardener/educator who has compiled more than thirty years of research into The Allergy-Fighting Garden, a wonderful new book that combines horticultural science with logical garden choices so that homeowners and communities can work toward limiting the amount of allergens in the environment.

The book combines the best of his two previous works, Allergy-Free Gardening and Safe Sex in the Garden, with new information, so the end result is something that is informative and user-friendly.

My favorite portion of the book is the section entitled “The Allergy-Fighting Plants,” a very thorough A-to-Z listing of garden plants and their OPALS rating. OPALS is the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale, which Ogren created when he wasn’t researching, lecturing, writing, or gardening. It’s the first allergy-ranking system for plants and is now used by the United States Department of Agriculture. On the scale, plants are ranked from from 1 (least allergenic) to 10 (most allergenic). I’ve illustrated this post with photos of some of my gardening choices, and I’ve added their OPALS ranking.


NGDM: The strangest thing happened to me while reading your book. I had a series of aha moments because so much of what you’re writing makes complete sense — that gardeners can garden allergy-free — and it’s something I’ve never even considered. I always thought that will gardening comes pollen, and with pollen comes sneezing. We just have to deal with it. When you began your research, what was the moment that you had your Aha Moment, that you were on to something?

Tom Ogren: That total Aha Moment….or, actually two of them: I had been very skeptical about both allergies and asthma, but my wife had both. I’d read a book by some MD called Psychosomatic Illnesses and in it the author, a man, wrote that allergies and asthma mostly affected women because they were more emotional, more given to hysteria . . . and I sucked that all up. After all, I didn’t have allergies or asthma, so obviously I had my act together much more than did my wife, Yvonne.

Yvonne would have an attack of asthma (fairly frequently back then) and I would show no sympathy at all, and (I sure do hate to admit this) often I’d even lecture her on how she ought to get her act together. This went on for years, but one day I was doing a landscape job in Berkeley, California, and people everywhere were sneezing and generally acting like they felt miserable. It was early spring and everywhere the big acacia trees were in bloom.

When the landscape job was done (a week or so), I drove back home to San Luis Obispo and as I drove I thought about all of this allergy I’d been seeing, and I came up with an idea. The next day, back at work (I teach landscape gardening and horticulture in a prison), I got with my students (big, tough, muscular gangbangers, every last one of them) and I proposed that we sniff flowers and record what, if anything, happened.

First we sniffed some pansies and nothing happened at all, then we did some double dianthus and again nothing at all. The third plant we tried was bottlebrush flowers. I sniffed them, nothing; my foreman sniffed them, nothing — but then the next guy took a sniff of the bottlebrush flowers and wow! Did he ever sneeze! Really loud and really hard.

Daylily, OPALS 6.

Daylily, OPALS 6.

Suddenly I was suspicious of that idea that allergy was “all in your head.” By the time we’d gone through the whole class, one third of them were sneezing, over and over again. It was perfectly amazing and it was an Aha Moment if there ever was one. Not only had I discovered that some flowers triggered this response, but also that some flowers did not — a learning lesson. I also suddenly felt very guilty for the hogwash that I’d been putting my wife through. This was the first Aha Moment.

The second Aha Moment: I’d been studying plants and allergies for 6-7 years or so and one night my wife and I were in bed and she was reading a novel and I was reading a thick serious book about monoecious and dioecious flowering systems in trees. I read something and then said to Yvonne, “I just had an idea. These dioecious plants, they are often the very worst allergy plants of all, but think about this. Since they are 100% separate-sexed, that would mean that the males produce all the pollen and the females catch it and turn it into seed.”

“Okay,” said Yvonne.

“Yeah,” I said, “but look at it this way. The big lists of plants they say not to use, all those maples, poplars, willows, yews, junipers and so on, the female plants aren’t producing any pollen, just the males. And think about this, if a female plant produces no pollen and it traps pollen, it means that female plants are actually allergy-free plants! See what I mean?”

She looked at me for a moment and then said, “You know, Tom, you just might be on to something with that.”

Now, really, what I’d reasoned out there, it wasn’t rocket ship science, just the opposite. But still, up to that point no one had ever written anything ever saying this. It was an Aha Moment. For sure.

Canna, OPALS 3.

Canna, OPALS 3.

NGDM: I imagine you must often find yourself fighting an uphill battle trying to get your message out there, especially when dealing with cities and municipalities. What has been the greatest challenge?

TO: Well, indeed this has been nothing but an uphill battle, and it still is. Considering that pollen is the most common allergy/asthma trigger in the world, I am amazed that allergists do not take any courses at all in horticulture, and very few of them have had any courses in botany either.

Likewise, I am amazed that all these asthma educators and the many health groups that are associated with them, that they dwell on 2nd hand smoke, on mold, on dampness, on infestations of rodents and or roaches but they never even consider doing anything to limit exposure to pollen. I heard two speeches in the last few days on “asthma triggers” and the word pollen wasn’t mentioned even one time. I find this disturbing at best.

Most cities and counties don’t seem to want to do anything about allergies at all, and not all that much about asthma. Allergies are seen by many as not so important (especially if those in charge don’t have allergies) . . . and yet more than 80% of those with asthma already have allergies, and also that getting allergies greatly increases your chances of getting asthma. Cities are very reluctant to ever cut down a tree “just” because it is highly allergenic. Even worse, they are generally quite reluctant to even stop planting the very most allergenic trees. Most of the time they appear to want to keep on doing things just as they have always done them. But then, cities and municipalities are not the only ones that make this an uphill battle. Commercial horticulture has so far not done their part either, mostly just the opposite.

All said, it sounds terrible, but nonetheless, I am very dogged in my pursuit of this, and in the end I feel that common sense will yet win the day.

Hosta, OPALS 1.

Hosta, OPALS 1.

NGDM: Your book is very user friendly and very well-researched — but I was most impressed with your OPALS rankings, a means of providing the allergy quotient of so many plants. It seems like it would be a no-brainer for wholesalers and retailers to include that information on the plant tag. Why do you think there’s so much reluctance to provide this information?

TO: Nursery people don’t like to say anything negative about any plants, and especially not ones that they sell. The big growers already make good money on many very allergenic male clones, and they will keep on growing them until suddenly no one wants them anymore.

NGDM: If you could offer the average home gardener three top tips to address allergy-free gardening in their own yards/communities, what would it be?

TO: One, make a big effort to get rid of the very worst plants in their own yards, and at the schools where their kids attend. Two, join with some other people and try and get a local pollen-control ordinance enacted, an ordinance that stops the sale and planting of the very worst landscape plants. Lastly, plant and encourage others to plant many more female plants — there’s no balance of the sexes in cities, and everywhere more female plants are needed.

Zinnia, OPALS 3.

Zinnia, OPALS 3.

NGDM: When did a passion for gardening first take hold in you? Who inspired you to get in the garden?

TO: When I was a kid we had a lovely old black lady who lived with us to help out with all of us kids (there were six of us). Her name was Katherine Scott and she loved to garden and she’s the one who first showed me how to plant the squash and bean seeds, how to weed and water; she’s the one who really got me hooked….and I was totally hooked by age four.

My grandfather, Tom Myers, he was a doctor and he loved to garden, especially to grow roses. I was named for him and I can still see him wearing his old clothes, working contentedly in his big rose garden. When I was seven, he asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I told him I wanted my own guava tree — and that’s what I got. I loved that tree and I was the only kid I knew who had his own fruit tree.

Lastly, both my mother and father appreciated good gardens, even if they weren’t especially good gardeners themselves. My mom loved the idea of lots of fruit trees in the yard, and my dad planted them, and as I was the oldest boy, he often had me help him.

I guess you could say I was raised right!

For the record: Oak, OPALS 8.  No surprise that I was sneezing.

For the record: Oak, OPALS 8. No surprise that I was sneezing.

For more information on allergy-free gardening,

you can also visit Safe Gardening.

History, Herstory, Our Story — And Giveaway!

Enjoy the interview with the author, and see below for giveaway details.

Enjoy the interview with the author, and see below for giveaway details.

Very often, when gardeners walk through the well-tended garden of another gardener, the first impulse is to notice the plants, the textures, the play of color from one bed to the next. Quickly behind that assessment is the acknowledgement — and admiration — for the work and thought that went into creating their garden paradise.

It’s that thought which makes The Victorian Gardener (Shire Publications), by Caroline Ikin, such a fascinating book. Written with Ikin’s keen eye for detail and passion for all things Victorian, the book is a tribute in both words and photos to the men — and eventually the women — who made gardening their life’s work, who tended some of the most famous estate gardens in the world, and who did much of the work with their hands, muscles, and brains.

I recently had the chance to speak with Ms. Ikin, whose previous book, The Victorian Garden, was also featured on this blog.

The garden staff propagated and potted thousands of bedding plants each year. Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

The garden staff propagated and potted thousands of bedding plants each year.
Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

NGDM: This is very exciting for me, since you mentioned you were working on this book in our earlier interview promoting The Victorian Garden. In that interview, you mentioned how drawn you were to the Victorian time period — the people, the technology, the role of women. Did anything surprise you in your research for The Victorian Gardener?

CI: It is astounding just how dedicated these young men were in the pursuit of their chosen career. To become a gardener they had to work their way up through the ranks of the profession, moving from garden to garden to gain experience and often living in very basic accommodations. They were expected to study in the evening, keep detailed journals of their progress, learn Latin, bookkeeping and geometry, and never really had any time off as the glasshouse vents had to be opened whether it was a weekday or a weekend.

It was inspiring to research the lives of the pioneering women gardeners who enrolled in training courses and overcame prejudice to gain employment as gardeners alongside men. However, my admiration of this achievement was tempered by the fact that many of these women abandoned their fledgling careers after a year or two to get married, forsaking their hard-won vocation so rapidly.

Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

NGDM: At first glance, The Victorian Gardener appears to be a history book — or a tribute — to Victorian gardeners and their contributions to gardening today. I must tell you, though, that as I read your book I felt I was reading more of a family tree than a history book. I felt a very strong connection to the men — and eventually the women — who toiled in the garden. Was that your goal when you set out to write this book?

CI: There has been a lot written about gardening and garden design, but very little about the history of the gardening profession. I wanted to research the lives of the people who toiled behind the scenes to create such spectacular gardens for their employers and learn how they accomplished so much with the resources available to them at the time. It took a lot of dedication to become a gardener in the Victorian Era and there was opportunity to be grasped by the most ambitious young men. The faces looking poignantly out of the old photographs hint at untold stories and it was this history I wanted to explore.

Female students learn the art of pruning at Studley College, 1910. Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

Female students learn the art of pruning at Studley College, 1910.
Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

NGDM: In our previous interview, you mentioned that the class structure and social conventions of the Victorian Era would prove too limiting for you. For many Victorian women who gardened, that seemed to be true as well — but as a male reader, I must say I was very impressed with the dedication that these gardeners displayed for their craft.   What do you think they could teach us about gardening? What do you think they would think of gardening today?

Apprentices and experienced gardeners are pictured together. Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

Apprentices and experienced gardeners are pictured together.
Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

CI: The Victorians recognised the value of apprenticeship where experienced gardeners would pass on their skills to the next generation. Their methods were based on trial and error, learning from experience and working with nature. Victorian gardeners did not always understand why their techniques worked; they just knew that they did.

When scientific discoveries demystified the nature of botany and processes such as photosynthesis were understood, the gardening profession was elevated to a new level and training courses were established to teach gardeners not only the practical skills necessary to grow plants, but also the science behind the practice.

A multi-bladed shears advertisement from Gardening Illustrated, 1879. Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

A multi-bladed shears advertisement from Gardening Illustrated, 1879.
Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

Just as we do today, Victorian gardeners had to embrace new technology and innovative gadgetry, and experienced gardeners seemed remarkably adept at distinguishing the useful from the worthless. It is no surprise that basic tools such as the trowel and the rake have been in use for centuries with no change to their design.

Although the working conditions of gardeners have improved since Victorian times, it is still a profession where you have to start at the bottom and work your way up, learning all the time from other gardeners, studying books on botany and plant propagation, gaining experience in gardens with different types of soil and climate, working long hours and on weekends.

I think a Victorian gardener time-travelling to a garden in the twenty-first century would recognise a lot of what he saw, and would be disappointed to see that, despite advances in science and technology, there was still no effective way of getting rid of slugs, that weeding was still done by hand, and that water was carried around in a watering-can.

Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

NGDM: As in your previous book, the artwork and collection of photos is astounding! When it comes to putting it all together, how difficult is it for you to narrow down your selection?

CI: I was very fortunate, as I was with my last book, to have access to the extensive collection of archive images at The Garden Museum in London. Although there are many group photographs of Victorian gardeners posing with the tools of their trade, it was quite tricky to find portraits of named gardeners, as few were recorded for posterity in this way, which reflects their status in society. It was also very difficult to find enough colour images to satisfy the publishers – all these remarkable photographs are, of course, in black and white.

Musical comedy star Marie Studholme, 1903. Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

Musical comedy star Marie Studholme, 1903.
Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

NGDM: Two photos in the book jumped out at me — and they’re both of women. One has a woman in full Victorian attire — as if she were going to a garden party — while pushing a lawn mower. The other features a trio of women in men’s clothing. When you’re in your own garden, what’s most comfortable for you to wear?

CI: I love that photograph of the women gardeners at Kew, looking rather defensive in their breeches and boots. The staff at Kew were put in a tricky position when they took on these first women gardeners as there was no precedent for female gardening attire – women would not dare to show their ankles, let alone don a pair of trousers! The voluminous skirts of Victorian fashion were liable to squash the plants, and frills and lace were hardly practical for digging, barrowing and muck-spreading. The decision to allow women to wear the same clothes as men may seem like a radical act of equality, but I suspect it was made out of necessity and a lack of other options.

The idea of wearing a shirt and tie and a three-piece suit for gardening does strike me as uncommonly impractical, not to mention uncomfortable – I prefer jeans and a T-shirt and a sunhat (I’m very much a fair weather gardener, I’m afraid).

Breeches, boots, and aprons on the female students at Glynde School, 1910. Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

Breeches, boots, and aprons on the female students at Glynde School, 1910.
Photo courtesy of The Garden Museum/London.

The Giveaway:

What gardening clothing or garden tool could you not live without?

If you would like to win your own copy of Caroline Ikin’s The Victorian Gardener, please leave a comment about the garden clothing or garden tool you could not live without. For a second chance to win, please visit the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man Facebook page, and answer the same question there.

Entries should be received by Friday, May 16.  A winner will be announced on Sunday, May 18.

Thanks for participating — and Happy Mother’s Day!

How To Have Your Own “Secret Garden”

Secret Garden

This post begins and ends with a gift.

Just prior to the Christmas holiday, a very dear coworker of mine, Lorraine, presented me with a silver-wrapped package tied with a string of sparkling stars.  She explained that when she saw this item, she thought of me.  It was whimsical, she said, and she thought — or at least hoped — that I would understand.

Her only instruction was to open it on Christmas morning.

And so I brought the present home and placed it under the tree and stared at it, wondering what sort of whimsy was hidden beneath the silver foil paper.

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Victor Victorian: Garden Style Fit For A Queen

At this time of year, as the garden tumbles into autumn colors in preparation for its winter sleep, it’s difficult to not search out garden photos — whether of my own garden, the gardens of other bloggers, or especially gardens of the past.

It’s in those old photos, the kind that give a peek into a moment in time, that the questions start to swirl.  What plants did they select and why?  Where was the best spot to view the garden?  What were the scents and aromas?  The sounds?  Who tended the beds?  What tools did they use?

The Victorian Garden

Enter The Victorian Garden (Shire Publications), a fact-filled and image-rich book by Caroline Ikin.  Beautifully crafted, the book not only offers a clear explanation of Victorian garden style and history, it also celebrates the Victorian gardeners and their innovations — accomplished through Ikin’s skill at bringing readers along as she steps through the garden gate.

Recently, I had the chance to ask Caroline Ikin about her book, the Victorians, and life in her own garden.

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The Real Dirt On The Presidents — Part 2

presidential_podium 2

Some conversations are too big to fit into a single post.  That’s how it was when I communicated with Linda Holden Hoyt, author of the very fascinating Presidents’ Gardens.  Just like the book, the interview was filled with anecdotes and historical tidbits, as well as Ms. Hoyt’s warm recollections of her experience in the White House gardens.  

The author during the Reagan Administration.  Photo courtesy of Linda Holden Hoyt.

The author during the Reagan years.
Photo courtesy of Linda Holden Hoyt.

NGDM:  What was your role in the Reagan administration?

LHH:  I worked on President Reagan’s staff and had an office in the West Wing, so I enjoyed a beautiful view of the ever-changing White House grounds and I pinched myself in the morning when I walked through the gates on the way to work and again in the evening when I left for home.

NGDM:  When you were a young girl visiting Presidential gardens, did you ever dream that someday you would be working in the White House?

LHH:  No, but as a child I spent a lot of time cutting and pasting pictures of the White House and the presidents into a scrapbook.  I’d flip through magazines like Life and Calling All Girls, collected from my grandmother and piano teacher.  When visiting the White House, I remember wanting to run up the stairs to see what was up there!  In my teen years, I read Backstairs at the White House, Upstairs at the White House and anything like it I could get my hands on.   History is really important to me — especially the “story” part — I love the stories of the people who impacted history.

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The Real Dirt On The Presidents — Part 1

presidential_podium 2

The next presidential election is still years away — and wannabe candidates, strategists, pundits, and newscasters are already weighing in on who will run, what the issues are, and how Americans will vote.

Lately, though, I find myself less concerned with taxes, Obamacare, and the economy and more curious about how the future POTUS will put his — or her — stamp on the White House gardens — and that’s all because of an amazing book, Presidents’ Gardens, by Linda Holden Hoyt.

Utilizing her passion for gardening and history, as well as her experience in the Reagan White House, Ms. Hoyt has delivered a book that is educational, fascinating, and entertaining.  Well researched and filled with photos, illustrations, and anecdotes, her work opens the garden gate on a world most of us will otherwise never have had the chance to enter.

Recently, Ms. Hoyt kindly agreed to answer the questions of a very excited gardener and history buff.  It seemed that with each response, I had more questions — resulting in a post so long that it needed two parts.  Part 2 will appear on Monday — and that’s also when the rules of the giveaway will be revealed.

And so, without further delay, I’d like to introduce you to Linda Holden Hoyt.

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Gnome Sweet Gnome: A Talk With Dr. Twigs Way


When I received Gnomes as a gift in 1976, it ignited my imagination.  I not only loved the total appearance and creativity of the work, but Wil Huygen’s words and Rien Poortvliet’s illustrations reached out from the pages and carried me into a secret, fantastical world.

Nearly 40 years later, the book has that same hold on me — and more.  I revisited the book while cleaning out a bookshelf.  Just flipping through the pages brought me back to the wonder I felt as a 13-year-old boy.

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Margaret & Me & A Cup Of Tea

Margaret Roach Garden

Margaret Roach.  For years it was just a name, one that I had seen in the masthead or the editorial pages of Martha Stewart Living.  Occasionally, it appeared at the bottom of the television as I watched Martha’s show, an identifier of the woman sitting next to the host.

Yes, Margaret Roach was just a name.

When I started this blog, I also learned of the top gardening blog in America, A Way to Garden — and once again, I was staring at that same name: Margaret Roach.  Maybe, I thought, there was a reason her name kept entering my world — and maybe, it was time to discover if there was more to Margaret than a name.

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