Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: A Year of Kindred Spirits

Annual retrospectives are challenging endeavors. Looking back isn't the problem. I always become contemplative in the waning days of each year, ruminating over the previous twelve months. There's nothing unique about this; the closing of one year and the beginning of another is a natural signpost in life.

The challenge for me in writing a retrospective lies in preventing the exercise from becoming a self-aggrandizing litany of accomplishments. I'd be remiss to play the humility card and claim that I haven't done much this year. I'm certainly proud of what I've accomplished and appreciative of the resulting opportunities. It feels like I've found a stable niche and growing audience for my writing and photography.

But as I look back on the year, what stands out are not my personal accomplishments. The lasting memories of 2011 revolve around people -- from those whose paths I crossed only momentarily to those who walk with me into 2012 as my closest friends. It is these people, whose love for plants and passion for life gives us a common thread despite our differences and distance, that made 2011 one of the most satisfying years of my life.

Dr. Michael Dirr, me and Chip Tynan
The year began as I traveled with Laura Hayden (a longtime friend and blogger at Durable Gardening) to the National Green Centre trade show in St. Louis. This was the first horticultural industry trade show I'd ever attended, and it was fascinating to walk the floor talking to nursery owners about new plants and attending seminars given by some of the top names in the industry. At National Green Centre, we had the opportunity to meet and learn from Dr. Michael Dirr and Dr. Allan Armitage, two plantsmen who have long held a prominent place in my horticulture library. The plant walk hosted by Dr. Dirr at the Missouri Botanical Garden was an unforgettable experience. Not only did we get to experience the wisdom of Dr. Dirr "out in the wild", but also had the great pleasure learning from Maria Zampini (Horticulture and American Nurseryman columnist and president of Upshoot plant introductions), Chip Tynan (manager of MoBot's Horticultural Answer Service), and Robert Smith (Arbor Day Foundation).

Louise Hartwig and Kylee Baumle
In March, I sat in the garden writers' media room at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show as we waited for the go ahead to start our preview of the show. In walked two women -- Kylee Baumle and her mother Louise Hartwig -- who would instantly become two of my favorite people on earth. Kylee and I had been corresponding electronically ever since meeting on Twitter in 2010, so I had a pretty good idea we'd get along in person. Little did I'd know our friendly bulb competition from the previous autumn would turn into an incredible friendship.

Laura Hayden, Shawna Coronado and me at Navy Pier
After a brief TweetUp on Navy Pier with a group of bloggers that were attending CFGS, we were heading back to the CFGS show floor when Shawna Coronado (author of Gardening Nude and sustainable lifestyle activist) stop at the food court for a quick snack. Our cafe table turned into the stage for a lengthy conversation about writing, photography, parenting and life in general. Shawna's energy, candor and generosity were infectious and inspiring. I instantly knew I'd found a kindred spirit.

(Photo courtesy of the Garden Media Group)
The week after CFGS, I was invited to participate in the Costa Farms Social Summit in Miami. The first morning in Miami, I'll admit to feeling a bit intimidated as I left my hotel room. Also invited to the summit were Steve Bender (Southern Living), Justin Hancock (Better Homes & Gardens), Stacey Hirvela (Martha Stewart Living), Helen Yoest (Gardening with Confidence), Judy Lowe (Christian Science Monitor) and Brenda Haas (GardenChat). The insecure feeling quickly dissipated as I was warmly welcomed to the group led Suzi McCoy and Stacey Pierson from Garden Media Group.

Mike Rimland of Costa Farms
A common trait among growers is their enthusiasm for their work. The people that make up the Costa Farms family are no exception. Maybe it's the increased oxygen from the millions of plants growing in their facilities, but you could almost smell their love of plants in the air. When we drove out to the Anthurium production greenhouses, Costa Farms director of business development (and one of the top growers in the world) Mike Rimland spoke with a parental pride about his plants.

By the end of the dinner that ended the summit, there was no doubt that I'd met several people who would be a part of my life for years to come. My short time in Miami reinforced the central theme of 2011: the love of gardening is a common bond stronger than the differences that divide us.

Kylee Baumle photographing Canada Anemone
The first weekend in June, my wife and I traveled to visit Kylee and her husband in Ohio. I smiled broadly as we walked through her garden listening to Kylee and Romie sharing the stories that comprised its history. I've always believed you can feel the gardener's spirit as you walk quietly through a garden, so I made a point to wake up early to experience and photograph Kylee's garden by myself.

I did find time in 2011 to work in my own garden, including the installation of a 70-foot long retaining wall and raised bed to complete our backyard patio terrace. The photo above is of me working on the wall in 95-degree heat and humidity in the middle of July. My son had just thrown a snowball -- one he'd been saving in the freezer since last winter -- to cool me off.

I know that I border on the edge of obsession at times; my wife and son are eternally patient with the amount of time and energy I expend working in the garden, capturing it with my camera, and sharing it via this blog. Some of my fondest moments this year have been the after-dinner flower walks with my wife, where we alternately admire our little slice of Eden and make plans for its future.

Laura Hayden, Shawna Coronado,  Kylee Baumle and me at IGC.
In August, I traveled to Chicago for the Independent Garden Center Show. It was a great reunion with several garden writers I'd already met, and an opportunity to meet several other writers, growers and industry people who I'd gotten to know online. In the whirlwind three days, I spent a great deal of time talking with nurseries and garden product manufacturers on the show floor, but even more time bringing these virtual relationships to life. Among what feels like an endless list of people I was blessed to meet for the first time are Bruce Bailey (Heavy Petal Nursery), Danielle Smith Ernest (Proven Winners), Jenny Peterson (J. Peterson Design), David Spain and Ken Gergle (Moss and Stone Gardens), Clint Albin (IGC), Mimi San Pedro (Hortus, Ltd.), Patty Craft (F&W Media), Kate Copsey (America's Home Grown Veggie Show), Kerrie Rosenthal and Carol Niec (SeedKeeper Co.), Mud Baron (LA school garden activist) and LaManda Joy (the Yarden). Several months after IGC, I still look in awe at the creativity and positive energy of these individuals.

P. Allen Smith and Mimi San Pedro (Photo courtesy of Louise Hartwig)
Garden media personality P. Allen Smith was the keynote speaker at IGC, and I was overjoyed to have a few minutes to meet and talk with Allen during the show. We've continued our conversation via Twitter, where Allen regularly engages fellow gardeners to talk about gardening, food and home design.

Kylee Baumle and Laura Hayden
The afternoon before the IGC show began, Laura and I met Kylee, Louise, and Diane McCarthy at the Chicago Botanic Garden to do our impression of the plant paparazzi. Our group progressed through the gardens in a constant volley of superlatives and stories.

Bruce Bailey and Helen Yoest
One morning before the show floor opened, I met Bruce Bailey and Helen Yoest at Lurie Garden, Chicago's five-acre rooftop garden in Millennium Park. Our visit to Lurie was one of those moments that will be an indelible memory for me. Enjoying Lurie (the creation of landscape design visionary Piet Oudolf) with Bruce and Helen was like eating dinner with two food connoisseurs in the home of a master chef. Before entering the living walls of Lurie, I felt a strong bond with both of these amazing people. After we left, that bond was permanent.

Brenda Haas, Dan Heims and Laura Hayden
The next stop on my virgin garden show/meeting world tour was the national Garden Writers Association meeting in Indianapolis at the end of August. Laura and I hopped in my car for a long turnaround day, but it was well worth the trip. After a morning of excellent informational sessions, hundreds of garden writers hopped on buses to tour a selection of grand gardens in Indianapolis. The gardens were beautiful, but the highlight of the tours was -- you guessed it -- the people. The day was full of hugs and handshakes as I again met a wonderful litany of new people including Meg Cloud (Stark Bros.), Joe Lamp'l and Christa Hanson (Growing a Greener World TV), Dan Heims (Terra Nova), Kelly Norris (Rainbow Iris Farm), Laura Mathews (Punk Rock Gardens) and Joseph Tychonievich. 

So much of 2011 involved the pleasure of meeting people in person who I'd previously known only via Twitter or Facebook. But that's not to discount the value of these online relationships. Of those I met in person and now consider dear friends, nearly every relationship had its foundation and birth online. The connection I felt with Helen (@HelenYoest), Kylee (@ourlittleacre), Shawna (@shawnacoronado), Bruce (@whereplantsrock), Keri and Carol (@seedkeeperco), and Jenny (@mulchmaven) didn't materialize the second I met them in person. It only intensified.

I sincerely hope that 2012 brings me the pleasure of meeting in person more of those that I consider family -- Michael Nolan (@michaelnolan), Carolyn Binder (@cowlickcottage), Chris McLaughlin (@suburban_farmer), Chris VanCleave (@redneckrosarian), Teresa (@agardendiary), Annie Haven (@greensoil), Steve Asbell (@rainforestgarden), Benjamin Vogt (@brvogt), Carri Stokes (@betweenthelimes), Rick Schoellhorn, Lloyd Traven, Vice Grip, Barry Ruta, Joyce Grigonis, Anne Larson (@iowagardencoach), Katie Ketelsen (@ketelsen), Christina Salwitz, and William McClenathan. I'm not sure if they even understand how much insight, satisfaction and happiness they've brought to my life this year.

There are just certain things you know in your heart; I know that each of these people are my family -- my kindred spirits -- in the soil.

Happy New Year!


  1. Chris, there is nothing I could say that would add a single iota to what you've expressed here. I'll simply say, I love you, man.

  2. Chris, I've so enjoyed watching and traveling with you on your journey. Your enthusiasm, vision and eye for beauty are gifts to me and all the others who know you. Wishing you a new year filled with many more wonderful adventures!

  3. Chris, I've had so many of the same experiences! It's so gratifying to meet people online and really solidify the relationship in real life--I, too, am so thankful to have met you through Kylee this past year! We all have so much in common--and all the folks you mentioned are just "good people." Happy New Year to you, new friend! <3

  4. What a busy year you had! It was so much fun hanging out at the Chicago Botanic Garden that day. I hope to see you again at Navy Pier in March!!

  5. You all are making me misty. I managed to control myself while writing, not so much. :)

  6. It is an honor to have you as a friend. And I love you as a person. You are special, Chris, and we are all very fortunate to have you in our lives.


  7. Ah, Chris we may only be friends in the #VirtualGarden for now! I am truly looking forward to meeting you in a real garden soon. For now we will Toil in the Soil and share from a far yet still be close through Social Media online until then... Happy New Year to you and yours Annie

  8. What a nice re-cap of your 2011. It's fun to be apart of you adventures in gardening. Yes, we met on line, but eventually, all like minded gardeners will meet; some will stay friends for a lifetime. Here's to the future!

  9. Christopher, I must admit you were a complete surprise to me this year. Someone who seems like a brother at times- understanding 80's music, eager to learn about Plants and always wanting to share. Can't beat that my friend!

    Guess I should thank Helen Yoest for introducing us really. What a great lady huh?

    Look to crossing paths with you this coming year. Chicago for sure if not Tuscon as well.


  10. Agree with everything you say here, Chris. So glad to know you and many of the people you mention here!I love this quote of yours, "It is these people, whose love for plants and passion for life gives us a common thread despite our differences and distance, that made 2011 one of the most satisfying years of my life."

    Second your motion! Happy New Year!

  11. Laura! Please forgive me for leaving you out of the people I met at GWA! I've so enjoyed getting to know you better this fall. I knew I was going to leave someone very important out! So sorry it was you. :(

  12. I've updated the post to include Laura Mathews, who I still can't believe I left out in the first place!

  13. Thank you for counting us among all of these wonderful folks! So glad to know you, too. Look forward to you photos and writings in 2012!

  14. Wow, it's like a big family reunion here! What a wonderful way to remember an eventful remembering the people who made it special. I'm honored to be included with such an amazing, caring and talented group of gardeners.

    I look forward to growing with you, and hopefully, meeting you in person in 2012.

  15. Hey Chris! We're bound to cross paths here soon! Are you going to ANLA in late Jan?