In the Garden: Garden Writers Visit Walmart

Charles Kidder In the Garden
In the Garden
by Charles Kidder

A box appeared on my doorstep a few days ago, not a particularly surprising occurrence, except that I didn’t recall ordering anything.  The return address was a seed company in Alabama. Hmm. I decided to open the box on the chance someone was sending me some fabulous plants. What I found—was pansies. Some of you might recall a column last year in which I poked some fun at these cheery but overused plants. I wondered if one of my gardening friends, a known pansy sympathizer, had played a cruel joke on me. But then a look at the enclosed letter revealed the true source.

Back in September I attended the Garden Writers Association symposium in Raleigh. I had joined the GWA last summer, in part to attend a symposium, and to see what this group had to offer. The 650 registrants included 87 vendors, all anxious to ply garden writers with all manner of horticultural swag. Including, as it turned out, half a dozen pansies. Imagine my delight.

The gift-giving began several days before the symposium, when an email from the CobraHead Tool Company arrived, asking if I was interested in receiving a free weeder. Being a dedicated weed puller, I figured one more weapon would fit in my arsenal, so I succumbed to temptation. When the tool arrived, the enclosed letter hoped that I would enjoy using it and “would tell others about it.”  Horrors! Had my integrity as an impartial garden writer now been compromised by virtue of a tool costing $25 at retail? Years from now I envisioned being grilled by a senator during my confirmation hearings for Secretary of Agriculture. So, allow me to go on record that the CobraHead weeder is a pretty good device. Best weeder ever? Let’s just say it’s a tie with several other weeders. I do appreciate that the CobraHead is manufactured by a small company in Wisconsin and uses recycled plastic in its handle.

Pansies—cheery but overused swag.

But back to the main focus of the symposium, talks and tours. Well, talks and tours, plus various receptions and meals, most sponsored by one company or another. On the first full day of the symposium, we were treated to a hearty breakfast buffet at 6:45 a.m. (!), courtesy of the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company. As payback we had to listen to Scotts’ chief ornithologist tell us about Birding and Gardening: A Paradise in the Making. And listen we barely did, most of us more interested in stuffing our faces and chatting with our neighbors.

Then it was on to our keynote presentation, The Greening of America, courtesy of Dr. Lowell Catlett, a futurist from New Mexico State University. I was somewhat reminded of “The Motivational Speaker” that used to appear on Saturday Night Live. Not that it wasn’t an informative and entertaining presentation; just that it didn’t have much to do with horticulture. Catlett’s talk centered around sociologist Abraham Maslow’s triangle that portrays the human hierarchy of needs. At the base of this triangle, we are just struggling to survive. As we become more prosperous, we are looking for less tangible forms of gratification, which Maslow labels as “self-actualization.”  Dr. Catlett argued that gardening would fall under that rubric, punctuating many of his remarks with his arms forming a triangle. An Internet search indicated that Catlett gave a similar talk last year to RV dealers.

For most of the next two days, several talks were offered in concurrent sessions. The good part: you had your choice among three different talks at any one time, and of course the bad part was that you could not attend all of them.  One that I did attend was Gardening With Generation Y, much to my disappointment. The presenter was twenty-two years old, the youngest member of the Garden Writers Association. He threw around a lot of demographic data about younger people, but offered no real advice on approaching them about horticulture. Later when we were visiting a public garden, he spent most of his time yakking on his cell phone. So maybe actual gardens are irrelevant, and we just need to send his age group pictures of gardens. Or, perhaps text messages about gardens.

We visited many area gardens, among them Juniper Level Botanic Garden, the official name of the garden that surrounds Plant Delights Nursery, as well as the home of its owner, Tony Avent.  Thousands of varieties are packed into a mere six acres; some you can buy, others you can merely gawk at. A visit during their quarterly open houses is well worth the drive. If you do nothing else, check out their online catalog, full of Avent’s zany humor.

On Sunday, two optional garden tours were offered. I chose to visit several private gardens that were all quite wonderful, but at this point the energy of most of our group was flagging. The bus captains decided to cut one garden visit short so we could pay homage to Coffea arabica (the coffee plant) at Starbucks. And even though this was a bunch dedicated to gardens, there were other priorities. At the end of the day, we happened to pass a Target store. A couple of Canadians became very excited, bemoaning the lack of good retail in their country, and when the tour ended, they hired a cab for a serious shopping expedition. At least they get “free” healthcare up there.

The other tour group that day ended up visiting Wal-Mart. This tour was supposed to visit several sustainable food gardens in North Carolina, but never got past the first one. After being led around by a host that was by turn either boring or rude, the group boarded the bus to leave. The driver was a NASCAR wannabe, and took the turn on the country lane a bit too fast. The bus put one wheel in a ditch and began to list precariously.  Everyone disembarked, and several proceeded to acquaint themselves with the local fauna, fire ants. Welcome to the South. Eventually a rescue bus arrived, but too late to visit most other gardens. The best that could be provided was a trip to the garden center at a local Wal-Mart.  As some recompense, the long-suffering writers were provided with free beer. Beer is a brew of hops and various grains, so I’m happy to report that the horticultural theme was indeed maintained, even in the face of adversity.