How did you get the idea to write a book about the garden at Orchard House?
I never get the ideas for my books—they always come from someone else. In this case, I was out to dinner with my friend Kim Ricketts, sitting there babbling about the new house my mother had bought in Seattle and how we were going to work together to bring the overgrown garden back to life—how even my nieces were going to have their own garden plots, so it would be a multi-generational effort. Kim looked at me with glint in her eye. “You have got to write about this,” she said. And so I did.
Is that really Orchard House on the book cover?
It is! The building in the photo is actually a small cottage in the backyard, but that is the garden, and those are my nieces at right. The other two children are the neighbor kids, who came to play that day. I had run up to the house to turn on the water for the sprinkler, and the kids looked like they were having so much fun I snapped a picture. I had no idea it would end up on the book, but I’m delighted it is. I’m also very impressed how the art department made our weeds look so pretty and romantic.
What was the hardest part of writing Orchard House?
This book covers some personal material about my family, which required me to revisit our early days and make sense of things that had not made sense to me as a child. That was a challenge—but one I am grateful for now. It’s been a very rewarding journey.
The other hard part was logistical—the book took me away from the garden, and the garden took me away from the book. I thought I might be able to write in the garden, surrounded by flowers, but it turns out that you can’t see the computer screen in the sun. I ended up writing a lot at night—in the summer I sat at the picnic table on the deck in the dark. Sometimes I heard rustling and saw raccoons coming through the garden, to eat the blackberries. It was a juggling act, but it was worth it in the end.
When did the book start? How long have you had Orchard House?
My mother bought Orchard House at the end of 2009. We’ve been gardening there five summers now (2015 will be our 6th). The timeline in the book is slightly condensed, so it would flow better, but it covers a period of time a little more than three years. I started writing seriously in January of 2012.
Where is Orchard House? Can I come visit?
Orchard House is located in a residential neighborhood in North Seattle. Because it is a private home, visits are not currently possible. Perhaps at some time we will offer garden tours or even classes. Right now we’re just trying to keep up with the weeds.
What is your favorite thing to grow?
That’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child—not possible!
• We grow a ton of Alpine strawberries, which bear tiny fruit all summer long that taste like strawberry bubble gum; the kids love them and they make a good border for flowerbeds.
• My mother would be happy if all we grew was kale—we have four or five varieties. Dino/Tuscan kale is her favorite, I like Siberian. Brassicas (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc) grow well in Seattle and produce all year round. Another green we do well with is arugula, we grow two kinds.
• We all like berries—three kinds of raspberries, eight blueberry bushes, and two kinds of strawberries. We grow so many we can’t eat them all, so the freezer gets stocked with fruit to be used throughout the winter. It’s like frozen gold.
• The orchard is a huge part of Orchard House—we have apples, pears, Asian pears, cherries, plums, quince, pluot, a fig, and a peach. There are also two hazelnuts, an almond, and a persimmon, but they’re all fairly young and haven’t produced yet. We’re also just starting to get kiwi berries, which are great.
It sounds like a lot—and it is—but I’m still longing for an apricot, a mulberry, gooseberries and currants. Once you get started with fruit, it’s hard to stop!
• I find herbs are the most satisfying thing to grow—and that’s where I suggest people start if they are cooks. It’s so rewarding to be able to pick a spring of thyme or parsley or chives. But my favorite herbs to grow are marjoram (so underrated), garlic chives, and sorrel, which is a lemony leaf that looks similar to spinach. It’s perennial and pretty much takes care of itself, coming back each spring. I like low and no-maintenance plants.
• Even though Seattle is not the ideal climate for it, I can’t resist growing tomatoes. I try 25-30 varieties each year, grown on stakes (inderminate only) and heavily pruned. We don’t get the intense flavor and sweetness possible in warmer climates, but still we try. I have an excellent spot to grow them and do pretty well. Nothing like a salad of just picked tomatoes that are warm from the sun. I also really like pickled green tomatoes, so it all works out.
• We also grow flowers. My mother especially likes tulips, irises, and wisteria. I love lilacs with a deep passion, mock orange, and have become obsessed with dahlias. I never particularly liked them before, but there were a number of abandoned dahlias growing in the garden at Orchard House and they have won me over. Anything that blooms so late in the fall in Seattle makes me happy.
What is your favorite garden tool?
I used to think it was funny that all the permaculturalists I knew swore by their hori hori (a Japanese digging blade). Then I got one and understood their passion. The hori hori and a good quality garden clippers—I like Felco—are the two tools I use 90% of the time (inexpensive clippers can’t be sharpened and will need to be replaced before you know it). The other 10% of the time is split between a shovel, a pitchfork, and larger pruning loppers (no favorite brands, just go for good quality). Oh, and the dreaded weedwhacker, which I hate. I always seem to break them.
Do you have questions not answered here? Send them to me in an email and I’ll add them to the list! Thanks.