Sample “The Garden Plot”

Written By: marty - Feb• 05•14

TheGardenPlotSign up in the box on the right (“Subscribe to our mailing list”) to receive my newsletter and you’ll get a free excerpt of The Garden Plot, which will be released on May 6th from Alibi. It’s the first Potting Shed mystery – with more to come.


How to carry on when your luggage is lost

Written By: marty - Oct• 19•13

The few of us remaining in the baggage claim area watch the carousel with ever-diminishing hope as the last three bags continue to circle. There! – No, that black bag is too big. Wait, that one! – Wrong, that’s a gray hard-sided suitcase. And the last one – someone’s enormous duffel bag, the kind with wheels. Thanks Delta and Air France – a four-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle wasn’t long enough to get my small black bag from one terminal to the other?

Losing your bag at the beginning of a trip is no vacation. Losing your bag in a foreign city, which is a one-and-a-half-hour drive from your final destination – even more annoying. And so, why was it that my companions at the villa set in a small Tuscan hill town kept saying to me, “You’re taking this so well.”

One reason is obvious – the villa in a Tuscan hill town. Also, third week of September – warm, but not hot. A pool in the south-facing garden. And the most congenial group of people to spend the week with as you can imagine. Still, how much can that compensate for being forced to wear the same pair of black trousers for twelve days in a row?

“We are still searching for your baggage.” That was the recording from the Florence airport baggage office each time I called. At least it was said with an Italian accent – a minor compensation. So, how was it that I endured a week with only my 17-by-13-by-6-inch carry-on?

Here’s what I packed: two pairs of underwear (microfiber, dries instantly); two pairs of socks (do not dry instantly, but then Victoria bought me a pair of flip-flops at the coop); black ballet flats (cheap, from Target – I could roll up my trousers once and look quite … well, a bit more Italian than my clunky airport shoes); three-quarter-sleeve knit top; short-sleeved blouse (no, wait – two! I surprised even myself); pjs; thin scarf/shawl (I call it my Florence scarf); my computer and Moleskine (this was, after all, partly a writing retreat). Oh, and let’s not forget my bag of 3-ounce items.

When I called Air France, I was apologized to ten times in the span of a four-minute conversation. I was told that after 72 hours, I could buy replacement items, but they asked me to please be reasonable. I did not travel to Italy to shop, and even if I wanted to, our little town has no shops. The chemist is open maybe this morning, maybe that afternoon, maybe not that day – and this is why we love it there. Instead, I got by with what I had, and I did well.

Except for the swimsuit – my new LL Bean swimsuit in my checked bag. Victoria to the rescue once again! She had an extra, and so I was able to take advantage of the pool after all.

So, fellow travelers, my advice is to pack in your carry-on what you might need for a day or a week. Settle (with a good attitude) for wearing the same clothes more than once. And on the way home – not a lesson I needed to learn, as I had no bag to check on the way home – do not pack the charger for your iPad in your checked bag, because you never know when your flight will be canceled because of a mechanical problem and you will be put up at a hotel near the Amsterdam airport. Thirty hours later when your flight finally takes off, what will you read on the way home?

Bluebonnets and more

Written By: marty - Aug• 19•13

Austin and San Antonio, April 4-10, 2014

The Texas hill country landscape is awash in wildflowers in early spring. In April, we’ll take a small group to view fields and roadsides full of the blooms of bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) and paintbrush (Castilleja). We’ll also visit several private gardens, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the Alamo – and we’ll probably eat some barbecue. More details on my travel page.

brightly coloured mythical creatures

Written By: marty - May• 20•13

That is why gnomes are banned at the Chelsea Flower Show – they fall into that magical, mystical realm of unicorns and dragons and sprites.

But this year, for Chelsea’s 100th birthday, the Royal Horticultural Society has thrown open its figurative arms to welcome these plump little behatted, pipe-smoking fellows, and all for a good cause. They’ve been decorated by celebrities and will be auctioned off on eBay with proceeds going to the RHS Chelsea Centenary Appeal and to benefit the Campaign for School Gardening. Today, on press day at the Chelsea Flower Show, I visited the gnomes – and I wasn’t the only one.

Groups of people continually form and re-form on press day – first, a cluster to the left, then it dissolves and one forms on the right – the place is awash with celebrities. Who could be the cause of this latest crowd? A hot young actress? A recently retired world-famous footballer?

No. It is, in fact, a parade of gnomes brought out of their glass cupboard for this photo-op and lined up in front of an RHS installation that contained a sculpture by Marc Quinn. Whose gnomes are they?

It probably wouldn’t take too many guesses before you came up with Sir Elton John’s name as the decorator of this gnome. Sparkly glasses, a dead giveaway.

I like the blue and red spots on the hat and wellies of Joanna Lumley’s gnome.

Lord Julian Fellowes’ gnome bears a striking resemblance to Lord Grantham – don’t you think? Perhaps the patriarch of the Crawley family should grow a beard.

Miranda Richardson – Rita Skeeter to Harry Potter fans, but also Rose Arbuthnot in “Enchanted April,” one of my favorite movies – added a quote to her gnome, which can be read only if you’re handling the guy and can turn him around.

Dame Maggie Smith splashed a lot of color – love the ginger beard – and John Hurt thoughtfully included a flower for his gnome. THIS JUST IN – some eager RHS worker misplaced one of the gnomes. The gnome with the “g” design was not done by Maggie Smith, but by Helen Mirren. I certainly hope someone has corrected the arrangement by now.

Enjoy the gnomes while you can – the ban will be reinstated next year.

The Never-ending sights of London

Written By: marty - Apr• 29•13

The more often we visit London, the more there is to see. How did this city become the loaves-and-fishes of sightseeing? Another trip and the list of places we’d love to stop in grows, often because we feel the need to go back and finish what we started. Museum of London? Three visits and we still haven’t gotten past the Tudors – and we wouldn’t pass up another chance to stroll through nearby Postman’s Park.

Museum of London gardens

Moments in history are everywhere – from the Magna Carta at the British Library (or perhaps you’d rather see the handwritten lyrics to the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride”?) to the commonplace. At the Dickens House Museum, we saw his diary under glass, opened to a page where he complained about his houseguest – Hans Christian Andersen.

St. Pancras

Here’s how our list grows – some places on this list will be fresh sightings and others are repeats: the Leighton House Museum, Regent’s Canal walk, Garden Museum (and its lovely café), the Sutton House (because Hilary Mantel chose it as her favorite National Trust house), London Museum of Transport, Handel House Museum (and its connections to Jimi Hendrix), Thomas and Jane Carlyle’s house in Chelsea (because, after all, we saw the Carlyle house in Edinburgh), St. Pancras Station (you don’t have to be taking a train to enjoy this restored marvel), the National Portrait Gallery (there’s another place it takes forever to get through), the pelicans being fed in St. James’s Park, the ground-level fountain in Russell Square (our favorite place to sit when we arrive too early to check into our nearby hotel). The British Museum – don’t get me started.

Chelsea Embankment

Here’s the best, low-cost tour of the city: the top level of a double-decker bus. The view from the front seats is breathtaking – especially as you continually think the bus is about to run over someone or something. The number 11 bus travels between St. Paul’s Cathedral (on Ludgate Hill) and Victoria Station. You can continue to Sloane Square if you like and then walk down to the Chelsea Embankment.

The past is all around us

Written By: marty - Mar• 05•13

The one-liners abounded when news came that the remains of Richard III were found in a car park in Leicester – the most oft-repeated: “Was Jimmy Hoffa with him?”


History is ever-present in England, and although the Romans left the island in the 5th century, they are a continually in the news, and so I could not resist including a thread of Anglo-Roman history in The Garden Plot my first Potting Shed mystery, which includes a Roman tile mosaic. My inspiration came from many sources. Leighton and I are fascinated by remnants of a 2,000-year-old civilization that exist alongside modern elements such as the Gherkin and the Shard. Emerge from the Tower Hill Tube station, for example, and your met with a piece of Roman wall.

Roman ruins in London are, as Pru’s friend Jo says in The Garden Plot, “as common as dirt.” Workers building the Thameslink in 2011 found a Roman bath near London Bridge Street.

Exhibits in the British Museum and the Museum of London helped with my research. I wanted to see tile work up close and personal, and I snapped a few pictures to remember them by.

How Gardeners Watch Movies

Written By: marty - Dec• 18•12

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

Starring Nothofagus!

Also starring – what kind of pine is that?

Gardeners see movies and television shows differently. We’re distracted by what is behind, beside, and above the actors. Their lines, the scene, whole pieces of action can go by while we try to figure out which magnolia that is on the far right. Or, in the case of “The Hobbit,” what all those darn conifers are dotting the mountains that Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves are walking over.

Plants of the Southern Hemisphere intrigue gardeners – the trees look like something we should know, but can’t quite put our fingers on. A conifer called the black pine is really Prumnopitys taxifolia. What?

Nothofagus menziesii

That’s one reason New Zealand worked so well for filming Tolkien’s work. The Southern beech (Nothofagus sp.) woods create dappled light and the fallen leaves – many species are evergreen, but even evergreen plants lose leaves at some point, just not all at once – make a fine forest floor. Remember the skirmish that Frodo and Boromir had at the end of FOTR? They were both slipping on the tiny dried leaves; it reminds me of leaf litter from a live oak (Quercus virginiana).

While watching a British period drama, gardeners admire how well the yew hedge is trimmed. The characters stroll along, confiding secrets to each other without a care for who is lurking on the other side of the wall of green. You’d think they would know better.

Often, gardeners catch mistakes – filming out of season. If it’s supposed to be summer, why are there daffodils in the background? And why are there no leaves in that hazel thicket? The giant sequoia wasn’t introduced to Britain until the 19th century – what’s it doing there behind Henry VIII? Ha, ha – what fools!

Unless the plants are integral the story – as in the Clive Owen movie “Greenfingers” – directors of films and television shows know they must keep plants in the background. Can you imagine what would happen if they filmed an important scene (“pay attention to these clues!”) while the characters stood next to an Embothrium in May? The tree, covered in shocking orange flowers, would shout louder than any character could talk.

Watch this space

Written By: marty - Sep• 18•12

What – April? That’s the last time I posted something here? Let’s just say that time has flown by, and there’s much to catch up on. Paris, London, Edinburgh with gardens and friends all along the way. More on that later.

But first – next year. Plans are already afoot for our May tour to England. This will be a hybrid tour – sites of some of our favorite British television shows – Downton Abbey, Port Wenn, the Tudors – plus gardens. PIctured here is The Courts, a lovely small National Trust garden near Chippenham. Can’t wait to go back.

Interested? Let me know.


A very English morning

Written By: marty - Apr• 24•12

I walked out the door this morning on my way to our Greendays gardening segment on KUOW, and for just a moment, it felt like I was in England. That’s what a cloudy, barely cool morning does – it reminds me of the Chelsea Flower Show and the European tours I lead. I got the sudden urge to pack a bag – but, this year, that won’t happen until later in the summer, when it mostly likely will not be cool and cloudy. Or maybe it will.

Postman's Park

Packing for the weather is a dodgy business. My friend Jane is on a barge tour in France right now. She had staged her packing a week ahead of the trip, but two days before checked the forecast and found that it was supposed to be rainy and cool. She repacked.

My Florence scarf

I go in for many layers of clothing and don’t try to pack thick (and so, fewer) clothes. Many thin layers mean more options, and my Florence scarf (pictured – yes, I got it in Florence) is perfect for a chilly room or terrace.

And when it’s hot, I start peeling – not too far, don’t worry – and look for shade. On a hot day last summer, I scored a spot on a stone bench at The Fountains near the Lancaster Gate in Hyde Park, and watched what seemed like the entire city pass by. Not only was it fun, I was doing research, of course, as Pru and Christopher (The Garden Plot, a Potting Shed mystery) make a day of first at Postman’s Park (pictured above) and then walking to the pelicans at St. James’s Park.

I realize that some travelers would think sitting in a park half the day a waste of time, but I have no qualms about spending time observing, chatting, and wandering. Don’t give me this “bucket list” business or how many places you have to see before you die. Just enjoy yourself.

Jane Austen gardened here

Written By: marty - Mar• 05•12

Well, all right, perhaps she didn’t do the actual gardening, but if she had been here, I’m sure she would’ve cut a rose or two. When we visited Bath Spa last summer, we were up to our ears in Georgian-style gardens and it felt like Austen might walk around the yew hedge at any moment.

Kennard Hotel, back garden

You can join the throng in the city center – I believe everyone must say “I’ll meet you at the baths” – but look sharp so that you don’t accidentally end up on one of the myriad of coaches that stop near the Abbey, regularly disgorging and then sucking up their passengers. Perhaps you’ve been a day tripper?

It’s possible to enjoy Bath and not get caught up in the hordes. We stayed at a small, charming hotel just a ten-minute walk from the rail station – granted, last summer, it was a ten-minute walk in the pouring rain, but that’s beside the point. Up Manvers Street, alongside the Parade Gardens, across Pulteney Bridge, and hang a left onto quiet Henrietta Street, and we arrived at the Kennard Hotel.

The rooms are small, the breakfast room cozy, the hosts – Mary and Giovanni Baiano – friendly and accommodating. And in the back garden of this Georgian townhouse, you’ll find a picture of what it might have looked like if Jane lived there.

Kennard Hotel, Bath

Such an authentic representation that their garden appears in Kim Wilson’s book In the Garden with Jane Austen (Frances Lincoln, 2009).

You’ll find another Georgian period garden by heading toward the Royal Crescent by way of the quieter gravel walk rather than traipsing up Gay Street and around The Circus. The garden is free to enter and wander through – signage explains the layout. The garden had been covered up during Victorian improvements, and then uncovered again. It’s a garden to stroll around – picture Lizzie and Jane Bennett arm-in-arm.

For your Bath Spa pub stop, Leighton recommends one of his favorites – The Raven. Cozy and dark downstairs; bright and cheery upstairs.

Georgian Garden, Bath

So, venture away from the Pump Room, come out of the Jane Austen Centre (you can’t budge in that gift shop, anyway) and stop lounging around on the grass at the Royal Crescent. There’s more to see.