Showing posts with label julia child. Show all posts
Showing posts with label julia child. Show all posts

December 26, 2009

Remembering 'The Julia Child of Horticulture', Thalassa Cruso

Opening title card for PBS's 1960's gardening program "Making Things Grow" by Thalassa Cruso

Now that the pace and energy of Christmas and the Holiday season is slowing down bit, I can rest and catch up on other things I like. With two weeks off from work, these are the days where I can catch up with all sorts of unfinished projects, of which there are far to many.

Since Julia Child seems to be everywhere right now, and because this Christmas, one of my favorite gifts was the complete set of vintage Julia Child videos from her public television cooking program in the 60's, I've been also reminded of Thalassa Cruso, Julia's peer in the horticultural world, at least with novice's and houseplant lovers. Being from the Boston area, and having had parents that were closely involved with public television, Boston culture and the arts during that period, I find the nostalgic revisit to Julia's videos much more than just inspirational, for Julia's home studio was near where I lived, WGBH in Boston, and it seems as a child, we bumped into her tall ( 6 foot 2 inch!) frame of boiled wool and practical shoes, everywhere, from the museum openings as the Museum of Fine Arts, to Horticultural Hall and concerts at WGBH studios. So, to me, it all seems too natural for it was not unusual to bump into Julia at a local supermarket buying lentils, ( OK, it was only twice, but still, memorable).

Anyway, this is a long way to say that in this slow week of remembering Julia, worth every moment, I think it would be nice to remember Thalassa Cruso too. Thalassa Cruso (1909-1997) , who the New York Times referred to as "The Julia Child of Horticulture".

As Time magazine recenty recalled: "There is nothing highhanded about Thalassa, a 59-year-old British-born grandmother who finds "relief from the everyday pressures of life by working among living things which refuse to be hurried." On her twice-weekly show, Making Things Grow, which is carried on five educational stations in New England, she is to spathiphyllum cannae-folium what TV Chef Julia Child is to pate en croute.
Fatshedera in a Mini. Thalassa's pitch is like a cactus—plain yet prickly. Holding up a wire-looped hanging pot, she sniffs: "I consider this pot a bore." Banging down a tray of bulbs on her worktable, she declares: "Now this is a rather ratty object, a relative of the onion called tritelia. It's really not worth the trouble of growing, but some people do, so I have to show it to you." She talks about cow dung as if it were French perfume, condemns tinfoil wrapping as "a crime against a blooming plant."

Although I was teased by my older siblings, who found my interest in this older, British lady with the show that started with classical music, and who smashed naughty slugs, and spritzed her house plants with water, rather boring), for they wanted to wanted to watch "Love American Style" or "The Banana Splits". Our black and white Motorola more often than not, still would be tuned in to Making Things Grow, for thankfully, it was moved to Saturday afternoons when nothing else was on, and I could watch is by myself. Today, I wonder what might be inspiring the hortiphiles of the future, for I fear current programing may result in a bevy of killer shark experts and tornado hunters. I can't think of a contemporary 'Thalassa Cruso' except perhaps Martha Stewart ( the old program). But for my generation and older, many young gardeners were strongly influenced by her program 'Making Things Grow", which 'planted the seeds' that grew into a love and passion for plants.

I wish that WGBH, public television in Boston, would release her videos, although, I am sure that they might include some out of fashioned, techniques, many of us would still enjoy them. I can remember watching both Julia and Thalassa on Saturday afternoons, and surely, Thalassa's program 'Making Things Grow" was highly influential in getting me even more interested in plants. I will always remember her fearlessly smashing a giant pot of a Clivia miniata, and then sawing the root ball in half, a vision I always recall when repotting our huge specimens. Gardening takes confidence and determination, and Thallassa's acerbic British tone and perfect diction of a school teacher, made certain that you, the human, was in charge of the plants. For in the 60's, when the house plant movement was just starting to regenerate with macrame spider plants in the windows of hippies and those who wore patchouli , there were also those who talked to plants in a Jerry Baker way.

Thalassa was neither of those, being raised in a British household in England where plants and horticulture were an everyday part of life, her style was more like that of my parents, who also we're first generation immigrants, seeing plants as being useful both indoors and out, for very different purposes, but neither a mere decoration, for indoor plants we're there for the soul, and not treated as merely pets. They must be grown well, cultured, and cared for, but also re-propagated, by grafting, cuttings and or division, and then the mother plant, tossed into the compost. Thalassa's style was the same. Hack and smack horticulture, I guess, no emotional connection to plants, rather, more of a biological one. I do miss that sort of attitude, especially from a TV host who marketed herself as 'the everyman gardener". Today, our style of entertainment errs on plants either being treated as pets, novelties, or a bit too disposable. That is, if they are not made of silk. We've lost something along the way here.

As a young gardener, living in as rather horticulturally aware family, I could balance the innate knowledge shared with me by my parents, with the more exotic knowledge of Thalassa Cruso. Here was this ten year old kid, not playing baseball or football, but instead, taking the bus into the city to spend hours in the library at the Horticultural Society, being encouraged to borrow books first on more simple ventures, such as those on forcing bulbs or propagating houseplants, and later, on cultivating South African Bulbs and on growing alpines in pots. Thalassa Cruso introduced me to the Clivia miniata, the citrus tree indoors, the Spathyphyllum, the Jade Plant, the Paperwhite Narcissus. If there is anyone to blame for a lifetime of obsession, it surely is Ms. Cruso. If only I had met a writer in those formative years, maybe I could have done more with this passion!

Perhaps best way to experience Thalassa's wit and knowledge, is to find her books either on eBay or at other on-line vintage book sellers like Alibris. They are often very affordable, ( like a dollar or so in the US), and a great read to keep at the bed side. I often recall her stories about vintage Holiday plants in the England of her childhood, the holly, ivy and Hellebores and Anemones. I remember her stories about plant displays on the porches of her home outside of Boston, tiered stepped displays of Petunia's and Pansy's in early summer, her tales of Gloxinia displays in late summer, her story about having a custom made copper liner for her plant window, so that she could fill it with gravel and plant Paperwhite Narcissus for the winter. These are all influential stories that are personal to me, and which still move me to either try or execute somewhere in my future.

It was Thalassa Cruso who inspired many hoticulturists in the 1960's to attempt growing the orange Clivia miniata, then, not common at all. He books then told the story of the famed Yellow Clivia, which many of you know from reading this blog, we too have a long connection with. So, even though I never met Thalassa, I feel a little more connected.

Ten years ago, while exploring in Japan, we visited Mr. Nakamura, who together with Sir Peter Smithers helped bring the famed yellow Clivia miniata to the rest of the world. In the late 1960's, Thalassa Cruso wrote about her journey to obtain a division of a rare yellow Clivia from Kew in England. That plant came from Sir Peter Smithers, and his form called Vivo Yellow was first sent to Mr. Nakamura in northern Japan, where it first bloomed, and he named it after Sir Smithers home in Italy, Vico Morocote. I thought of Thalassa's letter and journey to owership of the then, valuable plant ( they are much more affordable today), as we found ourselves being invited to Mr. Nakamura's secret greenhouses in rural Japan, where hundreds of these plants we're being grown, and where hundreds of seeds and offspring where shared with us, and currently live in our greenhouse. Plants connect through story, and heritage, in one way or another. Being able to trace back sometimes, is a meaningful addition that adds to the entire experience.

Apparently WGBH is unable to transfer the old recordings over to DVD or digital due to cost limitations, but former host of The Victory Garden ( yes, another infuencial program that should be rereleased) Michael Weishan, has shared a terrific story and a video clip on his blog, worth visiting. The hour long Bonsai episode link is here.

Many thanks to Stephan Orr's great plant blog, that inspired me to write this.

Also, Is it just me, or is former Martha Stewart exec. Margaret Roach and Thalassa Cruso separated at birth?

October 7, 2009

Farewell Gourmet Mag.. Are we on the precipice of great change, culturally? Or should we just be happy with bushel basket Mums?

Gourmet 1947

It's rant Wednesday..say, have you seen the news? Conde Nast is dumping Gourmet Magazine due to failing ad sales. While we who prefer coinnoisser tastes mourn the loss, I can't help but think that this is not the end, that the trend will continue and who could be next? Horticulture Magazine? Garden Design magazine? Journals and quarterlies of multiple plant societies?

Folks, it's not going away. We need to face this challenge now. Or, at least become part of the change. Doing nothing will only reinforce our Ludditeness, and allow more superficial sources to thrive. It's all part of a greater problem, but the problem is not what we think it it. The problem is simply us not adapting fast enough, and rejecting anything new, as if dismissing it will make it go away. This can be a brand new opportunity. We can't continue to sit at home and complain that electricity is ruining our lives, and that the automobile is destroying horse culture, let's do something. What we love and enjoy in live may no longer be in a magazine, or a printed journal, but it may be the most incredible web site in the world, imagine it, or the most awesome television program, or the finest singular magazine that we would all want.

Listen to what Seth Godin has to say on his blog.

Here's a little bit of what he wrote about the demise of Gourmet Magazine, and the techie conundrum of academics and atisans rejecting technology until it is too late:

Our Culture (high and popular) is usually created by people who are happy with the systems the world has given them. Magazine editors don't spend a lot of time wishing for better technology. Opera singers focus more on their singing than on microphone technologies. Novelists proudly use typewriters.

*The much-anticipated folding of Gourmet magazine is proof of what happens when the top left refuses to move right. Most of the Conde Nast empire is facing the abyss of this problem right now.

Seth Godin may just have confirmed what I, and a few others have been sensing for a while. The world is changing fast, and get ready, it's changing even faster than we have imagined. The passing this week of Conde Nast's Gourmet Magazine, not only a cultural icon, but an even likened to the loss of Julia Child, has raised more than eyebrows amongst the food and garden writers of the world. But whoa Nelly....the desire for cultural inspiration and lifestyle enrichment has hardly weakened, if anything, it has grown. More people, than ever, are accepting and patronizing ventures and businesses who sell and service the industries that swirl behind the trends. Globally, from apartments in Tokyo to Chalet's in Swiss mountain villages, to sleek condos in New Zealand, we as a species are spending money on granite kitchen counters, stainless steel monster stoves, professional refrigerators in which to keep our Pellegrino and organic Mache. Yeah, things have changed, but is it really all that bad?

Look. Gardening as a hobby, lifestyle, passion, whatever...is still happening. I think even the numbers of people somehow involved with gardening are even higher than ever before, but again, it is how we consume, and how much. I feel that the real issue isn't that Gourmet Magazine has gone out of print, for, although it saddens me, and makes me want to drag out that big box of vintage 1940 and 1950 Gourmet Mag's that my Aunt Ann left me so that I can flip through the musty pages and advertisements for Vermont Ham's and reminisce through the decades of Chutney, Relish, Brioche, and then skip the 70's quiche era. Sure, I too sometimes hate change, but at the same time, I relish ( or chutney) it. sorry.

Last night I was having a drink with a friend, and over our fine glass of house Chardonnay at Chili's, were discussing the future of garden writing and food, and even some other lifestyle brands/products, since, that's what we do for a living, anyway, at least, during the day. We settled on, that today, there are more people than ever who want to experience gardening. The difference is, that the audience is scaled differently, if anything, it is scaled by experience and expectation.

Looking at Seth Godin's chart, I am not sure that I agree completely with it's structure, but the fundamental point is brilliant. That far left top area is what keeps us from moving forward. Many of us plant geeks are comfortable with being experts. We are completely 'fine' with other's not understanding what we do. If anything, we love ( relish) the idea that friends think that we might be a bit horto-nerdy when we carefully plant our Nomocharis bulbs in a specialized gravelly, peaty soil that drains well, yet stays moist, while they are more than happy to limit their 'experience' to dumping a mesh bag of discount Home Depot daffodils in a hole dug around their lamp post and call it a day. This is both considered gardening, folks. The fact is, more people are indeed gardening, but, they far outnumber the plant geeks like us who demand more. The others will not learn 'more' unless we inspire them. ( and their kids). This can take generations. But it took generations in England, too. And...by the way, they too sell Daffodils to the masses at Tesco's, and it's OK.

A few thoughts on that. First, I want to believe that this trend might be very similar to what happened in England in the early 1800's, although class and elitism factored in, too. Still, the common man ( woman) found that a potted Auricula Primrose added some value to their coal dust covered lives. That a nosegay of Violets enriched their few, brief moments when they we're not boiling sheets and socks. They appreciated plants and gardening, which, of course, has changed over time. Still, gardening and an appreciation if not an obsession for plants began in England, and it continues today. Still, it's different now, than then. Again, I feel that it's not the appreciation which has changed, it's how and what we appreciate, not why.

In the 20th Century, especially after the war steadily until now, we somehow have become complacent. We don't want things to change, we like ritual, it's comforting. In fact, it may be a very human behavior to expect and look forward to the ritual around gardening and plants. Every year, there are fall bulb catalogs that arrive in the mail, seed catalogs in the spring, moments in bed at night writing out orders, or hours making wish lists in front of the crackling fire of birch logs as the snow..... you know what I mean. Then, little by little, it all started to get ruined for us.

First, remember in 1980? When that Thompson & Morgan catalog would arrive in mid January? Then, in 1987 it arrived in late December, then in 1994 it came well before Christmas. Soon, spring seed catalogs might come out with Halloween Candy in August. That should have been a big sign that things were about to change. Then, our favorite plant that we wanted, would be sold out because everyone ordered it online, damn computer. Then, 'hot' plants would be sold out before the catalogs were mailed. How dare they.

Things changed gradually, but steadily. Plant Society meetings on Saturday afternoons started to become more sparsely populated. Where were all of the young people? Yet, super mega shopping centers had massive displays of Hellebores and fancy Daylilies that swept out of the door faster than Styrofoam pumpkins the day after Halloween at Michael's Craft stores.

As gardeners, we should just get over ourselves, and embrace it. So buckle up buttercup....What they Hell?! We garden types are tougher than cooks, foodies, dog show people (w ell, maybe not them but the orchid society could give them a run for the money). We can handle this challenge, no CHANGE.

WE will adapt and then find a way to do it better. So what if all the gardening magazine go out of business, are they really THAT good anyway? What we need to do, is to support and improve the quality of what we want, and expect that maybe there will be less of it, but, better product. In a way, we all control the numbers. We need to get over many things first. So if you are still complaining that you miss real film, Ektachrome, slide projectors... if you are still bitchin' about how great the page count in your society journals used to be, and how the cost of printing is killing you. If you are a small plant society not willing to change, and you are still complaining that your declining membership in the micro gesneriad society of northern Ontario is out of control, get over it. There are only 6 of you, and you are freaking awesome....go with it. Woot!.

For the rest of us, get ready for change. But don't just site there, consider options, even big ones. For instance, if all of the plant societies in the world got together, imagine the power they would have. Imagine a 4 color printed glossy perfect bound journal with 400 pages that everyone could enjoy, beautifully designed. Imagine even if only all of the alpine plant societies and rock garden societies could just join forces, Heck, we could sponsor global expeditions, a television program, a touring conference. Imagine even the small things - if the Northern, and Southern UK , and western and eastern US Primula societies could merge into one, mega primula society. What do you think their journal and web experience would look like? FIrst of all, I think the 'experience' of being a member would not change all that much, but the future may depend on globalization of first, the specialty plant groups, and then, a globalization of all of the, perhaps.

Sure, freak out. But how would you stop this trend? And actually, what IS the trend, anyway? I am not convinced that it is declining interest, as much as it is declining free time and depth of interest. I would imagine that if tiered properly, any plant society could attract more people by making what they know and love appealing to entry level gardeners, that young woman in Brooklyn who love design and modernity, but who has little knowledge nor time with work, and a baby, that middle aged dude in western Iowa who works full time in a cubicle, and looks forward to driving his kids to football practice and soccer on Saturday, then Pizza at night, to the just retired couple in New Hampshire who still need to work part time jobs, but who are on a fixed budget, and who never gardened before and who would like to try, but don;t know where to start?

Sure, today, plant societies may be struggling, but they do need to change, or, Seth is right....they will fade away painfully slow. So the big question is, how do they change? Well, I have a few ideas.

First, don't complain so much. It's just not productive, and don't ignore it either. Make change. The complaining makes plant society meetings painful to attend, believe me, I sometimes wonder why I even bother to go to some. It makes me feel unwanted, and unwelcome, and there is little to look forward to. I can tell you how many times I've heard " guys. come on, this is a Plant Society...why are we arguing so much?" I mean, I get it. Change is hard to accept, but still.....

Second, you will need to educate your society to learn digital tools, computers, etc. more. In a year or two, we will all have digital TV and flat screens. The one we just bought, a 54" LCD screen which was $11,000 3 years ago, was only $1500, half the price of our last TV. And I can cruise the Internet with it, my blog looks awesome at 54" in high depth. Wait till I add video, and music! Today, we all will start seeing more than a website with some sites, why not be the first plant society to do this ( and, if we all joined forces, it could literally become a plant network with an hour for the evergreen society, an hour video program on alpine plants, etc. And once big business understands that suddenly, thousands of eyes worldwide are looking at interactive sites on line on their home TV's, you know that dollars will be thrown at it fast via advertising bucks. Remember, the number 1 reason why Gourmet is dead, is failing ad revenue. The Internet is basically free.

One of the easiest benefits you can produce is a .pdf Newsletter. Now, they can be in color, and easily distributed. I know, not as fab as a printed journal.....but wait...

Print a journal?

Sure, just steer your membership costs towards it. On line printing sites like Lulu, which is owned by Amazon, and who can distribute your journal through Amazon is one great option. Yeah, the cost is a little high, but not prohibitive, especially if the quality of the writing and book, is high, and it is only getting better. I would pay $20 per issue if it was printed on Lulu with a thick glossy cover,and stunning photos on every page......but remember, you can offset the cost with color ad's too. At low pricepoints, since advertisers need a break, too. I am currently working on some creative solutions for digital printing that all societies can think about. Other online print services is Blurb, which many of my younger designer pals use frequently for self designed books, portfolios and magazine type books. Their quality is even better. On society could publish a hardcover journal annual or biannual with the highest quality printing.
I use Magcloud for my magazine, and still a little costly, a 60 page magazine would cost less that $12.00. That price will go down, and advertising may help.

The big publishers are all jumping in, so don't think they are really just dumping their magazines. They are investing in digital options fast. In one way or another, if a publisher or printer isn't looking at digital options, they may not survive. Rumors are that even Timber Press is looking at options. We cannot just wait.

Lightning Source owned partly by Ingram
Author House is partly owned by Barnes & Noble investors
Booksurge is owned by Amazon
Lighting Source
XLibris is owned by Random House
Then, check this out. Print on demand, journals.

Third, consider weekday night meetings, if you want younger people. Hold them at cool small cafe's, where slide presentations can be shared. the art community is doing this now with a movement called PECHA KUCHA, just Google it and you will be amazed, especially if you look for it on You Tube. PECHA KUCHA events are held world wide, in cafes, restaurants, and bars where people of all ages, share their passions and interests, but in 20 slides, in 20 minutes. Imagine if the plant world could start at trend like this.

See, it's not that we are all avoiding plant societies, it's that we just need to consume our passions, differently. I may not join a society on Hellebore's, and attend 2 hour meetings on the only day a week that I have off, but, I would stop off on the way home from work, on Ephemeral Night at Pecha Kucha Green ( making that up), and have a glass of wine and listen to a plant geek share her 20 slides of her favorite Hellebore's, and then listen to the next speaker talk about Anemone nemorosa in their woodlands for 20 slides, and then pay the $5.00 for a membership donation, and then go home. I just might do that.

Think about it...what we gardeners have adapted to over the past few years.

the Internet
bank debit cards
digital cameras

In Japan, on my last trip, every ones cell phones have scanners that sweep across digital UPC codes, and they pay for everything this way. Taxi's, vending machines, fast food, all with a sweep of their cell phones. But the feature also allows them to scan a code on posters, on ad's on the train, on buses, in magazines, and instantly, a load on info is downloaded into the palm of their hand. A bit much perhaps, but this technology is on its way, along with mobile TV, so once this all merges, we will have to adapt, or lose ever everything.

Move forward!