Ruth Kassinger, award-winning author (Paradise Under Glass and A Garden of Marvels), mixes gardening for the novice, botanical history, tales of extraordinary plants, and humor.
w: Ruth's Blog
Ruth Kassinger is the author of Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden, (Morrow/HarperCollins) as well as eight award-winning science and history books for young adults. Her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and in other newspapers through the McClatchy/Tribune news service. She also writes for Science Weekly, Health magazine, National Geographic Explorer, among other magazines. In connection with her young adult books, she speaks at schools and science fairs. For Paradise Under Glass, she is speaking at bookstores, garden clubs, library association conferences, and such public garden sites as the Smithsonian’s Haupt garden and the U.S. Botanic Garden. In a previous career, she worked for a U.S. government corporation involved in international finance, and spoke to American business audiences around the globe about how to manage the risks of investing in less developed countries.
Ruth lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with her husband and West Highland terrier. She is at work on her next book, also related to gardening, which will be published by Morrow/HarperCollins in 2012. Her three daughters have now left the nest, and are fluttering toward adulthood.
1. Indoor Gardening through the Mid-life Crisis: This is a talk based on the memoir portion of my book, Paradise Under Glass. I was at an emotional crossroads. Confronted with the death of my beloved sister, my children’s departure for college, and my own battle with breast cancer, I was searching for a way forward. One cold, gray evening, flooded with thoughts of change and loss, I wandered into the U.S. Botanic Garden’s Conservatory. Dazzled by the vast and dense tangle of greenery. Gradually, it occurred to me that adding a conservatory onto to our house in suburban Washington, D.C. would be the perfect antidote to my losses and changes.
Unfortunately, I knew nothing about plants and, in fact, hated working in my husband’s vegetable gardening. The heat, the bugs, the overgrown chaos of the place repulsed me. But, as I convinced my husband, a conservatory would be different, with air-conditioning, soil in plastic bags without bugs, and plants neatly arrayed in pots.
Fortunately, I found a quirky mentor at my local garden center who helped me on my quest to go from brown thumb to green thumb. She helped me rescue my single, sadly bedraggled houseplant, and I decided I could be an indoor gardener. I traveled across the country, meeting experts, including commercial growers with acres under glass in Florida, a clivia hybridizer whose Delaware home is filled with thousands of clivias, a beneficial bug grower in California, the owner of Logees in Connecticut, and many others who shared their enthusiasms and advice. I also learned to deal with pests (aha! bugs are worse indoors where there are no predators), raised Monarch butterflies, fell in love with growing citrus, and created my own version of a hydroponic “living wall.” I made mistakes and had successes, which I share with my listeners.
My conservatory was never the quiet refuge I imagined. We moved our kitchen table in, it became our teenagers’ late night hang-out, and my elderly parents and their friends played bridge there. I had envisioned an unchanging paradise where I would be cocooned from decline and loss. What I have instead is a place of constant change, and a real paradise is not a quiet immutable refuge, but a place where there is always something new under the sun.
The New York Times called Paradise Under Glass “enchanting,” and admired the author’s “chatty and intimate” storytelling. Library Journal gave the book a starred review, and concluded: “Informative and extremely entertaining, Kassinger's indoor garden memoir seems a surefire antidote for a midlife crisis or the winter blues. Highly recommended.”
Bethanne Patrick of WETA comments: "We either must redefine "quite sane," then, or be glad that Kassinger is not so, since her recounting of her obsession, 'Paradise under Glass: An Amateur Builds a Conservatory Garden' is pure delight."
2. Conservatories: The Lively History of Glasshouses: The ancestors of today’s conservatories, sun rooms, Florida rooms -- or whatever you choose to call glassy spaces where both people and plants thrive -- were the stone outbuildings where northern Italians in the Renaissance overwintered their precious orange trees. French invaders took the technology home where they found their ultimate expression in the ¼-mile-long orangerie of the Sun King’s Versailles. But although the orangerie had windows, it had a solid roof. The glass roof we owe to the English love of New World pineapples. No one could fruit this expensive fruit – which people rented to display at parties – until an architect converted a cucumber frame into a glass lean-to “pinery.” The pinery then became the utilitarian glasshouse, and home to the exotics that 17th century explorers brought back to Europe’s physic gardens from overseas.
In the 18th century, wealthy individuals began to build extravagant conservatories to entertain themselves and guests. The Prince of Wales who ruled when his father, George III, went mad once hosted a sit-down dinner for 2,000 in his conservatory. The Sixth Duke of Devonshire stocked his even more fabulous structure, the Great Stove at Chatsworth, with its splendid curved roof, by sending collectors around the world. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited in 1843, he lit the place with 12,000 oil lamps. His gardener, Joseph Paxton, would go on to design the Crystal Palace and form a famous friendship with his patron. Half a century later, King Leopold II of Belgium, who ravaged the Congo with consequences that survive to this day (among them, the practice of chopping off hands as punishment) built a four-acre fantasy of a winter garden. When his atrocities were finally made public, he retreated to his palm house where he died, unmourned even by his family, in 1909.
The English middle class, meanwhile, took to building small, gem-like ferneries on their suburban houses. The mania for fern collecting sent genteel Victorian women digging up the countryside, decimating various species. Sir John Thouron, a Scotsman transplanted to Philadelphia, carried on the tradition of the British aristocracy’s interest in conservatories and horticulture in mid-20th-century America. In the 1950s he cultivated the prized yellow clivia. When White Flower Farm acquired 45 of his plants and put them on the market for $995 a piece, they sold out in a buying frenzy. The ultimate glasshouse was the Biosphere, built in the Arizona desert in 1991, into which eight people were sealed for two years in a grand experiment.
I embellish my history with period detail. The pineapples, for example, that inspired the first glass roofs were such status symbols that people rented them for parties — not to eat but as a display of wealth. A single, unripe pineapple might be flaunted by various people with social aspirations before it ripened, and a truly wealthy would buy it when it ripened. Similarly, I talk about how the Victorians loved ferns because they reproduce asexually (no protruding anthers or swelling ovaries). I recount how the psychological tensions among the “Biospherians” nearly ended their epic experiment prematurely. My talk is illustrated with photographs and drawings.
Publishers Weekly noted “Kassinger's lush writing and exotic stories will delight the armchair gardener and historian.”
3. Create Your Own Living Wall: I came across Patrick Blanc, French botanist and artist, and his “living walls” or “vertical gardens” years ago. Blanc has made a career of entirely covering the outside and inside walls of buildings around the world with his hydroponic foliage gardens. He has only two in the United States, and I visited one in New York. One of the secrets to his success is a special felt made for him, into which his plants extend their roots.
I decided I would create my own version of a hydroponic wall. (Commercially available kits generally use soil, which is heavy and require heavy-duty structures to attach them to walls.) I tried unsuccessfully to find his secret felt. I ordered samples of all kinds of felt, and finally found one, a new synthetic available online, that works well. I then created my own wall. It is made with simple materials, and is lightweight and waters and feeds the small plants automatically. I bring along sample materials and explain how to put a wall together. Not only are living walls beautiful, but they cleanse indoor air of pollutants.
This talk includes the basics of Indoor Gardening Through the Mid-life Crisis, as well as the fundamentals of hydroponic growing and pest control with beneficial bugs. Check out the living wall video on Ruth's website, www.RuthKassinger.com.
Chevy Chase, MD 20815