Advice columnist for green thumbs

C.Z. Guest, still going strong after 26 years, would like us to stop treating our plants as if they were fish.

October 06, 2002|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

If life does indeed have second acts, New York socialite and fashion icon C.Z. Guest certainly scripted an improbable one for herself: newspaper garden columnist. And she will bring her expertise, as well as a slide show of the gardens at her Long Island estate, to Baltimore this week.

Born to Boston society 82 years ago, she married Winston Churchill Guest, international polo star and heir to the Phipps steel fortune, in 1947, and began the glamorous life for which her classic good looks were so well suited.

For 50 years, she has been the standard of American fashion: inducted into the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame and most recently given the Fashion Icon award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. She continues to earn her stripes, appearing in fall issues of Town & Country, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

But when a riding accident temporarily confined her to bed in the mid-1970s, she reached out in her boredom to friend and author Truman Capote, who suggested that she write a book containing all the gardening advice she had accumulated.

That book became a newspaper column, now it its 27th year, which continues to appear Sundays in the New York Post and weekly in 350 other newspapers. When she began writing it, she says, people didn't know what the word "mulch" meant.

She has published five books, including her most recent, Garden Talk: Ask Me Anything, and her children's book, Tiny Green Thumbs, inspired by her three grandsons. She has also created a line of scented candles and garden furniture and accessories, and she speaks regularly to garden groups all over the country.

Guest answered still more gardening questions in a recent interview.

What's the most frequent question you are asked by readers of your column?

I have been writing the column for 26 years and the same questions keep coming up. That's why I wrote the [latest] book. My friends said you ought to just answer them all in one place. But the most difficult thing to teach gardeners is when and how to water.

Is that the most common mistake gardeners make?

Yes, overwatering and underwatering. I tell my readers: "Don't let your plants sit in a dish of water. The roots will rot. For heaven's sake, they are not fish."

The other mistake gardeners make is, in the spring, we always get spring fever and we take the plants out too soon. One warm day, and everything comes out of the greenhouse.

And people tend to plant their peonies too deep. They won't bloom. They will be just foliage. I have been all over Long Island pulling people's peonies up, and they tell my, "My dear, the gardener will be furious." And I tell them, "Well, let him. He has planted your peonies too deep."

Are you experiencing the same drought conditions in Long Island that have hit Maryland this year? How are you handling it?

I have news for you. We had a hell of a rain up here all last night. All my friends in Monkton are really crying the blues. But we had 30 straight days of temperatures over 95 degrees this summer. We are not quite as dry up here as you are, but we had the heat. And, of course, I am terrible in the heat.

Do you know any good men gardeners? Or is this something that only your women friends seem to enjoy?

The best gardener I know is a man. He is Elvin McDonald, and he does all the photography for my books. He is the garden editor at Traditional Home and he has worked for House Beautiful. That's how I met him -- when he came to take pictures of my gardens. We have gardened together for years. He knows all the best plants and all the newest plants, and he tells me.

And, of course, I think most of the letters to my column are from men gardeners.

Your garden at Templeton is, what, about 3 acres? How have you subdivided it?

Well, I have no idea how big it is. But I have a kitchen garden and a beautiful rose garden and another garden with five topiaries. And I have three greenhouses. One for my orchids. One for overwintering, where everything is cut back to within an inch of its life, and a growing greenhouse with seedlings and cuttings.

I do love my kitchen garden because I do love vegetables. I have vegetables and fruits and flowers for the house. I can walk out into my kitchen garden and know in an instant the things that need to be done. I had wonderful white corn this year. And yellow tomatoes. I have an asparagus bed and blackberries. Beets and root crops.

What is your favorite flower?

It depends. I love peonies in the spring. I adore orchids. The only flowers I don't raise are gladiolas. I just don't like them. I mean, you can't like everything. I tend to like the white and orange flowers.

I was on a garden show in Palm Beach one holiday season, and a caller asked about poinsettias and how to bring them back. And I said: "Frankly, it is very difficult, and it isn't worth the trouble. Just throw the damn thing out."

Well, you wouldn't believe the callers! They were screaming at me, "I thought you loved plants!"

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