Gardening Out Loud

Twenty-three poems and about half that number of linoprints in a portfolio, by Judith Offer and Margo Bors, linoprint artist, of San Francisco. Pleasant Hill Press, Pleasant Hill, California, 1996. All of the poems are about gardening.

“A gem.  A treasure to take out and enjoy again and again.”—Katherine Endicott, Gardening Columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

“A charming assemblage of word and images ranging from playful to holy.”—Ruth Iodice, Editor, BLUE UNICORN Poetry Tri-quarterly

“Sit back in a comfortable overstuffed chair or lean against your favorite tree trunk in the garden and enjoy.”  Richard Ward, Owner, The Dry Garden Nursery. 

“Reading her poems will inspire you to write paeans to your favorite unsung wild plants.”—Charli Danielsen, Founding Gardener, Native Here Nursery.

Purple Iris
With their parade dress helmets,
Like West Point Cadets,
They hold their salutes
Even the fainters
And soaking wets.


Bend your bum
And slump on me
(At the bend in the walk,
The end of a tree.)
The view is true;
The weather, free;
You can brew a clue
With your rump on me.


She clutched our stucco’d wall for three days,
Agate-and-onyxly intaglio’d, mosaically medallioned,
Some sort of progressing princess, Royally Romany,
Confused but unequivocally beautiful,
Like Psyche exiled to her far mountain.

(What to do? If Royal,
Should she be taken hostage?)

At the other end of the telephone,
The U.C. Berkeley bugologist
Assured me she was only bitelessly breathtaking.
“A garden spider,” he nonscientifically suggested,
Having viewed her only with mine eyes.

(Can there be non-garden spiders,
Who, Eve-like, are denied vegetative Paradises?)

Urged to be more discriminatingly specific,
My donnish connection rumbled through his tomes,
And intoned into the phone,
“Argiope Trifasiata,”
Which indeed seemed the name of a Queen.

(He didn’t say if her kingdom was Africa or
Rome, or how to get her home.)

Then one night, while we commoners slept,
Argiope moved on, I think to some Grecian shore,
Where the Aeolian harps soothe her
As she weaves silk into silver,
All the while bejewelled, as Royals require.

(A Queen of shorter reign than Jane,
She held us, none-the-less, all in thrall.)

Poetry from GARDENING OUT LOUD recorded by the poet April 15, 2015

I started volunteering in the gardens of College Preparatory School when our second daughter, Kate, started her freshman year.  Through our older daughter Rebecca’s time there,  I had been an active member of what she called “The Mommy Meeting” (PTA), doing  four years of fund raisers and pot lucks.  Noticing the drab and even messy campus, I decided working on that would be much more fun, if I could arrange it.  I started by volunteering to plant irises under the Headmaster’s office window.  When he saw how much better it looked than weeds, my offer to garden once a week was an easy sell.  Over that year, it became twice a week:  Wednesday afternoons with some other Moms, and a weekend morning while my husband golfed, when I was often literally the only one on campus, not counting the cat.  I liked both the afternoons with the other moms, their good ideas and energy and gossip they brought, and the quiet time alone in that beautiful gulch.  I started feeling like I had all the advantages of “owning” a big estate, and none of the worries.

Teachers and students became quickly involved, and the numbers really grew after the early flowers bloomed in February.  “Oh, I see what you’re doing!”, said one counselor.  People brought in surplus plants and gave opinions by the bushel load. We planted one whole slope with daisies and  native geraniums and a couple of other easy-bloomers in one afternoon, when a teacher bribed her classes with brownies.  By April of the first year I was an accepted member of the “staff”, invited to stay for the free faculty-staff lunch on the day I worked.  (One of the early donators wasn’t a school-related person at all, but a gardening friend, Dianne King.  Dianne and her husband had planted their yard post-firestorm, using the best top soil, and that spring they had hundreds of wonderful “volunteer” plants that she dig out of her yard for our project.)

By that time I had organized the first Mulch Day, which was serious fun.  I asked the tree service that had been bringing loads of chopped-up tree to me for several years to dump a couple of loads at the back entrance; and I also copped about twenty donation five gallon buckets from several restaurants. Then I went to the Tuesday morning all-school assembly and asked that each student or teacher to carry one bucketful some time during the day.  It was a huge success;  we off-loaded all the mulch into different gardens on campus on that one day.  A number of competitions arose, with a few of the bigger boys carrying four bucketsful at a time.  The soil in this part of California is solid clay, and mulch is crucial for getting anything you plant to actually survive.  After that, we would hold a Mulch Day from time to time, and we always got plenty of help.

When we Moms came to work on Wednesdays, we always had some volunteer students as well. It was a big help and also charming.  Some would carry a bucket of weeds to the dumpster; some would dig through their lunch breaks. We all laughed when one “discovered” potato bugs—a high school sophomore!  After a while I realized that what the students were learning by watching or being involved in this project was every bit as important as fixing up the grounds.  Taking care of whatever part of the earth you land on is important, and some of the students were from families that never required any home responsibilities.  They felt “superior” to getting their hands dirty, or even leaning over to pick up a paper.  (The Headmaster during Becca’s tenure at CPS, Robert Baldwin, made a point of going out at lunchtime and picking up a few of the flying lunch residue papers, shaming students into bending over.)  Of course I knew that learning a little bit about mulch or native plants from us wasn’t a big thing, but I decided it was an important start for some.

At the same time,  I didn’t want to interfere in my daughter’s school experience, so I tried to stay the friendly but adult observer.  I decided that I functioned as part of the maintenance staff, so felt it was safest to interact the way they would, and decided to observe the maintenance man, perhaps taking cues from him.  Imagine how I felt when I realized that the he was skipping out on work and going to a second job!  Then I did run right to the Headmaster and rat him out.  That was a big plus for both the school and me, as the new maintenance person, Jean Hooker, was great!  She got the broken desks off the back of the grounds, and the boxes of supplies out of the main courtyard, and mounted just the right shelves just where the teachers wanted them. And she was smart and easy to talk to, so from then on we chatted up a storm:  world events, gardening practices, and who was who on campus. 

By the end of that school year, thanks mostly to Jean, but also to the newly minted gardens, the campus was beginning to look like the first class school it was.  The school’s Admissions Director told me that she was receiving constant comments from prospective parents and students about how beautiful the campus was, which she never had before.   The irony was that we really hadn’t planted that much.  There were still gardens full of weeds by the main drive.  I was trying to keep things simple, native, natural, and spend as little as possible.  I wanted the students to see that effort was the biggest factor, not money.

 At the time, I was researching for A SHIRTWAIST TALE, and writing the first draft.  I kept klezmer music tapes on my car’s player, and sang the songs driving back and forth to CPS.  Digging away in College Prep’s gardens was perfect activity for creating the next scene in my libretto, although it was about as far from Lower East Side New York as you could get, literally and emotionally, and still be in America.

Knowing I was a poet, and working on a play, Jean asked me one day if I had written anything about my experience at the school, and that led me to GARDENING OUT LOUD.  The first section is poems about CPS and the rest is poems I had written over the years about my own gardens.  The Ogden Nash style poems are thanks to a Christmas present of Ogden Nash poems from my mother-in-law, Tish Glant.  The style struck me as perfect for what I had to say about the new flowers at CPS.

I worked at CPS the whole four years Kate attended, including summers.  Meanwhile, my husband Stuart became Head of the Board.  After a while, the Headmaster allowed as how they should install an apartment for us on campus. When Kate graduated, I seriously considered staying to continue my garden fun.  But I decided life moves on, and it was time for someone else to take over.  One of the mothers who had worked with me the whole time, Judy Thomas, had a son still there, so I left knowing things were in competent and caring hands.  But it’s still one of the most satisfying and fun projects of my life, and I still treasure the cap the teachers gave me that says PLANT MANAGER