Please say hello to Graham Rice, author of more than 20 gardening books, including the American Horticultural Society’s Encyclopedia of Perennials, one of the most frequented books in my gardening library. The encyclopedia is comprehensive, informative and lavishly illustrated, as you’d expect…but it’s also delightfully opinionated and fun, as you wouldn’t.
The surprising amount of personality operating here is really no surprise, given that Graham, a transplanted Brit, also moonlights as a DJ for Radio Catskill. He describes his BritMix show as an eclectic blend of “the weird and the wonderful, the sparky and the strange…the majestic, the quirky; the catchy and, occasionally, the almost incomprehensible.” Sounds VERY MUCH like my garden.
When you graduated from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, did you expect to make your living as a gardener... or as a writer? How did the writing happen?
When I was 12 I wanted to be sports writer, but as I got interested in plants, both the sports and the writing all went dormant. When I left Kew, I planned to study plant taxonomy. But that misfired, so I started to write a few pieces, and it went from there.
How did you become the “Transatlantic Gardener," which is the name of your blog, gardening in two places?
I married an American. In 1997, garden writer and photographer judywhite (sic), who was managing editor of Time Warner’s Virtual Garden website, hired me to be part of the first-ever online coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show. When we met at the show, my life changed, and we now spend most of our time in northeast Pennsylvania, with a cottage in Northamptonshire in England. I don’t garden much in England. We’re not there enough, so a friend who runs a floristry business uses the garden to grow cut flowers.
When I was a beginning gardener, I was very inspired by photos of British gardens. But the truth is we don't have the same idyllic conditions for perennials here in the U.S., with the possible exception of the Pacific Northwest. Do you write differently for American audiences? Do you garden differently in the U.S.?
The climate is so different in the U.S. from the UK, I had to learn how to garden here in Pennsylvania—and also to realize that knowing how to garden here didn’t mean I knew how to garden anywhere else in the country.
I came back from England recently, where the daffodils were in full bloom and the snowdrops finished. Here, the daffs are just peeping through the snowy soil and the snowdrops just opening. Then there are all the oddities of vocabulary and phraseology to deal with, and Britain only uses metric measurements.
But today’s economics of book publishing determine that most garden books are published in just one edition that has to try to suit everyone, including gardeners in Australia and South Africa. So I’m very pleased that my Encyclopedia of Perennials is published in both an American edition and a separate British edition.
What are the differences between the U.S. and British editions of the Encyclopedia of Perennials?
While many of the 6,800 plants included are the same, of course, some are different. The choice of daylilies, for example, is very different in the two editions: Daylilies are far less popular in Britain, and older, taller and smaller-flowered varieties are far more widely grown than they are in North America. The cultural advice is also appropriate to each edition. Being a transatlantic gardener was a great help in refining the choices for the two editions.
What are you working on now?
I’m just working on the proofs for my next book, Planting the Dry Shade Garden, which gives advice on how to make the toughest spot in the garden more hospitable to plants and also recommends a wide range of plants that will thrive in those difficult conditions. That will be out in August from Timber Press.
How does The BritMix fit into all of this?
I need to do something completely different from gardening. So I have a weekly public radio show on WJFF, which serves the Catskills and northeast Pennsylvania. I play British music from the 1960s up to the latest releases, including artists who are relatively unfamiliar to American audiences. I have fairly eclectic tastes, so the show covers rock, punk, traditional folk, British blues, singer-songwriters, reggae even a little jazz and contemporary styles like folktronica and dubstep. But it’s all British.
There are so many British acts that ought to be better known over here, so it works very well. But music by people whose prime aim is to become pop stars is usually disqualified from inclusion!
Name your favorite unsung bands that we might catch on BritMix.
The Unthanks and Imagined Village are taking traditional folk music in completely new directions. No one here seems to know the punk poet/singer from the 1970s Patrik Fitzgerald. Cherry Ghost combine energy, style, intensity and great lyrics, and for intense energy, the Fratellis and The Wombats are really exciting.
You've written more than 20 books. How do you keep it fresh?
When I was on the staff of a gardening magazine years ago, we had a famous British garden writer working for us, and every month she would call up and ask for ideas for her column. To me, that was a sure sign she should have been doing something else.
There’s never a shortage of things to write about. Going back and forth across the Atlantic certainly helps. Just looking down from the plane as I approach the airport sparks fresh thinking about the natural world. With new plants, the unexpected ways in which plants behave, new ideas on using plants—plus important issues like planting natives and dealing with invasives—I always have ideas. In fact, having ideas is the easy part. It’s more difficult to pick the best ideas to run with.