Monday, November 7, 2011

Gardening Q&A with Stephen Orr

Stephen Orr is the editorial director of gardening at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and the author of the acclaimed Tomorrow's Garden published by Rodale earlier this year. He's also one of the nicest and most unassuming people I have met. I asked him my ABC of gardening questions:

When did you start to garden?
Photos show me gardening with my dad before I have real memories of it.

Early influences - who are what inspired you to garden?
My parents, also an elderly neighbor across our street, Mr. Overton Faubus. He gardened every day in a wide-brimmed hat and tan coveralls and I would go tag along after him. My father for outdoor gardening and growing edibles. My mother for houseplants and flowers.

What was the first plant you grew?
The first one I remember growing from a seed packet was balsam (aka touch-me-not or Impatiens balsamina) when I was about 5 or 6. Also alyssum.

How often do you garden?
Depends on the week. Mostly every weekend. Sometimes I get too busy with work or travel and have to rush to catch up.

What is your USDA zone now and in what zone were you born?
I garden in NYC (zone 6B) and grew up gardening in West Texas (zone 7B).

What size is your garden?
I have a large city garden (several thousand square feet) that I work on with my cooperative apartment building. We have a garden committee. I also have a small 1/4 acre woodland garden at my lake house upstate

What plant has most disappointed you?
I don't know if one disappoints me. I am challenged by certain plants I'd like to get to thrive but never have luck with... Narcissus 'Sinopel' and snake’s head iris – Hermodactylus tuberosus. Funny, I notice both are greenish!

What plant has made you happiest?
Presently I am most happy growing spring bulbs, narcissus, rock garden iris, alliums, fritillaries. etc. I also love my city shrub border.

What do you love about your garden right now?
Watching how well the flowering shrubs (viburnum, elderberries, butterfly bushes, and clethra) or maturing at the city garden.

What do you feed your garden?
Only organics, compost and sometimes fish emulsion.

What would you like to grow, that you can't?
Huge agaves.

Food, flowers, native or ornamental?
All of the above in equal measure.

Most inspiring garden writer, thinker, designer, personality?
They are not really garden writers per se but I was very influenced by The Good Life books written by Helen and Scott Nearing. They presented such a bucolic image of back-to-nature self sufficiency as their chosen lifestyle.

What plants do you dislike?
Stunted dwarf hybrids of tall graceful plants.

Would you like more sun or more shade?
More sun.

What is your favourite garden chore (or tool, or gadget)?
I love pruning. I like my felcos and my okatsune pruners.

What is your least favourite garden chore?
Cleaning up after myself... I tend to leave things laying around.

If you could garden anywhere, where would it be?
Both NYC and LA.

Where is your favorite public garden?
Hmmm, so many. I love Millennium Park in Chicago, Wave Hill in the Bronx, Lotusland in Montecito, Filoli near SF, Vizcaya near Miami, Dumbarton Oaks in D.C.

Whose is your favourite private garden?
So many, I featured many of them in my book, Tomorrow's Garden.

Why do you garden?
To stay connected to nature and the patterns of the earth.

Aside from seeing Stephen's eye and art at work in Martha Stewart Living, you may also find him at his personal blog, What the Skies Were Like.


  1. Why do you garden? Great question. Why do I garden? To respect my food.

  2. Great questions which really got me thinking - and off on a nostalgia trip!

    I would like to use them on my blog with your permission (and acknowledgement and a link to your site of course.)

  3. Not liking cleaning up after yourself. I can relate to that.

  4. Hi - I just enjoyed this interview so much. I'm fascinated with Stephen's book, and enjoyed your short, to-the-point questions -- especially what plants he dislikes, where he'd most want to garden, and what his favorite public gardens are! Thanks for posting!


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