Monday, September 22, 2008

Portland - Day 5: It's a Wrap!

[The author at the Japanese Garden]

It's too damn late to blog, but I'm hooked and I know there are a few kind souls who have been following my exploits and vicariously living off my cheap thrills here in Portland. Speaking of...just as one of the educational sessions was about to start, the speaker, rather than ask us to put our cell phones in "stun mode" (a little Star Trek humor) she referred to it as "cheap thrills setting." I think I'll be getting some mileage out of that one. It's already 11:45 PM and I just got done checking e-mail, verifying my return flight for tomorrow, and downloading about 120 shots from today's events. I culled through the pics and selected a whopping 17 that captured my impressions of today, but if you want to see a whole slew more, click over to Flickr and find them at I seem to have this compulsion to post the more esoteric, rather than picture postcard shots, on the blog.

Let's get this show on the road so I can get to bed. Out the door at 7, loaded with my notes for my next Santa Barbara Homeowners magazine project, and caught
this sunny scene...

...on my way to the DoubleTree for a muffin and a decaf (you don't want to see me caffeinated) and started re-outlining my piece. I had 45 minutes until the first session and got some good work done.

I sat in on three presentations this morning - "What the Web Wants" taking a broad look at different kinds of web sites. I thought it would be more about what writers need to produce in the way of content, and how web writing differs from other media. It was interesting, but no new tools for my toolbox. Up next was "It's Not Necessarily on Google." The presenter was a research librarian at the L.A. Arboretum. A few good tidbits about how to get good info by working with institutional libraries.

The high point of the morning was yet another class on how to make the most of a point and shoot digital camera. Ian Adams covered so much info, my head was spinning. Here's what it looked like from my perspective.

Lunch time / tour time. I got to sit with Shirley Bovshow, a blogger, designer, HGTV host and fun lady. We chatted our way to the first two gardens, one a residence with over-the-top planting combos. It was nice eye candy, but my style and taste just doesn't connect with this much froo-froo. I thought the choice of table cloth behind the pot made for an interesting combo - kinda 50s Barbie colors.

[bizarre - the owner seemed to have such refined taste]

The second stop was just down the road - can't remember the name of the institution, but it had the words "Elk" and "Bishop" in it. Some reporter I'm turning out to be. It was very park-like with little in the way of floral beds or trendy combos. Looks like it's been there for a long time and about as edgy as a John McCain campaign rally. But they had some cool brick paths.

I got pretty bored pretty fast and wasn't ready to shoot a lot of pixels on either garden, so I hoofed it down a long road to where the buses were parked. On the way I caught this turfed drainage swale. I'm guessing the rocks keep cars from parking there. It's too green to be going without water, likely gets mowed with an inefficient, gas mower, and might even get the occasional dose of chemical fertilizer. Murder your lawn, please.

[but I like the photo]

I got to the bus and was enthralled by the gathering clouds and variations of green.

Our next stop was the Chinese garden in downtown Portland. I've had a prejudice against Chinese gardens, in part because I haven't spent much time in them and because I find the Japanese aesthetic so much more natural and in tune with my DNA. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself absorbed in this complex, meticulously maintained garden. I need to revisit when there aren't so damn many garden writers there. My camera class seemed to pay off with this bamboo shot. Plenty more at the Flickr site.

[my nikon point & shoot]

I was happy to find this rock in a pavilion at the garden. Not unlike the Japanese, and likely preceding them, the selections and display of rocks like this create a miniature world that leads the viewer to deeper contemplation of the physical world.

Finally, we were off the the Japanese Garden, which my family had visited when we were here in April. But that was a slow-ending winter and none of the deciduous trees had leafed out. The lighting was, of course, very different. Today, we were fortunate to arrive at about 4 pm, so the longer, softer sun angle was a photographer's delight. Again, lots more at Flickr.

[detail at gravel garden]

[detail at gravel garden edge]

[rail at gravel garden]

[bamboo fence and maple]

It was a short drive from the garden to the Portland Zoo. That's where the banquet was to be held and we had free run of the place as they were closing down. Lovely layout, but my big thrill was seeing a Mandrill up close and personal (though clouded by a Lexan enclosure). Amazing creature and the facial markings are stunning.

As we entered the lobby of the banquet hall, which was unexpectedly grand and comfortable, they displayed a painting by one of their elephants. I'm hoping it was only the brilliant brush strokes that were done by the talented pachyderm, because whoever did the background must have worked for the Hallmark "cutesie" division prior to joining the zoo.

Great salad - greens with a light balsamic vinaigrette, topped with toasted almond slivers and grapes. The chicken was offensively drowned in a cloying sweet and sour relish. Good coffee (that coming from a Peet's snob!) and a fine chocolate mousse cake slice.

Awards were handed out to a lot of likely worthy people (I'm a newbie, so how should I know?) and then everyone got blurry. Couldn't have been my technique. I just took two 45 minute seminar classes.

It's 12:41 AM. I'm heading for dreamsville, daddy-o.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Portland - Day 4: Soaking It In, Wringing It Out

I'm back at my hotel room after finally making it into downtown Portland where my family vacationed last April. We were pretty impressed with everything about our stay, from the generous people, to the great restaurants and bold new architecture. Coming back for this week was a pleasure.

The Garden Writers Association is throwing their shindig on the east side of the Willamette and I hadn't ventured into the heart of town yet. Mike and Sheila, our Peetnik Santa Barbarian friends, arrived on vacation today and we met for dinner at Pazzo's. It's a fine Italian dining establishment on the ground floor of the Hotel Vintage, where we stayed earlier this year. Dinner was great (try the roasted beet, cucumber, horseradish creme, and sunflower seed salad - magical). Mike is a professional writer, so we had a lot to talk about. Equally important was having them hand-off the extra business cards my wife provided. I've run out and there are still lots of people to connect with.

I hit three sessions today: Finding the Right / Write Word, covering some simple techniques for expanding the breadth of language we can access when we write. I had never thought of creating a "word tree" - basically a free association of synonyms and related terms for words we use when writing. Lucy Hardiman, our presenter, put the word "flower" on a flip chart and at least 200 words were offered from the house, some predicatable and flat (petal, stem, leaf...zzzzzzz) and others that drew hoots from the crowd (fecund, alluring, burgeoning, phallic - being one of few men in the room, I decided not to offer 'vaginal'). It might be an exercise I'll practice in my never-to-arrive spare time. I think I'll be spending more time reading other writers and noting the variety of descriptive words they use and grow my repertoire.

Lucy's presentation was followed by two separate sessions dealing with photography - one showing how grasses come to life when shot with sensitivity to different natural lighting angles, and another on how to create publishable images using a point and shoot camera, like my trusty Nikon COOLPIX S10.

Most everyone took off for a tour of production nurseries that were going to show off all their newest introductions. Not only was I uninterested in seeing plants I have little chance of growing in Santa Barbara, but the idea of using plants that are grown in Oregon, then shipped nationwide on trucks would give me a carbon-footprint guilt trip I couldn't endure. One more reason to use plants provided by local growers - they're not only adapted to my climate, but the impacts of shipping are miniscule.

Besides, I promised myself I'd work on an article that's due at the end of the month, so I hightailed it back to my room and started putting some of my new tools to use.

[Proof that I'm multi-tasking: working and eating an apple]

First up - outlining. In this instance, I've just downloaded a new piece of mind mapping software and knew that this article could benefit from putting the program through its paces. If you're not familiar with mindmapping, click this Wikipedia link for a quick eyeball. It's a technique for brainstorming ideas and creating relationships between thoughts. I use it at work on my PC, but just found a native Mac application from Tony Buzan. Here are a few shots of it at work.

[iMindMap at work]

It's far more powerful than this will sound, but at its most basic, a mind map is a bunch of branches you can create, with subbranches of related ideas. I'm a visual person who needs to see everything at once, so this technique has become part of my DNA. It worked middlingly well. I should be brighter than to think that I could effectively utilize a program that I'm just learning. When I get this blog entry posted, I think I'll continue with a hand-drawn mind map and hold off on the software until I'm home.

Regardless, the article is taking shape and I'm seeing just the slightest sense of control in what I'm doing. I'm pretty sure that's a good thing. Oh, yeah. It rained pretty heavy while I was working, so when I left to catch then light rail downtown, I snapped a few wet shots. It satisfies the banana slug in me.

Toodles - not sure I'll be able to contribute anything tomorrow. We have an afternoon tour, then I banquet. I'm on standby, so if I get bumped, you'll have something new to read.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Portland - Day 3: THIS Is What I Came For

The 60th Annual Garden Writers Association symposium started in earnest today. Right off the bat, Jack Hart, author of A Writer's Coach, The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work, dispensed some sage advice for writers who are getting caught up in the back draft of rapidly changing media markets, technologies and cultural tsunamis that are affecting the profession. I'm new at this and don't think of writing as a way to make a living, but Jack's remarks about adapting and staying nimble are right on the mark for this group. For the sake of brevity, I'll quote his most memorable offering, admonishing the group to really understand what readers want: "People don't want a drill; they want a hole." Garden readers are looking for material that helps them satisfy a need and writers need to deliver.

The first session was just the stuff I came here for. Mary Kate Mackey opened a flood gate of useful information with a 12 point lesson in self-editing that was the first big tool I'm putting in my writer's toolbox. Varying the length of sentences to create rhythm (perfect, I'm a drummer); starting off with a theme statement that becomes the basis of everything that goes into the stew; reading the finished piece aloud to someone; using power-rich verbs.

I want to get to the photos of the afternoon tour, but stick with me.

Figuring out where to be for session two was a struggle. In one room was a presentation on the business of garden coaching - that's what I'm doing with my design practice, so it was tempting to pop in and snag a few ideas. But I came here to learn about writing, so I denied myself that little tidbit and got some great ideas about how to stay organized in the writing biz. Again, much doesn't apply to my situation, and I've taken more than my share of "get your life organized" classes that never get implemented, but I can always hope. Bit by bit, I do make the occasional dent in the clutter that is my work space -- Goodnick's Postulate: The mess expands to cover the horizontal space allowed -- and vaguely remember setting up some kind of filing system inside the metal drawer thingy. We'll see what sticks.

A quick lunch (pretty damn good salad with grilled chicken, pecans, and cranberries, courtesy of the DoubleTree), met a few new folks around the table, and onto a bus for a tour of gardens. The intent was to see eight masterpieces in just over two hours. Close, but no cigar -- I think we hit five. But the gardens we did visit were a wonderful mix of eclectic art, bold plant combinations and just plain silliness.

Stop #1: Lucy and Fred Hardiman's horticultural haven. I knew I'd like this garden when I was greeted at the street by this meticulously executed pebble mosaic.

Much of the Hardiman's effort is generously given to passersby, with imaginative pairings of plants that serve double duty in screening out the street from the inner garden. This paring of variegated Elaeagnus (Silverberry) and golden grass (sorry, I wasn't writing down the names of any plants on this trip, since most have no chance of being added to my SoCal repertoire) resonated with me. Add in the merlot-colored shrub flanking this happy couple and you've captured my heart.

Whimsy: A word I try to avoid, but these suspended glass globes are can't be described any other way.

I've become aware of how people on garden tours tend to walk through a garden looking for pictures to take. I wonder if they actually get a chance to just "be" in the garden.

How cool is this? Colorful ribbons of metal and the dried tops of allium bulbs painted in pastel colors.

On to Darcy Daniels' Bloomtown. She's a landscape designer who used her own simple, small yards as an exercise in fine design. As much as I enjoy seeing stunning planting combinations, what really satisfies me is a thoughtful and beautiful whole-cloth design. Darcy's grand success is how she carved out distinct living spaces within a limited space, then made them sparkle with just the right amount of decoration, suprise, and smart horticulture. The eyecatcher was this Euphorbia cotinifolia (Caribbean Copper Plant) trained in a Japonesque fashion, matched to the perfect slender pot. Love the way it repeats the color on the door trim, too.

At the back of Darcy's property is the neighbor's garage wall. By placing a mirror behind a window frame, the garden appears to continue beyond the fence, increasing the apparent size of the garden. Neat trick.

Last up. Nancy Goldman's garden is a work of art and childlike fun. I'm only posting a couple of pictures, but these metal little girls dresses...

...high heeled shoe succulent planter (there were plenty more)...

...and luscious pink and peach floral combos demonstrate just a smidgen of the excitement of this garden.

Stay tuned. Tomorrow should be fun, too.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Portland - Day 2

I'm starting my first real day of the Garden Writer's Association annual symposium, in Portland, Oregon. Although my head didn't hit the pillow until close to midnight last night, my eyes opened a little after five and I couldn't get back to sleep. Weird. My Marriot Residence Inn bed was very comfortable, the street was quiet, but the sandman was off somewhere, clocked out.

I did a bit of reading hoping to get drowsy, put in a half-hour with my little biorhythm monitoring device, and made my way out the door to Peet's coffee, little realizing how freakin' heavy my laptop bag had become.
[I'm not giving the Marriot any points for horticulture -
if I never see another pink and white begonia combo again...]

I tend to overpack and bring all my little comforts with me, but this time my comforts made me quite uncomfortable. But I forged on to Peet's, had a great cuppa and a muffin, immersed myself in a new program I'm using to organize my projects (Omni-Focus) and chatting with a few delightful locals.

I needed to deposit a couple of checks and inquired about the nearest branch of my bank. Twelve blocks later, laden like a sherpa and wearing my toasty warm Harris tweed coat, I trudged on to a very bizarre conglomeration of businesses, all under one roof and going by the name of Fred Meyer. Mega grocery, department store, bank branch, Starbucks, uranium mining supplies, feed lot, army firing range, federal prison, particle accelerator, habedashery, smog check, sheep pasture, and wetland. I made my deposit, bought a few things, smashed a few atoms, picked up a geiger counter, fired off a few rounds and hoofed it back in the direction of the hotel.

Although every step reminded me that I should have winnowed down the contents of my pack, I did get to walk through the Sullivan Gulch neighborhood of Portland - a delightful area with some stunning vintage architecture, lushly planted landscapes...... (amid some bone-headed crap)......and opportunistic veggie beds in the public parkways...

A little after noon I hauled my already-tired feet to the conference at the DoubleTree, signed in, picked up my free shoulder bag (just what the doctor ordered) and slid the name tag holder over my neck . There's something about this system that makes me feel like a little kid being sent alone on a plane to visit the folks back home - that giant name tag that allows anyone and everyone to greet a stranger with a folksy "Howyadoin Billy!" even though we've never even been on the same side of the Mississip'.

The first session was a meet and greet with other garden writers from the western region. I was astounded at the diversity of interests and talent, from an Alaskan school teacher who specializes in garden programs for his students, to a woman who works for a hazelnut research center.

Next up - the new kids on the block reception. All the first time attendees were welcomed to the fold. I was hoping to learn a secret handshake, or receive a secret decoder ring. Instead, I had a very nice local beer, met a few new people, aaaaannnnndddd, got to meet one of my favorite garden bloggers - Susan Harris, one of four contributors to the sometimes-outrageous Garden Rant. Here's the back of her head and a portion of fellow ranter, Amy Stewart (I'll not be pursuing a career as a paparrazi photographer anytime soon).

Now it wouldn't be an annual conference without some kind of exhibit hall with lots of booths, lots of sales folks, and lots of information being tossed out way. Everything from high-end tool purveyors, to compost tea makers, pheromone manufacturers, and hundreds of new plant introductions, few of which would stand a chance in Santa Barbara, with our puny winter chill and alkaline soils. Did I mention the inexplicable costumes some folks thought to wear? There was a lady bug lady, a very bizarre dude in something like a bear or gopher suit (not shown), a frog person, a mannequin festooned with various bits of green detritus, and some kind of cut-out figure with an oversized sweatshirt.

On a positive note, this lady had the most divine jacket, shimmering in the industrial glow of the exhibit hall's florescent fixtures.

One reception to go, this one hosted by Timber Books and Storey Publishing, two giants in the world of horticultural books. I scored a few free volumes (Designing with Succulents, by Debra Lee Baldwin, and Garden Your Way to Health and Fitness, by Bunny Guinness and Jacqueline Knox) that will come in handy, plus some exquisite calendars with plant images.

On my way out of the DoubleTree, I overheard someone mention "Santa Barbara" and found myself sitting with Joan Bolton, local garden writer extraordinaire. I've read her stuff for years, and although we live in parallel worlds and live within a few miles of each other, we've hadn't met until tonight.

I'm already enjoying this little sojourn. Hope I pick up a few new tools for my writer's tool belt.

Additional photos...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Posting from Portland - Day 1

Day One - Getting Here was Half the Fun

Thursday, September 18, 2008 - 8:30 PM: I'm in Portland, Oregon. The 90-degree weather I was dreading has given way to my kinda temperatures - upper 60s and a hint of drizzle in the air. I think I was a banana slug in a past life. I'm here on a personal adventure. This weekend is the 60th annual meeting of the Garden Writers Association. I joined this past year at the recommendation of my friend, Nan Sterman, a dynamo of energy, garden wisdom and a hell of a writer. Nan thought that as long as I was putting my little piggie into the water, I might as well associate with the professionals.

When I received the GWA announcement a few months ago, I pored through the program, toyed with the idea of attending, and promptly tossed the flier in the recycling bin. I tend to dream, then raise a bunch of logical arguments to quash the spirit, then regret it later. Not this time.

With featured columns in two regional magazines and a website, I'm having fun while dealing with the challenge of not really knowing what I'm doing. I stumbled into this world, bartering my self-styled word-smithing in exchange for advertising for my consulting business. This arrangement seems to be working on both counts - business is picking up and folks are complimenting my writing. So although I can't envision a serious venture into garden writing, I'm curious to see if I can add a few tools to my belt, just to make the process a bit smoother and see if there are some techniques that would expand my reach.

I've been reading two writing books: Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird - a book that's ostensibly about writing, but also handbook on how to live a generous life; and How To Write, by Alastair Fowler, a very direct but delightfully readable how-to manual by an Oxford professor of English (from England, no less!). So far I've picked up two immensely valuable tips - write “shitty first drafts” (Lamont - 41,800 hits for “SFDs” on Google!) and, take the time to build an outline with the number of topic paragraphs you intend to produce (Fowler), then build on the bones. I love Anne's idea - write as if no one but you will ever read it and just let it pour out.

I've been seeing this trip as a retreat - disconnect from my daily world (while already missing my wife, son, and Biff the Wonder Spaniel, seven hours after departure) and immersing myself in words. It's fortuitous that I have an end-of-the-month deadline for a Santa Barbara Homeowner piece and have completed most of my interviews.

So as soon as I got to the airport for my flight, I took out my interview notes, read through them again, and started underlining the choice bits that will likely find their way into the piece.

By the time the Horizon Air jet had lifted off into bright blue skies, I was busily connecting the dots, finding a few big ideas to form my outline and getting a big picture of what to keep and what to leave in my notes.

After hopping an amazingly efficient, speedy light rail line from the airport to my Marriot Residence Inn (great little studio apt. with a workable kitchen, free wireless internet and quiet) I grabbed a back issue of Garden Design magazine to analyze and dissect and went looking for a place to eat and work.

It's the first time I felt like I was looking behind the curtain, seeing not only what constitutes a nationally up-to-snuff article, but appreciating the structure that underlies it. Not unlike an English composition class, I'm hoping to find a few archetypes that will serve me in the future.

As an aside, I learned something important today. Last week, I wrote an article for (reposted at this blog) about the impact of cigarette butts on my fair burg of Santa Barbara. Though I did not in anyway state that Santa Barbara was the locus of all dead ciggy butts (and by implication a bad place populated by bad people) I have to admit that my ire was directed at the cretins who neolithically dispose of all manner of garbage on our streets.

The important lesson I learned while strolling the streets of my temporary home this afternoon, this mythical bastion of all things green and sustainable, I encountered pretty much the same evidence of primitive inhabitants as back home. Cigarette butts galore, an overturned half-melted cup of ice cream anointing a bus bench, papers and scraps of all shapes and sizes, and more sedimentary layers of chewing gum than I think I've ever seen.

Now, this is not meant to beat up on Portland in any way. The epiphany is that regardless of the GPS coordinates or the lauded wonders of any community, there are those who walk among us who just don't give a rat's ass. There ya go…my profound, set-myself-free moment.

Tomorrow is “get-oriented” day for newbies like me. I'm thrilled to be embarking on what I expect will be a step through a new door. Time will tell. Here are a few more shots of my trip so far. Tune in tomorrow.

The view from my seat if I break the back of my seat a lean back really far.

The luxury of coach class - a free Red Hook beer (actually, two) and some garlic & herb crackers!

No, it isn't. Go the the children's section of the library, find "Your Golden Book of Color" and look up plaid. You're not even close. If I were Scottish, I'd be tempted to bomb your store.