introducing: tiny gardens
a newsletter for people who like urban horticulture and want to follow the work of ellen airhart
Robert Rauschenberg (artist) American, 1925 - 2008
Corinne Kaz (printer) American, active early 21st century
Richard Kaz (printer) American, born 1947
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
If you want: to feel closer to your city
What you will need: a bag, glass dome, a pot, soil, maybe tweezers, your rambling shoes
A member of my community garden wanted to build a moss garden, and I was a killjoy about it. I had recently written a piece for Popular Science about how to grow a moss garden, and the experts I spoke to recommended gathering moss from near the place where you want to establish it. That proves that it does well in your area. But I couldn’t think of any places where I’d spotted moss in Brooklyn. When I lived in San Francisco, I saw it everywhere. It burst from the concrete, fluorescent and exhibitionist.
But there is moss here, on the walls of Fort Greene park, in between the cobblestones around the Horse Tamers statue by Prospect Park. I only noticed when I started looking.
I wouldn’t recommend gathering your moss from places dedicated to the public. That’s a little like picking Texas bluebonnets on the side of the highway (iykyk). But sidewalk cracks seem like fair game to me. Go out with your bag and look down around your feet. You may have to walk for a little while or come across a particularly wet area, but you’ll probably find some moss eventually. Pick it up with your tweezers, or your fingers if you’re not squeamish. Carry it home and shred it over your pot, then press it down into the dirt. Many mosses, especially tough species you’ve picked up, can survive with minimal water. But your moss will grow faster with some tlc; for best results, water it a couple times a day. Place the glass dome over it to trap the humidity and because it looks cool. Consider putting it up on a literal pedestal; I found a glass cake stand for $1.75 at my local thrift shop.
The line between your dwelling and the city around you has blurred. You have taken something from the place where you live and drawn it deeper into your life. Most people won’t notice it’s missing, but you have given it a place of respect. Is that stealing? I prefer to think of it as an agreement between you and your city that you have taken something, and that you owe something in return.
Introduction to this newsletter
The best creative work I’ve done has felt like a gift, sometimes for loved ones. Sometimes for my peers and coworkers, sometimes an editor or teacher. And as I grew more confident as a writer, I began to trust that following my curiosity would serve as a gift to the not-yet friends who shared my interests.
Some of my favorite gifts that I’ve designed over the last few years have been houseplant collections for my friends. For example: they say “I want something pink and cat-proof,” and I send over a Pinterest full of suggestions. That’s the inspiration for the first section of the newsletter. If you want to request a tiny garden that will make you feel a certain way or do a job for you, send in your request. You can say you want to feel calm, you want a challenge, you want something un-killable. I’ll write a little horticultural spell for you.
My favorite newsletters feel like gifts: Written Out by Kelsey McKinney (no longer publishing, unfortunately), bookbear express by ava, Ask Polly by the great Heather Havrilesky (who has a book coming out today!). I hope this one will also feel like that. I also want a place where I can ask people if they want physical gifts, in the mail, because I also like making those.
The first people who are going to see this newsletter supported me on the Patreon I started after I was laid off in 2018 from my first job. I can’t say how much it meant to me that you supported me during that time when I felt extremely vulnerable. I’m in a more stable place now, so I’ve deactivated my Patreon. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your support.
The next part will be devoted to things that I liked from month, and the next to things that I made.
Things I liked in January
I am reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by two Davids, last names Graeber and Wengrow. It’s a doorstopper and looks intimidating, but I flew through the first three hundred pages. It’s the most engaging nonfiction I’ve read in a long time, with booster-pack subtitles like “HOW THE CONVENTIONAL HISTORICAL NARRATIVE OF HUMAN HISTORY IS NOT ONLY WRONG, BUT QUITE NEEDLESSLY DULL.” I’m on page 312, a little more than halfway through, and the pace has unfortunately slackened a little as the Davids revisit ancient cities that have fewer spicy details, because most ancient cities were built along spicy-detail-destroying waterways. But I have hope that it will pick up again soon after we move into more documented times.
Have y’all ever heard of this show called Broad City? It’s great! I just finished the first season! Ilana’s love for Abbi is epic, in the greek odyssey sense of the word.
My favorite thing on instagram is my friend Elena Lacey’s daily comics that she started to document her life during COVID. She bikes, she falls off her bike, she takes care of many rescue dogs, she spills food in her lap. It’s a joy. Also, if you want to have your heart broken open, read this essay she wrote about her foster dog, Radish.
Here’s a dad thing about me: I can’t get enough books about wartime and inter-wartime Britain. We’re talking the Bloomsbury gang, we’re talking Chartwell, we’re talking smokey earl grey tea from Fortnum & Mason. I listened to two books along those lines in January: The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and the Year that Changed Literature, which is a group biography about how all the writers listed were complete messes in 1922, when they were doing what is arguably their best work. Woolf had a weird chronic version of the Spanish flu (big parallels to long covid here) when she wrote Mrs. Dalloway. T. S. Eliot worked in a bank and was the primary caretaker of his sick wife when he wrote The Waste Land (he wanted that space in the middle there! he and his publisher had a fight about it!). If you love writers talking about money and contracts and weird, demanding patrons, as well as editors just doing the best they can, this is your book. I’m also halfway through The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. It’s about Winston Churchill’s government during the Blitz. Larson relies on a lot of incredible citizen diarists, who were apparently non-writers—teachers, train conductors, housewives—assigned to document the war? Like, I think it was by order of the government? I will read more about this program.
I am obsessed with this website that syncs your time with a reference to that time from somewhere in literature. It’s a little hard to explain, but click on the link and you’ll see what I mean. I keep trying to set it as my chrome home screen, but google seems pretty insistent on keeping itself as the main event.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how the stuff that happens in our brain is real, in the sense that there is real electricity firing and real chemicals are being passed around, but not necessarily reflective of our physical realities. My friend Eleanor Cummins tackled this topic in the most sensitive possible area: chronic pain. So many people who experience chronic pain feel gaslit by both doctors, mental health professionals and the media. Even the great podcast Invisibilia kind of screwed this one up with their episode “The Fifth Vital Sign,” so much so that NPR had to issue an apology. But Eleanor nails it. She interweaves her own experiences with the history of chronic pain science to suggest that maybe there might be therapeutic treatments that work for some people.
Things I made in January
Right now, I’m working on my annual Valentine’s day cards! Usually I make virus-tines, but after five years of painting parvovirus and two years of being like “is this in bad taste during a viral pandemic?” I’m moving on to algae-tines. On an episode of plant crimes I learned about diatoms, which are phytoplanton that make as much as half our planet’s oxygen. That inspired me to learn more about algae, which I will be doing through this project. If you want an algae-tine (they’re free! a gift!), dm me on social media or send your address to email@example.com.
I read Entangled Life with my plant book club! I won’t spoil our discussion, but we need to know if you would eat the diaper mushrooms.
As part of Popular Science’s new year’s package, I wrote about fancy fad waters and the power of the placebo effect. Tl;dr: the placebo effect is real, but your money would probably be better spent at your local food pantry.
For my Popular Science plant column, I surveyed local Brooklyn plant shops to see how they’re protecting their wares from cold windowsills and drafts.
For Wirecutter, I shrunk down to one billionth of my normal size and investigated Apple monitors.
If you want to buy a Plant Crimes hat, it’s here.
Thanks for joining me in this new experiment!