Local Writer of the Week: Oz Never Did Give Nothin’ to the Tin Man

Mary Gallagher was my student in creative writing at Robinson High School, Class of 1989. I remember her as a quiet, good-natured young woman with an open manner and a disarming smile. So many adolescents are withdrawn or even surly, but not Mary. She had a sunny disposition matched only by what I came to find was a wicked sense of mordant humor. And write. Oh, my, but the young lady could write like a dream. I quickly put her in the “Tin Man” category of students, which is an allusion to the America (of “A Horse with No Name” fame) song which went in part “Oz never did give nothin’ to the Tin Man/ That he didn’t, didn’t already have…” That is to say that I knew early on in the class that the best I could hope for with students like Mary (and like Emily Mitchell and Roy Jefferson) was that I would do them no harm. They had come to me as accomplished writers and what I could do for them was give them opportunities to share their writing and encourage them in any way I could. That was my role as a teacher: anything else could be damaging.

Mary graduated and then came back to Robinson as an English teacher. I would see her in department meetings and in the halls, but we taught in different parts of the building. I lost track of her and I retired. I heard she went to Mountain View.

Then, as I have with other former students, I reconnected with Mary on Facebook. She commented occasionally on my posts and I on hers, and then one day a notice showed up in my email about something called Black Walnut Dispatch, subtitled “Mossy Fecund Thoughts about Gardening and Nature.” It was a gardening/ landscape design blog and it was by Mary. I was a bit taken aback, but delighted at her knowledge and as ever, impressed by the humor and style of her writing. The posts are well worth checking out at http://blackwalnutdispatch.com/ She covers a variety of topics, and some of them not related to gardening but amazing anyhow.

I asked Mary how she got started in gardening and landscape design ( I knew about the writing), and she responded by sending me an essay she had  just sent to Washington Gardener Magazine. Mary always made it easy for me, even down to her married name. Her maiden name was Gallagher; her married name is Gray, and so she is still Mary G. and still the Tin Man. And I mean that in every good way.

Here’s how she  got started gardening in her own words:

My Garden Story
By Mary Gray
I remember the exact moment in which I became a gardener.  Or perhaps I should say, I remember the moment that I started to become a gardener, since my transformation was fast, but not instantaneous.  
It was April of 2007, and I had been a stay-at-home mom for a year.  Though I felt lucky to be with my baby boy full-time, being cooped up in the house did not agree with me, and I was restless.  Between feedings and diaper changes, I began looking out the windows.   Our yard looks hideous, I thought.
One warm April day while Charlie was napping, I decided to take the baby monitor outside and do some yard work.  I was pruning an overgrown Euonymus ‘Manhattan’ (of course, at the time it was just Green Bush ‘Ugly’ to me) when I looked up and surveyed the backyard.  It was terribly weed-ridden and overgrown, but I remember thinking:  I’m going to fix this place up.  This thought was followed by another as I continued my work under the warm sun: Hmm. This is actually rather pleasant.
Ta-da!  A gardener was born.  What I had previously considered a chore had suddenly become an interesting challenge.  And within a few months, that challenge became an all-consuming passion.  Every second of the day that Charlie slept, I would go outside and start pulling weeds.  I bought Gardening for Dummies and that summer checked out nearly every garden and landscaping book from the public library.  
I became fascinated not only by plants but by garden design, and so a year later I enrolled in George Washington University’s Landscape Design Program.  The program was challenging, but I loved the combination of coursework in design, horticulture, and construction.  Soon I added a part-time job at a nursery so that I could get hands-on experience with plants, and later I began doing freelance garden design and coaching as well.
My backyard became my plant workshop and design playground, and I have had so much fun experimenting with different plant combinations these last few years.  We live on a half-acre suburban lot in Burke, VA.  Our backyard gradually slopes down to our deck, and is graced with several beautiful mature shade trees.
  Unfortunately, most of those trees are Black Walnuts, which not only drop huge nuts all summer and fall, but also secrete a toxin that severely hinders the growth of many other plants.  Even though they create a gardening challenge, we would never dream of cutting down any of our Black Walnuts because they have such a handsome spreading habit and make the back yard feel park-like.  Sure, I’ve been beaned on the head once or twice with gigantic nuts, but what gardener doesn’t have her challenges?
Because of the large trees, the amount of sunlight our backyard receives is highly variable: one spot may get dappled shade, but move a few feet in any direction and you could be in full sun or full shade.  I try to take full advantage of all the sunny pockets by packing them with as many ornamental grasses and summer flowering perennials as I can.  But I’ve found that part shade is amenable to some beautiful plant combinations as well.  I recently planted a partly shaded bed with Fothergilla ‘Blue Shadow’, Deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’, Hosta ‘Frances Williams’, Heuchera ‘Dale’s Strain’, Sarcococca, Carex pensylvanica, and Digitalis x mertonensis.  Once this planting has proven itself, I plan to tuck some Camas and Allium bulbs around the perennials.
I know that sweeps of ornamental grasses and perennials are hot right now, but I’m a big fan of flowering shrubs for home landscapes.  They are great for adding visual weight where it is needed in a design, they are easy to care for, and there are so many interesting new cultivars that come out each year that offer compact habit, colorful foliage, and an abundance of flowers or fruit.  I especially love shrubs that produce berries, with Ilex verticillata and Callicarpa americana being my current favorites.  Other shrubs I’ve had great success with include Rhus aromatica, Physocarpus opulifolia, Aronia melanocarpa, and various Viburnums.  
In addition to doing freelance garden design and playing around in my own garden, I hope to continue my studies at GW and pursue a Masters in Sustainable Landscaping.  The more involved I become in the world of gardening, the more committed I am to creating the healthiest environments possible, for all living things.

Just beautiful, Mary. Just beautiful. –DV


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4 responses to “Local Writer of the Week: Oz Never Did Give Nothin’ to the Tin Man

  1. Oh my goodness, she sounds amazing!!!

  2. She is! And I taught her everything she knows (not)!

  3. Dan, this sentence in particular struck me: "That is to say that I knew early on in the class that the best I could hope for with students like Mary (and like Emily Mitchell and Roy Jefferson) was that I would do them no harm." Boy, do I have students like that! And I love that song.Mary can come to my house any day. Congrats to her on all her accomplishments, and yours as a teacher.

  4. Thank you, Katherine! It is students like Mary and the others that made teaching such a joy!

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