Nan Ondra: Garden Writer and Garden Blogger

– Posted in: Interviews
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Image of woman with hat holding the reins on two alpacas

Nan with her two alpacas, Duncan and Daniel. Photo by Rob Cardillo, used with permission.

Yesterday I reviewed Fallscaping by Stephanie Cohen and Nancy Ondra. Knowing Nan is a fellow garden blogger, I thought it would be interesting to learn more about her as a writer and gardener.

This is your second book co-authored with Stephanie Cohen. How did you two originally come to work together?

I’ve known Stephanie since the early 90s, when I was working at Rodale and had to interview her for a perennials book we were putting together at the time. Several years ago, she was interested in doing a book on perennial garden design and suggested that we work together, so we approached Storey Publishing (with whom I’d already done Grasses), and they were open to the idea. That turned into The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer, which was published in 2005.

Besides being my second project with Stephanie, Fallscaping is my third book collaboration with photographer Rob Cardillo. Along with The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer and Fallscaping, he and I worked together on Foliage: Astonishing Color and Texture Beyond Flowers, which also came out through Storey in 2007. Rob lives relatively near here, so he comes up to shoot often. We did almost all of the how-to photography for Fallscaping here (I get to be a hand model as well as a writer and gardener), and some of the garden shots are from here as well. We’re currently working together on a fourth book for Storey, on perennial-garden care, due out in January of 2009.

Do you still work at Rodale?

I worked at Rodale from 1990 to 1995 as an editor in Garden Books. (I recently found out that Craig Cramer of the blog Ellis Hollow also worked there at the same time, as the editor of New Farm magazine. Small world!) I left Rodale to go freelance in 1995 and have been editing and writing garden books on my own since then.

Would you say Fallscaping is what didn’t “fit in” the first book you and Stephanie wrote, or was it a completely different idea?

It was a totally different idea. When The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer – or as we refer to it, The Pink Book (because of the hot pink cover) – turned out to be so successful, Storey asked if we’d be interested in doing a second book. I think Stephanie came up with the idea of writing about fall gardening, and it seemed like a good concept, since very little had been published on the topic since Allen Lacy’s The Garden in Autumn in the early 90s.

How did your interest in fall gardening start? Who or what were your influences?

Working on Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design really got me intrigued about the possibilities of ornamental grasses, and moving from a tiny garden with mostly shade to a relatively large place with full sun gave me plenty of space to experiment with lots of different grasses — especially the large warm-season grasses, which are at their full glory in fall. Developing the various areas of natural meadow on my property also clued me into the possibilities of combining the grasses with fall-flowering perennials in the garden as well. But the real catalyst was reading Piet Oudolf’s books Gardening with Grasses, Dream Plants for the Natural Garden, and Designing with Plants. They changed my perspective of fall gardening from “oh, well, the flowers are over” to “wow, look at all of these amazing forms and textures!” Before that, I was always quick to remove declining leaves and blackened seedheads in an effort to keep the garden looking tidy for as long as possible. Learning to see beauty in decay (or as Piet Oudolf refers to it, “plants that die well”) greatly extended the time I enjoy being in my garden, and it’s made me a lot more relaxed toward garden maintenance as well.

I’ve noticed that a lot of garden writers who got their start in more traditional publishing have a hard time with the switch to blogging, but you and Fran (and the others at Gardening Gone Wild) seem to have hit your stride pretty quickly. Whose idea was GGW? The Design Challenge? Did you read gardening blogs for quite a while before starting your own? Did you ask for tips or other help from people before starting?

Fran Sorin came up with the idea and set up Gardening Gone Wild last summer, and I feel incredibly lucky that she asked me to join. Before that, the concept of blogging was hardly even on my radar, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought to start a blog on my own. (Write for free? You must be kidding! I do that as a job.)

Image of garden with diverse foliage textures

Nan’s front garden in July (photo courtesy Nan Ondra)

Well, Fran can be quite persuasive, and I knew it would be fun to work with her, and I did have all these digital photos and nothing to do with them. Plus, I spend 12 to 18 months on each book I write, so I thought it might be interesting to have an outlet for writing on other gardening topics. (Most of my books relate to ornamentals, for instance, but I’m a keen novice veggie grower too, so I’d like to write about some of my experiences with that.) At first, writing for the blog felt pretty much the same as for books and magazines, until people started leaving comments. Then, the revelation: There are PEOPLE out there! Seventeen years of writing into the void, with only the occasional review as feedback; suddenly, response times were measured in hours or days instead of months and years. It’s a powerful motivator!

Then, visiting other blogs became equally interesting, because I suddenly had lots of new friends and wanted to see what they were doing in their own gardens. If I had been reading other blogs before GGW, I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to write myself, because there’s so much great stuff out there to read already. But now, I’m so entranced by it all that I’m starting a personal blog as well, so I don’t monopolize all the space over at Gardening Gone Wild.

The Garden Bloggers’ Book Club, which was started by Carol at May Dreams Gardens, was the inspiration for the Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop. I thought it was terrific that Carol provided a way to have all those reviews in one place, so anyone who was interested in one particular book or genre of garden writing would be able to read them in her archives any time. When I’m not writing about gardening or actually working in the garden, I think about what I want to do next out there, and I spend a fair bit of time flipping through books, magazines, catalogs, and web pages for design ideas. It seemed to me that collecting pictures and stories of real gardeners’ design solutions would be a fun project and a source of post ideas for the winter months. Based on the number of responses we get, I guess other garden bloggers like the idea as well!

Tell me more about those alpacas. Do you consider them a business investment, or pets? Are they really more profitable than traditional livestock?

Image of alpaca barn and pasture

The view from Nan’s office (photo courtesy Nan Ondra)

I suppose Daniel and Duncan qualify as pets, but I think they prefer the term companions. They’re both registered and technically could have been used for breeding, but I had no interest in getting involved in that and had them gelded when they were old enough. (Before that, they fought a lot; now they live together serenely, for the most part.) I suppose I could recoup a small fraction of their upkeep by selling the fiber from their yearly shearing, but because I shear them myself, the quality isn’t as high as it could be if they were professionally sheared. Last year, I sent the last few shearings’ worth of fleece to my editors at Storey, and they kindly spun some of it into yarn, which Mom crocheted into a hat and scarf for me. Not much of a return from a financial perspective, but to me, the hat and scarf are priceless.

From a gardening perspective, the boys’ manure is immensely valuable to me. It’s delivered in convenient pellet form and always deposited neatly in one “litter box” spot, so I can go out any time, gather up whatever’s there and apply it directly to the garden without composting it first. (Well, on ornamentals, anyway; I wait at least three months after applying it to areas where I grow edibles before planting.)

And then, of course, there’s all the pleasure I get from spending time with the two of them. They don’t like being hugged or fussed with, but they do take me for a walk every few days, and we enjoy our rambles on the roads and through the woods. So…as far as I’m concerned, there are plenty of intangible rewards, but financially, profit doesn’t enter the equation.

So then, what made you choose alpacas as companions, as opposed to another animal? Why not horses or goats?

Why alpacas? Good question. Well, our family had horses for 20 years, but they’d all passed away in the fullness of time. The process of putting them to sleep was so heart-breaking, though, that I couldn’t bear the thought of getting another horse. Plus, I would have had to fence in most or all of what’s now my meadow for pasture. Still, it didn’t seem right to have land without livestock. I’m allergic to chickens, unfortunately, and I wasn’t interested in sheep or goats. I heard that my cousin was getting alpacas and didn’t know what they were at the time, so I started looking into them, and they seemed like a good option. They’re relatively small (my boys are about 150 pounds each), and since they have padded feet rather than hooves, they’re much easier on the land than horses. They’re quiet (now that they’re gelded anyway; before that, they’d scream at each other a lot); they’re gentle; and they eat a whole lot less hay than horses. (It’s really tough to find high-quality hay these days, so that’s an important factor.)

Before I bought them, I went to shows and lectures about alpacas, so I thought I had a good idea of what I was getting into. I was lucky enough to find a great farm that advertised breeding for temperament as well as conformation and fiber, and all of their alpacas were agility-trained. (Sort of like dog agility, but the alpacas go over, under, around, and through various obstacles on lead.) Still, it was a steep learning curve once I got the boys home. Contrary to the hype of being a “huggable investment,” most alpacas prefer minimal handling; my boys tolerate it very well and don’t mind me being nearby but make it clear they’d prefer I didn’t touch them. Then there’s the issue of having to give them shots once a month for a meningeal worm, a serious parasite that’s carried by white-tailed deer. (It doesn’t harm the deer, but it can be fatal to alpacas.) I hate giving the shots, but it’s not optional, so I do it.

The other snag is that there’s not a whole lot of knowledge about alpacas in our country; they’ve been in the U.S. for only about 20 years, I think. There aren’t enough of them to be worthwhile for drug testing, so they’re aren’t any medications actually labeled for alpacas, and much of the management information is being learned by trial and error. Keeping up with the latest advice on parasite control and nutrition is a job in itself!

Even with all of this, I dearly love my two, and I’m glad they’re here. They’re so different from other animals that I’ve been around that they’re endlessly fascinating.

Thanks for the chat, Kathy. I very much enjoyed the interaction with you. This whole blog thing certainly has broadened my horizons.

It’s broadened my horizons, too, Nan–and given me the opportunity to ask questions of some very interesting people.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

When dealing with frost it is always best to be paranoid. In the spring never think it is too late for one more frost to come. And in the fall never think it too early.

~Rundy in Frost

Comments on this entry are closed.

Kathy Purdy February 22, 2008, 7:08 am

Wow, your husband reads my blog . . . I’m impressed. I’m a big fan of inter-library loan myself, and sometimes my local library will order the book after they’ve seen it come for me.

kerri February 21, 2008, 9:40 am

Kathy, I’m glad I went back to this post and read your interesting interview with Nan. It was fun learning more about her. I agree that ‘getting to know’ the person behind the book is a real bonus and should be very helpful toward sales and promotion.
My husband read this post when you wrote it and promptly ordered ‘The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer’ from our Mid-York Library system. It was a lovely surprise for me 🙂 I’m thoroughly enjoying the book!

Pam/Digging February 1, 2008, 9:47 pm

Oh, I get comment envy big-time too, Kim. And I just wanted to second Carol’s comment about being more likely to buy a book because of knowing the author through her blog. In fact I bought “Grasses” for that reason. Well, that and the beautiful cover photo.

Kim February 1, 2008, 8:15 pm

Kathy, that makes me feel a lot better… I didn’t want to admit to my own “comment envy,” but since you did, I will, too! 🙂

And every comment really is still a thrill for me, too, in that Sally-Field-at-the-Oscars way: “You like me! Right now, you like me!”

Nan Ondra February 1, 2008, 7:48 am

How can I ever thank you all for the warm welcome you’ve given me and the others at Gardening Gone Wild? It’s been great making so many new friends. Carol really pinned down the appeal: the thrill of making connections with other obsessed gardeners. In traditional publishing, there’s a tendency to think oh, so-and-so just published an article or book on that subject, so I can’t do that. But in the blogging world, one person can inspire dozens or hundreds of other bloggers to write about the same topic at the same time, which creates an amazing energy and makes for lots of great reading!

debra February 1, 2008, 2:52 am

Loved reading your interview with Nancy Ondra. I LOVE her Grasses book and last summer I reviewed her gorgeous Foliage book for The American Gardener’s July-Aug 07 issue. Here is the link: http://www.ahs.org/publications/the_american_gardener/07/07/reviews.htm#2
Good stuff, Kathy & Nancy! xoxodkp

Carol January 31, 2008, 6:33 pm

What a great interview. I love the stories behind the books, to know more about the authors of the books I’m reading. Hey, maybe I’ll win the door prize at the spring fling?

Nan… As a result of reading this interview and Kathy’s review, plus reading your blogs, I’m much more likely to buy one or more of your books. You are making connections with others in a way that is different from when someone “just” reads your book.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens

comm0nweeder January 31, 2008, 1:12 pm

Kathy,
Thank you for introducing me to Nan. I will look for her books.
And like Nan I have to say that one of the most astonishing things is to get comments on my blog, or to have people email me. Especially when they are from people I don’t know! My blog is very new and I treasure every comment.

jodi January 30, 2008, 9:41 pm

Well, for heavens sake! I’m feeling right some stunned…I’ve been trying to figure out why Nancy’s name seemed so familiar to me, and I thought it was just from reading her blog, maybe a magazine article or something. I HAVE The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer, and love it, though I haven’t looked at it in a few months (I get dozens of books to review, and some I keep, and some pass along.) This is a terrific interview too, Kathy, so thanks for doing it!

Kathy Purdy January 30, 2008, 7:58 pm

Kim, the thrill has never gone away for me. I think I suffer from comment addiction (that post has been up for [fill in amount of time] now, how come no one has commented yet? Where is everybody?) and comment envy (How come she gets more comments than me?) So I’m glad you took time to comment!

Kim January 30, 2008, 7:47 pm

Interesting interview, Kathy… and it’s nice to get to know more about Nan! I had noticed that you didn’t seem to visit other blogs at first, and then I suddenly saw comments from you everywhere. 🙂 Isn’t it so nice to have the interaction?! I still get a thrill every time I see a new comment come through my email.

Kathy, you’ve been blogging for a very long time now. Does the comment thrill ever go away? If so, I’m on year 3 of blogging–how much longer do I have to enjoy it? 🙂

Mr. McGregor's Daughter January 30, 2008, 2:07 pm

Thanks for the informative interview. I’ve read both “Foliage” and “Fallscaping,” so it’s great to hear the story behind each book.

Pam/Digging January 29, 2008, 9:01 pm

Nan, you are sweet to respond so generously to such a broad hint! Thank you! Your book will be the prize of the door prizes.

Nan Ondra January 29, 2008, 8:46 pm

That can be arranged, Pam! I’ll be there in spirit, anyway.

Pam/Digging January 29, 2008, 7:56 pm

I am so enjoying your interviews, Kathy. And I’m happy to know more about Nan too. I have her book “Grasses,” and I’d love to get Fallscaping too. Oh, wouldn’t an autographed copy be a terrific door prize at the Garden Bloggers Spring Fling? 😉 Even better would be Nan’s presence.

Robin January 29, 2008, 2:48 pm

I was just looking at this book on Saturday at the bookstore. It’s one that I’d love to have.

Thanks Nan and Kathy for this interview, it was interesting and fun to read.

mss @ Zanthan Gardens January 29, 2008, 8:58 am

Kathy, thanks again for another interesting interview. I’m glad to get to know more about Nan. I’ll have to check out some of her books. Cold Climate Gardening is really a “value-added” blog; that is, you always write something worth reading.

Ellis Hollow January 29, 2008, 7:25 am

So glad to hear that you are a Piet Oudolf fan, Nan. I always felt like he rewarded my sloppy attitude toward fall clean-up chores. Great plants look good dead.