Gardening Advice from an Expert Cape Cod Gardener

Cape Cod Life  /  April 2019 / ,

Writer: Stephanie Foster / Photographer: Stephanie Foster 

Tried True & New

C.L. Fornari shares sage gardening advice in her new book

The surprising thing about C.L. Fornari’s garden is not the lushness of the plantings, the striking use of color or the continual bloom from season to season. It is the casualness of it all. Nonetheless, plants burst out of the earth with exuberance at Poison Ivy Acres in Sandwich, where Fornari lives with her husband, Dan, and their dog, Sparky. 

Catmint explodes in pools of blue. Apricot roses softly twine their way along a trellis. Lemon-lime verbascum stand up boldly like soloists in an orchestra, although they are merely volunteers who seeded themselves there for drama.  

Fornari is the maestro of this garden concert, and she turns a deaf ear to insubordination. The garden guru, writer, radio host, author and dynamic speaker is as casual in her own life as she is in her garden. And just as full of surprises. Her ninth gardening book, “Sand & Soil: Creating Beautiful Gardens on Cape Cod and the Islands,” will be in stores this spring. 

C.L. Fornari fills her home garden with a variety of Cape Cod-friendly plantings. In her new book, “Sand & Soil,” Fornari shares many plant species you can incorporate into your own Cape or Islands garden.

She wrote her first gardening guide in 1996 when she couldn’t find any books about gardening on Cape Cod. Others were soon to follow. But after decades of gardening in the Cape’s special conditions, working at the retail nursery Country Garden in Hyannis, and hosting a call-in garden radio show, her thoughts have changed. She has a deeper understanding about gardening and what people care about and need to know. Her latest book is similar to her first but updated with new observations, plants, pests, and practical information. Plus, it is illustrated with her gorgeous photographs.

“It’s not as breezy as the last two books (“The Cocktail Hour Garden” and “Coffee for Roses”),” Fornari says. “It’s a big color book. But it’s not an encyclopedia; it doesn’t include photos of every plant I recommend. People can page through it and get inspired by the photos of gardens on the Cape and Islands, or if they want to know how to treat grubs in the lawn they can use it that way as well.” In essence, it’s a combination of Fornari’s lifetime experience and knowledge of gardening in one volume. It’s the ultimate, must-have gardening book.

When Fornari moved to the Cape in 1993, she had no thought of writing books about gardening. “I never intended to be a writer or a garden professional,” Fornari says. “I was working as an artist since the early seventies. Sometimes life takes you down paths that you never intended to walk.” Fornari had been speaking and teaching about art, and after moving to the Cape, she went from giving local garden talks to becoming a national “garden communicator.” She began writing garden books, and in that time her goals again shifted. 

“I want to bring gardening into popular culture,” she says. “My big goal is to promote gardening to the next generation—to be part of a gardening revival in the United States. People have disconnected with plants, gardens and nature in general. It’s a real shame. And a little dangerous for all of us.”

Fornari grew up gardening like her mother and grandmother, but she feels as though times have changed. “If you look at old magazines, or newspapers, it was part of everybody’s experience,” she says. She hopes to encourage people to return to the plant world, even if it is the result of trendy house design, such as extending the indoors to the outdoors, or simply the hot topic of nutrition.

The secret garden-like nature of Fornari’s backyard makes for a true sanctuary, where Fornari can be one with the flora that surrounds her.

Fornari knows young people are interested in food, be it wholesome organic nutrition or new flavor discoveries, and she hopes to draw them into the garden by podcasting information that will interest them. “It’s become my mission,” she says. For the last two years, she and fellow garden communicator Ellen Zachos have done a podcast program called “Plantrama.” Their mantra is “Science, art and dinner. It’s all in your own backyard.” Podcasts include discussion on eating plants and how to grow them. “Ellen is a forager and professional gardener. We are both very opinionated and don’t always agree,” Fornari notes, which results in lively, fun and informative podcasts. (Episodes are available at plantrama.com.) 

“I never intended to be a writer or a garden professional,” Fornari says. “Sometimes life takes you down paths that you never intended to walk.”

She and Dan, a marine geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, made time for a trip to Italy in recent years, but she is most content at home. “Why leave this?” she asks, gesturing around her. Cardinals pause by her poppies, while Blue Jays linger by the catmint. (Could they be on her payroll?) Hardscape blends seamlessly into the landscape—stonework and walkways look as if they have always been there. Containers of flowers create splashes of color. Chipmunks zip around, much to Sparky’s delight. For Fornari, home is her great escape.

A few years short of her seventh decade, Fornari is steaming ahead. She consults several days a week at Country Garden, maintains her own garden, and travels the country for speaking engagements. Meanwhile, she has another idea for a book. “A novel with heroes and villains. Plants play a huge part in it,” she says with a grin. “Freud said there are two things that give our lives meaning: work and love. I’m blessed to enjoy my work.”

“Sand & Soil” is available at Titcomb’s Bookshop, 432 Route 6A, East Sandwich. For more from C.L. Fornari, visit gardenlady.com. The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History is hosting a book signing on Thursday May 30, 2019 at 4pm.