A conversation with Ciscoe Morris
Gardener, Media Personality
Q: What do you do?
Ciscoe Morris: Well, I guess if I had to describe what I do, I’d say that I am a media gardener because I used to run grounds crews, and I had my own gardening business at one point. But now it seems that most of my avocation is teaching people about environmentally friendly gardening through a lot of different media. So it’s TV, radio and writing for The Seattle Times, and writing books, as well. And I also lecture quite often, giving over a hundred garden talks a year. Looks like I’m going to reach that total again this year. Also — just as a little aside, as another little thing I do — I lead garden tours all over the world, which I just love.
Q: You talked about writing for The Seattle Times. Tell us how that is different than doing TV or radio or writing books, or any of the other things you do.
CM: Writing for The Seattle Times is really a lot of fun because what I write is kind of what you should be doing right now or what you should be aware of in the garden. It’s also something that you could do that is environmentally friendly and that would solve a current problem in the garden. So it’s something that’s very timely. Where when you write a book it can really vary and stretch over many years. So one of the things I love about writing for The Seattle Times is that I get the time to think about what people will be doing in their gardens at a particular time and how can I help them garden effectively. Or simply ways to have more fun when gardening. So, it’s something that’s funny because it’s constantly on my mind. I’ll be out walking or I’ll be giving a talk, and someone will ask a question, and I’ll think, “Oh, that’s something I’ve got to write about in The Seattle Times. It’s something people really need to know.” So, it’s kind of extra fun for me. It’s a really nice way to reach people, and I have a lot of fun doing it, as well.
Q: How often do you read The Seattle Times?
CM: I read The Seattle Times a lot. I read every Thursday no matter what. I love reading Pacific Northwest magazine on Sunday because I think it’s one of the best gardening publications out there, and my good friend Val Easton who writes for the magazine is such a great writer. I think she is the best garden writer I know, so I make sure I never miss her column, no matter what.
Q: Is reading the Sunday newspaper different than when you read it on Thursday?
CM: Oh, yeah, you have more time. It’s my relaxed Sunday morning activity. I like to just kind of thumb through the newspaper. And there are so many fun things — including the funnies. I enjoy that section of the paper the most. But every day there’s always something interesting to learn about.
Q: Do you use The Seattle Times online?
CM: Oh yeah, I go to The Seattle Times online all the time and use it for research. Since I’m not the only person who’s writing about gardening in The Seattle Times, I’ll look for other garden articles because they can help me with my TV and radio shows. I can find ideas and inspiration for something that maybe is even more important locally. You know, that maybe I need to add something to the idea or give a little local slant to it. So, yeah, I think there’s a lot in there for everybody to make use of.
Q: You talked about the Sunday experience and how it’s different and more relaxing. If you had the ideal situation for reading the newspaper, what would that look like to you?
CM: That would be just like about an hour after breakfast to just relax, maybe go out by the waterfall on my patio to just relax and read the newspaper and kind of enjoy nature flying by. I’d read the newspaper and get lots of fun ideas and new thoughts.
Q: You’re such a Northwest icon, people know you all over. What do you love most about living in the Northwest?
CM: Oh! It’s a gardening paradise, number one. The people are really nice here, and that’s really cool, but this is the best place in the world to garden. I lead garden tours everywhere, and everywhere I go I see great gardens, but what I’ve learned is we can grow more kinds of plants here in the Pacific Northwest than almost anywhere else in the world. We’re kind of comparable to parts of Japan and England in that way. We don’t get too hot and we don’t get too cold, so it’s truly a gardening paradise. The other thing is there are so many great gardeners here. People are really excited about gardening. They are serious about gardening, and so, you can’t even go to the store without talking gardening. And I really love that.
Q: When people read your column, what is the one thing you hope they take away?
CM: That gardening is fun. That gardening is a great activity for young and old, alike, but that it’s fun. It’s good for you, but it’s just really exciting and thrilling to watch that little seed turn into a beautiful plant that you might be able to eat or show off. And that anybody that thinks gardening is a chore is really missing out on the real thrill because it is just a fascinating activity. It’s both artistic and skillful, and you never stop growing while you’re growing things.
Q: Tell us about the process for writing your column. You said you get ideas from all over, from people calling in to your TV and radio shows, from your news searching online and other ways. Where do you sit? How do you start? Do you get writer’s block? Tell me about the process.
CM: You know it’s interesting. I think what happens is it starts wherever I’m going with an idea, I’m thinking about what can I write that will reach people and give them some new ideas or make gardening more fun or help solve a particular problem. And then, at my talks or anywhere, if something clicks in me, and I just think, “Okay, I’ve got to remember that.” And it can be really difficult. Sometimes you go, “What was that?”
In the winter, most of the time I write in my little office in the back room which has lots of windows. I’m always looking out the windows at the garden, and it’s kind of interesting because sometimes I’ll see hummingbirds come and go to different plants than I’m used to seeing them at, and that might click, and I’m like, “Oh, I’ve got to let people know about that.”
As spring and summer progress, I’ll often write on my patio. I’ve got three fountains and there’ll be all kinds of plants in bloom. I’m watching the birds and I have them all named — Charlotte Chickadee and Nellie Nuthatch and Harriet the Hummingbird — it’s so fun. So a lot of my ideas come while I’m writing one thing, and I’m like, “Hey, wow,” that leads me to some thoughts about something else. So then, I’m already starting to write ideas for next week while I’m writing the original piece.
Occasionally, I’ll get a little writer’s block. But what I do every morning is at 5:15 I’ll go for about a two-and-a-half mile walk, just by myself — without the dogs, even though I love walking the dogs and walking with Mary, and I do that a lot, too — but I’ll be out on a walk, and I’ll be thinking and looking. I’ll look at the different plants and think, “What needs to be done right now? What could people be working on? What’s that new tip that I learned the last time I was giving a talk that somebody told me about this forsythia plant right here?” So, a lot of my ideas come from when I’m actually walking, and a lot of times I’ll think, “What can I write today?” while I’m on my walks.
Q: You write a lot, and sometimes they have to cut the length of your columns. You have a lot to share and not everything makes it into the finished piece. Do you ever think, “I wish they would have done this or done that”?
CM: The editors I work with are great because they try really hard to always let me keep my voice; they know that I want to say everything every time that I write. I think the biggest problem I have with writing both books and for The Seattle Times is that I want to say everything. I want to tell every idea I have and the hardest thing for me is to keep it short. And that’s where I spend a lot of my time during the writing process. I write at first, and then I look at it and go, “Oh, my goodness.” I do a word count and go, “Oh, no, it’s like a mile too long. I’ve got to do something.” So then, I start writing it and try to shave it down to really the most important points. But if I had my way every one of my articles would fill the whole newspaper.
Q: What’s the best compliment you’ve ever gotten from a reader?
CM: Oh, I’ve had some really wonderful ones. The compliments I like the best are when someone comes up to me and says, “My mom’s not around anymore, but she loved your articles and she got so much out of it, and every time I’d come over, she’d tell me what Ciscoe wrote.” When I hear things like that, it is so moving to me, just to know that people like what I write really means a lot. So, whenever people come up at one of my talks and say something like, “Hey, I liked your article,” or “Hey, I like what you wrote about this,” you know it just makes my whole day. It’s just the most wonderful thing. And it’s very rare that someone comes up and says, “Hey, I don’t like your article, buddy.” Most of the time they’re really nice compliments from the heart. So it feels like it’s really neat that I’m able to connect with people that way.
Q: Why is it important to have a local newspaper when we have all these other media?
CM: I think life is too fast. Everything is electronic now. And for me, there’s no way that I could sit down and read a book on the computer. I just couldn’t do it. I like to sit and be outside most of the time when I’m reading. If it’s nice out, I’m out on my patio all the time. I think reading something on real paper slows you down. You can take your time and go through it and get great ideas. I think there’s something totally different about it. The minute you’re on your computer, you’re checking your e-mail, and then you’re reading some more, then you’re checking your e-mail again. You don’t really have time once you’re on that computer. I find it’s all, “Full speed ahead!” There’s no time to relax and digest what you’re reading and think about it. It’s just, “OK, I read that, now I’ve got to get on to the next thing.” So I think there’s something about the newspaper that brings you back to the days when we could relax for a few minutes and enjoy reading something and getting that special quality that you get only from reading something on paper. That’s my feeling.