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by Norman Draper


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Livia is a nice little suburb in the upper Midwest--but behind the manicured lawns and pristine hedges seethes a ruthless desire to be the greatest green thumb of all. . .

George and Nan Fremont have created a paradise in their backyard, complete with semi-hallucinogenic exotics and a comfy spot for drinking their favorite merlot. Marta Poppendauber's garden is as pleasantly haphazard as she is. And Dr. Phyllis Sproot, Livia's self-styled and cantankerous gardening expert, has determined the exact formula for the only correct garden possible.

But once Burdick's Plant World announces the garden contest to end them all, none of the gardeners of Livia can afford to live and let live. The Fremonts have almost gardened themselves into bankruptcy. Marta is the victim of black tea blackmail. And Dr. Sproot is turning into a horticultural megalomaniac of the worst kind.

The gardeners of Livia are digging up trouble with every turn of the spade, but if they can make it through the summer, who knows what might bloom?

"Draper has bottled the spirits of competitive gardeners, added sugar and fizz and let them go, leaving the reader with many hilarious madcap adventures." --Suzy Bales, author of Garden Bouquets and Beyond

"Fast-paced, fun and full of flowers." --Amanda Thomsen, author of Kiss My Aster

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617733055
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 11/25/2014
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Norman Draper spent 35 years as a newspaper reporter before leaving journalism in 2011. An avid gardener in thought, if not in deed, he is always up to the task of uncorking a bottle of Sagelands 2007 merlot and checking in on his beloved Minnesota Twins. Draper lives in Bloomington, Minnesota, with his wife, Jennifer, and has two grown sons, Sam and Ed. Visit him on the web at normandraper.com.

Read an Excerpt


By Norman Draper


Copyright © 2014 Norman Draper
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61773-306-2



The inspiration for the "Burdick's Best Yard Contest" came to Jasper Burdick in the steam room of the Directors' Club, in downtown St. Anthony.

Someone had turned up the steam too high. A half-dozen fat, naked patriarchs of St. Anthony and environs yipped and cursed. They yelled for someone outside to turn it down. Nothing happened. No one could hear them.

Finally, the burning steam got too thick to just sit there waiting for someone else to do something. They lifted their jiggling, wrinkled derrieres up off the tiled bench and stumbled blindly toward the door.

But Mr. Burdick stayed put. His sixth sense told him that something of great importance to the future of his business was about to happen here. If his lungs had to get cooked and his body blistered with second-degree burns to witness it, then so be it. He didn't get to where he was in the gardening world by being a shrinking violet.

Curled tendrils of steam ensnared him. They hissed and murmured. Were they trying to tell him something? A vision began to take shape, coalescing at first into a billowing, diaphanous form, then rapidly gaining graphic clarity and definition.

What Mr. Burdick saw emerge from the mists was a snowy upper-Midwestern landscape bursting forth in legions of gigantic early-blooming crocuses and tulips. Tucked within their petals were human faces. That's kind of spooky, thought Mr. Burdick, but at least they're all smiling at me. They looked faintly familiar. Were they his employees? He'd never really taken much notice of them before. As the snow in the vision world melted away, thousands more human-faced flowers of every conceivable hue and size burst forth from the ground. Nonplussed, yet mesmerized, Mr. Burdick leaned closer to the vision and squinted. Who were all these weird flower people?

Then, the vision dissolved into something wonderful: all the mutant flowers trooping to Livia, in the suburban south, then into his Burdick's PlantWorld emporium. They waved fistfuls of cash at soaker hoses, tomato ladders, trellises, garden weasels, tillers, and watering cans.

Nearby stood a clot of TV camera crews and intense-looking reporters armed to the teeth with cassette recorders, pens, and steno pads. Mr. Burdick jerked back from the vision and frowned, distrustful as he was of the press. But what if all these media jackals had been put there to serve some helpful purpose? It would be out of character certainly, but then flowers usually didn't have faces either. They were all standing in a circle around a petite, middle-aged, sun-hatted woman who held a huge gold-plated trophy aloft as flashbulbs popped and reporters shouted unintelligible questions.

"I've just won the Burdick's Best Yard Contest," the woman said with what seemed an understated and almost reluctant enthusiasm under the circumstances. "How could I possibly deserve such an honor?"

Show a little more joy, thought Mr. Burdick; buck up and smell the roses, for heaven's sake.

Someone finally found the controls and turned down the steam, which began to dissolve from its stultifying opaqueness into a warm, misty translucence. The patriarchs, having refreshed themselves in the club whirlpool bath, drifted back into the room. They voiced amazement at Mr. Burdick's heat endurance and plotted exquisite tortures for whomever the idiot was who messed with the timer and thermostat. Mr. Burdick ignored them. He was focusing all his mental energy on the revelation that had just burst on him like a supernova.

"I'm going to hold a contest the likes of which the St. Anthony metro has never seen before," he told the disappearing vision, which now wafted into a faint few billion molecules of nothingness. "The mother of all gardening competitions. Our winner will be a celebrity, a hero, an ambassador for gardening and our particular products throughout the land. Business will flourish as it never has before. Burdick's PlantWorld will expand, first throughout the state, then the region, then the country, and finally, the world. I'll be selling yellow jacket catchers and sweet potato vine in Mongolia before you can say 'Buy Burdick's for Beautiful, Bounteous Blossoms.' I'm going to be the emperor of gardening center owners!"

The shadowy shapes at the other end of the bench stared at him.

"Lost your marbles, Burdick?" gurgled one over the subsiding hiss of the steam jets. "Or maybe you been snortin' too much honeysuckle. Ha-ha."

Marta Poppendauber strolled slowly down the brick pathway through her massive gardens with her watering can. She gazed lovingly upon her potted zinnias, impatiens, and lobelia as she positioned the watering can's snout almost into the dirt around each flower to ensure that the water went straight to the roots. It was how Dr. Phyllis Sproot, her friend and gardening mentor, had taught her.

My, wasn't the lobelia spreading out! She loved their dainty little blooms. And the zinnias! How precious! They seemed to perk up the very instant the water trickled into the soil. The impatiens? Well, we'd just have to see; they might be getting too much sun and too little water.

Having watered all her container plants, Marta scanned the rest of her gardens. It was early June, which meant the clematis's blanket of green leaves and violet blossoms was well on its way to smothering the gray-weathered wooden ladders she had tilted to lean sturdily against the house. The hydrangeas had exploded, as usual. Their plate-sized clumps of green flowers were poised for transformation into white masses of grandeur.

Elsewhere were the phlox, peonies, boltonia, and bugbane. The ornamental grasses, and Martin Frobisher roses, planted years ago, were well-established old-timers. Then there were the yew and the trumpet creeper, and the daffodils and dahlias, not to mention the Don Juan and Jasmina roses.

It was only last month that she had added the love-lies-bleeding, larkspur, mallow, and all the others. Each year, she had filled in every available space with big, bright annuals.

Many of her flowers were still waiting to bloom. Another three weeks or so and she'd have a kaleidoscope of a garden, swarming with honeybees, butterflies, and hummingbirds drawn to her sugary summer paradise.

It had taken years to establish her crazy-quilt pattern the way she wanted it. Along the way, Marta had managed to weather Dr. Sproot's contrariness and ward off her insistence to do something far more contained and predictable.

"It reeks of anarchy," Dr. Sproot had told her two weeks ago, on her first inspection of the season. "You're a garden anarchist, Marta. I've been biting my tongue too long on this. You've openly defied every piece of advice I've given you over the past two years and turned your gardens into nothing more than a menagerie. I told you to get this and you got that. I told you to plant this here, and you planted it there...."

"I didn't ignore everything, Doc Phil. Most of what you've taught me, I've done. It's just I wanted to have a garden with what I wanted in it, not someone else. And you haven't exactly been biting your tongue on this."

"So I've told you a dozen times. So what! Since you're my friend what you do reflects on me. And look at what you've done! You've turned your garden into a jungle. And don't call me Doc Phil. What is it with you and this 'Doc Phil' thing lately?"

"Ooops." Marta placed her fingertips gently on the offending lips. "I don't think it's a jungle at all, Doc Phil ... I mean, Dr. Sproot."

"Well, it sure as heck is. Let me help you, Marta. Your gardens are doomed to disaster this year, but there's always next spring. You'll earn people's respect by tearing everything up and starting all over again, using me as your guide."

With that, Dr. Sproot wound a strand of clematis around her forefinger and yanked it hard, ripping two feet off the plant. She pulverized the flowers and vine, and tossed the mushy remains onto the nearest clump of hosta.

"Sorry, Marta, but I just hate clematis. HATE IT!"

"Hey, sweetums!" The shout from the back door interrupted the unpleasant memory of Dr. Sproot's savage delight as she ground the clematis to a pulp with her bare hands. It was her husband Ham. "Dr. Doofy on the phone for you. She says, 'Come quickly.' I say screw that nutcase and make like a snail."

Marta smiled, but found herself dropping her watering can and quick-stepping down the pathway toward the door.

"What in blue blazes is going on?" Dr. Sproot said breathlessly. "You have contacts that I don't, Marta. You should know, shouldn't you?"

"What are you talking about, Doc Phil? What's going on where?"

"Here in Livia. Where else? There is something horticultural afoot right here in our own community or I'm not a fully accredited doctor of horticulture. What is it? I'm sure you know, Miss Snoop.... And don't call me Doc Phil!"

"I don't know what you mean, Dr. Sproot," said Marta. Her voice trembled with guilt and uncertainty. "I don't know about anything afoot here in Livia. I truly don't."

Marta was fibbing. The Burdick's Best Yard Contest had been underway, though not yet publicly, since last Thursday. Marta knew about it within twenty-four hours of Mr. Burdick announcing it to his assembled staff. She wished she could tell Dr. Sproot, but that just wasn't possible; she had been sworn to secrecy by eight friends who had also been sworn to secrecy. Keeping a confidence might not mean much to a lot of the gadabouts loitering in Livia gardening circles these days, but it did mean something to Marta Poppendauber. You gave your word to someone and you kept it.

"You know darned well that something's in the air, Marta. Why did the Rose Maidens cancel their first monthly meeting in seventeen years? Huh? Why won't the board members answer the phone when I call them, or show me the courtesy of calling back? How come everywhere I go, gardeners are working their rear ends off for no apparent reason, especially considering that they're usually slacking off and going on vacations right about now? And how come people mumble and stutter and find an excuse to rudely walk away whenever I ask them what's up? Huh?"

"You got me, Dr. Sproot."

Dr. Sproot sighed. "Oh, all right, at least for now, my little friend. Never fear; I'll worm it out of you somehow. Now listen up, Marta, because there's something else. I've got a job for you. There's a place I want to scope out in the Bluegill Pond neighborhood. New gardeners. Untutored, from what I can tell. No pedigree, which is sort of insulting. I mean, who gave them permission ... ? No connections in the usual gardening circles. But they've apparently had some little successes and people are talking about them like they just made a new Garden of Eden without the snake. I want to find out what it is they're doing that's got people talking about them and not me, fully accredited and as accomplished and experienced as I am. So, are you in?"

"Of course, Dr. Sproot. Just say the word. That's what best friends are for."

"I'll be in touch."


Of Cockleburs and Redwoods

George and Nan Fremont were on their way back from Burdick's PlantWorld, where they had just gone on a shopping spree. They bought two Miracle-Gro plant feeder refill bottles, a flat of petunias, a new three-quarter-inch and seventy-five-foot-long garden hose to replace the shoddy one they had bought on the cheap earlier, and which was prone to kinking, and a hanging basket of red begonias. George said the begonias looked like a poor man's roses, so why not just get some more roses?

"Because these are begonias and they're not a poor man's anything," Nan said. "Jeez, George, they don't look like roses at all. Well, maybe the blooms do, but not the leaves. I mean, look at the blessed leaves, George! No resemblance whatsoever. You would think you'd know that by now."

"Of course I know the difference, Nan-bee. I'm just yankin' your chain ... or just yankin' your stamen, I should say. Ha-ha."

"I'll yank your stamen. So, we'll hang them on the big hook next to the bird feeders. With any luck they'll help us attract hummingbirds before all the phlox, monarda, and lilies take off. I can't believe how crowded Burdick's was today. I haven't seen it this packed since Easter."

"Yeah, Nan-bee, jam-packed!"

On the drive home George and Nan detoured, as they often would when not in a hurry, which they rarely were. Their roundabout way took them toward Cabot Drive, home to some of their favorite Livia gardens.

"If you were reincarnated as a plant, which would you rather be, an iris or a pansy?" asked Nan. George swung onto Old Dan Troop Drive with a squeal of rubber that signified he was taking the turn too fast, but which he knew would delight the dangerous woman secretly living within Nan.

"Hmmmm," George said. "That's a tough one."

"No, it's not."

That meant this was probably another one of Nan's silly plant riddles. Not necessarily, though. Maybe it was a joke, something like yesterday's chuckle: "How is a philodendron like a tampon?" The answer didn't bear repeating, not even to think about, because it was about the stupidest thing he had ever heard. What was worse was that she had in her stock some really lewd plant jokes she'd spring on him now and again. What was the one about the dandelion and the cocklebur? And why was it all the smutty plant jokes had weeds in them?

But back to the riddle, if that was what it was. George squinched his face and puckered his lips as if to seal off any impulsive and idiotic answer that might come spilling out before he was able to give the matter sufficient thought.

Nan regarded him from her perch on the passenger seat with that unnervingly detached look of hers. That signified it was probably a joke designed to make him look foolish. If it was, he'd better remember the punch line, because Nan never told her jokes fewer than a half-dozen times. Was it more the mark of creeping senility that Nan kept telling her silly plant jokes over and over again or that he kept forgetting the answers to them?

"Uh, that's a really hard one there, Nan-bee. Give me a minute or two to think about it, will you?"

"What, you don't remember! Is it because you can't drive twenty-five miles an hour and think at the same time?"

"Something like that."

"Can't you go faster? Step on it, George. There's nothing around here to see."

George applied a tad more pressure to the accelerator pedal and pondered on what it would be like to be reincarnated as a plant. Bad karma or good to come back as a flower? Depends on whether you're brought back as an annual or a perennial, he thought. Come back as an annual, and you've got just one season to strut your stuff. You make that a full-bore blast, holding nothing back and blazing away color all summer long; that is, as long as your caregiver makes sure to plant you in the right place, then water and fertilize and keep those creepy semi-microscopic bugs off you. That's points for the pansy. A perennial, though. Jeez, a peony can live for decades. A schefflera, too. Why, that sprawling schefflera on the back patio had been around for years and, since they'd bring it inside for the winter, it was still flourishing. In fact, it was flourishing a little too well and would soon outgrow its clay pot. Hadn't he brought that as his only plant contribution to their union twenty-however many years ago? Yep, the schefflera might well outlive the both of them. That's points for the iris.

It suddenly disturbed George that if he came back as a plant, wouldn't he be a hermaphrodite? An it? Two sexes combined as one? Uggggh! George flinched in his seat, making the leather upholstery squeak. His palms moistened on the steering wheel. He must have looked stricken.

"What's wrong?" said Nan.

"Nothing. Still thinking."

But why limit yourself to measly backyard flora? What if you came back as a redwood tree? Then you'd live thousands of years. If your seed happened to sprout within the confines of a state or federally protected area, you'd never have to worry about the teeth of those awful, whirring chain saws biting their way past your thick, armor-like bark—which had resisted bugs and blights for generations—and slicing into the depths of your pulpy innards. All you'd have to do is stand there, procreate, enjoy the view, and lord it over the rest of the forest. Not only that, ant-like humans would look up at you, and tell each other that—just think of it!—you had been taller than they are when Muhammad's conquering armies swept across the Arabian Peninsula.


Excerpted from Backyard by Norman Draper. Copyright © 2014 Norman Draper. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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