After 15 and a half years of writing columns for the Comox Valley Record, the Duchess of Dirt has published a book.
Leslie Cox has taken some of her favourite Duchess of Dirt articles from the past decade and a half, and published Duchess of Dirt: The Record Years.
She said the idea of publishing a book is pretty much a life-long ambition.
“Writing a book has been on my bucket list since I was about seven or eight years old,” she said. “Originally, I thought fiction, but of course now I’ve been writing about gardening so long, there was a lot to choose from. After 15 and a half years of writing my column, I have 341 articles.”
Cox said getting her column into the Record was not as hard as she had expected.
“We were into gardening and I thought ‘they don’t have a gardening column in the Record’ and I thought maybe they would like a volunteer to do one. So I just came in here when Matt Plumtree was the editor, and he said ‘sure.’ That’s how it started: I just walked into the office and asked.”
Thirty-two of those Duchess of Dirt columns appear in The Record Years.
Choosing which articles would make the cut for her first Duchess of Dirt book was a task in itself.
The book has been divided into seasons, with eight columns from each season making it into the book.
“It was hard to pick just 23,” she said. “I was looking for variation. Plants, pests, weather, there’s some humour in there… I also added some recipes and there are some useful charts in the back for planting temperatures and things like that.”
Cox said that while she can’t pinpoint a specific single article that she immediately knew had to be in the book, one of the subjects that has resonated with her for a number of years is gardening with children.
“One of the things I have always been pretty proud of was starting up the Green Sprouts school program, where I worked with 2,000 kids at six elementary schools [from School District 71]. All the kids participated, and the excitement they showed [was gratifying]. My whole purpose was to get the kids involved in gardening because of food security. Not everybody has the opportunity; not everybody has a garden. So it was an opportunity for the kids to learn something. I did that from 2010 to 2016…”
Every columnist has an anecdote or two about surprising reactions to articles, and Cox is no different in that regard.
Her article on genetic engineering struck a chord with an industry giant.
“I think probably my biggest reaction was pure shock; the first article I wrote that touched on Monsanto… they picked it up and I heard from them. They refuted everything I was claiming. ‘No, it’s not harmful’ and all this kind of stuff. But, who mixes a gene from a fish into a tomato? Give your head a shake! It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Another article she gained a lot of reaction to was her one about bullfrogs, and the bullfrog farm on Saltspring Island.
“Someone brought them over to Saltspring, breeding them for restaurants. Whether it wasn’t a viable industry, or whether he just got tired of doing it, I don’t know, but he just turned them loose, and they are an invasive species. They reproduce about five times as fast as our native frogs and are eating a lot of the native frogs and fish and other species.”
They eventually found their way into the Cox garden, and she had to deal with getting rid of them.
“The thing about the bullfrog, it’s against the law to catch and release them out in the wild. So if you have them in your pond, like we did, you have to catch them and kill them.
“These are the kinds of things you don’t always pick up on, and … I try to help with my column.”
The book was not a solo effort. Leslie’s, husband John – a.k.a. The Duke of Dirt – supplied much of the photography, and did the photo editing for the publication.
“He’s always my sounding board,” said Leslie. “I physically read my columns to him before I send them in. He does set me right sometimes, if I get plant type wrong or something.”
“And she may listen to me, or she may not,” John added with a laugh.
The Cox garden is truly a labour of love for both Leslie and John – something they started together, 20 years ago.
“Both John and I lost our jobs at the same time – we worked up in Gold River – so gardening became our new career.”
Leslie said she does get stumped from time to time with plants, as she is forever “pushing the envelope” to try new things, not necessarily orthodox to the region. But for the most part, no plant has ever gotten the best of her… with the possible exception of one.
“Back-eyed Susans,” she said, after some thought. “I remember one time John wanted some black-eyed Susans, so I sewed some seeds, and nothing came up. Short story version is after about six attempts to try to sew these seeds I finally got three plants. I got them up to a nice height, presented them to John for his garden, he put them in the ground, and the next morning there was only one left because the neighbour’s cat came in and dug up the other two. So I just said ‘I’m done with it.’ I don’t even try those ones from seed. It’s just one of those things. Yet I can sprout delphiniums from seed and everyone else seems to have problems there, so I don’t know.”
Duchess of Dirt: The Record Years is available at the Laughing Oyster Bookstore in Courtenay (286 5th St.), Coles Bookstore (Driftwood Mall), Art Knapp’s Plantland (2855 Wentworth Rd., Courtenay), Mid Island Gifts (at the airport), Blue Heron Books (1775 Comox Ave., Comox), at the Vancouver Island Visitors’ Centre and from Leslie Cox herself (email@example.com, call 250-337-8051).
There will be an open house drop-in at the Duke and Duchess’ on Dec. 3 from 2 to 7 pm. Enjoy Christmas tea and conversation with the Duchess and book signing at 7896 Fairview Rd. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for directions.
Leslie said there will be a second book eventually, and while she doesn’t have a timeline for it yet, she did say it won’t take another 15 years to produce.
“No, I won’t wait that long, that’s for sure.”