Plant Music 2000-2009

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

The writer Jim Harrison says that anyone born after about 1960 can’t do anything without listening to music. He is probably right, because I know I can’t, but then again, listening to music is generally healthy. Dr. Phil Maffetone, a doctor/musician who counted Johnny Cash as a patient, says that listening to music can control stress, reduce pain, and improve brain function. For gardeners, I would add that it can keep you company. After all, ours is usually a solitary pursuit.

For me, one of the pleasures of garden design is that I can plug in and let Radiohead or Bach fill my head with sonic waves while I draw. This is something I can’t do when I’m writing—when any musical waves I generate need to come from within. But designing gardens, and working in gardens, are perfect activities for listening to music. A day spent outdoors with an iPod in a back pocket and Felco pruners in my right hand is my idea of a great staycation.

A habitual list-maker, making playlists is one of my favorite things to do. Every December, I make a list of my favorite songs from the previous year. In my high school and college years, I bought chrome cassette tapes to make mix tapes for prospective (and occasionally actual) girlfriends. Like the John Cusack character in the movie High Fidelity, I surrounded myself with music. What is harder than you might think is finding songs about plants. If you exclude references to roses, there aren’t all that many.

The following songs, with plant-related themes, have become some of my favorites over the last decade:

1. “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes. For me, its weird Beach Boy-like harmonies and odd lyrics simultaneously evoke memories of picking strawberries and butchering rabbits.

2. “Sycamore” by Bill Callahan. What gardener doesn’t love a song about a big white-barked American tree sung by a guy with a voice deep enough to give Lou Reed a run for his money? As Callahan says, “There’s sap in the trees if you tap ‘em.”

3. “Summertime” by Josh Rouse. This song comes pretty close to capturing the nature of summertime. I have liked a lot of Josh Rouse songs over the last decade so it was hard to choose.        

4. “Someday Some Morning Sometime” by Billy Bragg & Wilco. Bragg and Wilco manage to take this Woody Guthrie song, with its promise to “…build you a house all covered in vines…” and make it melancholy.  

5. “Passing Afternoon” by Iron & Wine. A song about loss, leaves, and bougainvillea seeds. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen a bougainvillea seed although they are planted everywhere here. Must investigate.

6. “Nude” by Radiohead. Has nothing to do with gardening, but it is moody and atmospheric and wonderful.

7. “Nomenclature” by Andrew Bird. Who among us hasn’t been maddened and disgusted by ever changing plant nomenclature? What use are Latin names that are constantly in flux? As Bird sings, “nomenclature is washing us all away.”

8. “Jardin” by Gustavo Santaolalla. A little instrumental gem from The Motorcycle Diaries soundtrack that might make you think about water dripping on leaves.       

9. “In The Flowers” by Animal Collective. This 2009 song is the least accessible of the bunch, but if you play it a few times, the sonic noodling and background noises grow on you. It starts off slowly and builds to a crescendo that makes me want to run through a field of flowers.

10. “Turn the Dirt Over” by Seawolf. With lyrics such as, “Oh, turn the dirt over, if you want to gro-o-o-w back”, this is a pretty straightforward gardening tune.

11. “Changes” by Seu Jorge. Who would have guessed that David Bowie songs in Portuguese could be so lovely and isn’t change what gardens are all about anyway?           

12. “Bramble Rose” by Tift Merritt. I have to confess that since Tift Merritt signed my guitar with a Sharpie in a Barnes and Noble a few years ago, I’ve been a little in love with her. I’m not much of a fan of roses, but bramble roses, well… “So my love has/ turned as hard as/ a bramble rose/ I’m a real good woman nobody knows.”

So, fellow gardeners, what are you listening to? Do you have a pruning playlist?

Scott Calhoun

Scott Calhoun

Scott Calhoun

Latest posts by Scott Calhoun (see all)

19 Comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Carol January 21, 2010, 5:34 am

What a fun post! I enjoyed sampling the music. ;>)

Lisa at Greenbow January 21, 2010, 7:14 am

I don’t have a playlist for gardening. I think of gardening as my quiet time. I live with someone (my husband) that is retired and this is one of the few times I have alone time. Your play list looks like fun.

Les January 21, 2010, 7:37 am

Thanks for giving me a list of music to explore, some I am familiar with. My favorite go-to gardening group is XTC. Every one of their albums has one or more gardening/plant/agrigculturally themed song. Many of these songs use the plants as metaphores for other issues.

BTW, be careful with your iPod and your Felcos. I can tell you it is very easy to snip the cord while snipping plants.

Helen at Toronto Gardens January 21, 2010, 7:44 am

What a great idea for a post. Your song list made me want to rush out and listen to all these numbers. A gardener’s playlist would be a great thing to put together. Thanks for this.

Joseph Tychonievich January 21, 2010, 8:04 am

I was born after 1960 — after 1980 for that matter — and I have never listened to music while gardening… ( I basically only play music while cooking and cleaning the house) but I like your choices! Some of my favorite songs, plus some interesting news ones to me to check out!

kris at Blithewold January 21, 2010, 8:45 am

We might have very similar playlists (add R. Wainwright’s Grey Gardens)… if only I could use my ipod comfortably. – How do you keep from getting tangled in the cord? All that kneeling, stooping, bending and I inevitably end up standing on it. But I hear music in the garden anyway. If it’s not the birds on repeat, it’s usually one of a random mix of earworms. A couple of my (own) favorite posts were about the garden as a mix-tape. ( and

Mr. McGregor's Daughter January 21, 2010, 10:17 am

I’m ashamed to admit that I sing while I garden. And what I sing ranges the gamut from The Sex Pistols to Verdi (like Les, I find XTC songs are perfect for gardening). I find myself singing Van Morrison’s “Moondance” while raking leaves. Maybe if I had an iPod I’d listen to music while I gardened, but I know I’d end up singing along anyway.

Scott Calhoun January 21, 2010, 10:30 am

Carol: Glad you enjoyed the post–I knew it was a bit eccentric…
Lisa: Quiet is part of music too!
Les: Thanks for the comments. I love XTC too; Skylarking is one of my favorite albums. Good point about pruners and ipod cords. Wireless headphones will be my next investment.
Helen: Thanks and good luck with your list.
Joseph: Since you are a music lover, I suggest you try listening to music while gardening. I find that it can add another layer of meaning to the experience.
Kris: I keep the ipod in my back left pocket and run the cord up my back under my shirt. Not ideal, but it works most of the time. As I mentioned above, wireless headphones may be in my future. I like Rufus but haven’t listed to Grey Gardens yet. Will do.

Rainymountain January 21, 2010, 11:21 am

It seems to me that if a person is always plugged into music in the garden, one misses a lot of ‘garden sounds’ – birds, insects, plants, trees, distant conversations as people pass along the road.

healingmagichands January 21, 2010, 11:29 am

I’m listening to the birds when I garden. Don’t have an ipod, don’t particularly want one. It would be just one more piece of electronics that didn’t like me.

Dana Rose January 21, 2010, 12:37 pm

I used that song, “White Winter Hymnal” on a holiday CD mix. Now that I have heard it a bunch I regret it. It seems to be about gang kids (hoodies and redscarves) and one getting killed and turning the snow bloody. It is still beautiful.

Scott Calhoun January 21, 2010, 1:00 pm

Mr. McGregor’s Daughter: Singing, even to the Sex Pistols, is nothing to be ashamed of.

Rainymountain: Your point is well-taken. I don’t *always* listen to music. I would miss a lot of cactus wren chatter if I did that.

Scott Calhoun January 21, 2010, 2:36 pm

healing magic hands: Yes, birds make good music–no ipod required.

dana rose: I don’t think that the lyrics really support the idea that the song is about gangs or a kid getting killed. The red in the snow does suggest blood, but even that is conjecture. If you watch the video, the videographers seemed to thing it was more about changing seasons:

Christine January 21, 2010, 3:02 pm

When I’m working and not listening to the birds, I listen to my NPR app on the phone or Neko Case’s Blacklisted album. Keren Ann is also good if you want something dreamy and a little French. I tend to forgo the earphones because of the cords and use the speaker in my phone. Not ideal!
Thanks for sharing your list- I love that Iron & Wine album.

Scott Calhoun January 21, 2010, 4:27 pm

Christine: Neko Case was once a Tucson resident. . She used to walk around town with her greyhounds. Blacklisted is a great album. I was just listening to it about five minutes ago while drawing a deck French singers, I like to listen to Marriane Dissard.

Denise January 22, 2010, 5:11 pm

Playlist for for the last two outdoor parties has been Otros Aires. One party was New Year’s Eve, and we aggressively claimed the aural air space first, early in the evening, in this aggressively musical neighborhood. Usually we’re more polite, but who can object to tango electronica? Looking forward to checking out your list. And glad to see another Seu Jorge/Life Aquatic fan!

Yvonne January 22, 2010, 7:35 pm

Thanks for sharing your list. A garden song that I love is by Bob Dylan from Modern Times (2006), called Ain’t Talking. Here’s a link to the lyrics:

The song begins this way:
As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden
The wounded flowers were dangling from the vines

It’s vintage Dylan, not young Dylan. (Love ’em both, of course.)

Debra Lee Baldwin January 23, 2010, 4:31 pm

I’m not plugged into anything when I garden, but I have to say, some of my favorite times in the garden have been when my neighbor plays the piano and I can hear it through her open windows.

Scott Calhoun January 25, 2010, 11:07 am

Denise: I, for one, am in no position to resist tango electronica!

Yvonne: Modern Times is one of my favorite Dylan albums. Thanks for adding that. I really like listening to Dylan on plant hunting expeditions.

Debra: Your neighbor must play much better than the young girls learning the piano who live across the street from my garden:)

Previous Post:

[shareaholic app=”recommendations” id=”13070491″]