Spirit Guide: Amanda ‘Kiss My Aster’ Thomsen on Her Gardening Book, Punk-Rock Plants, and the Biggest Mistake Made by Newbies

PHOTOS COURTESY OF AMANDA THOMSEN

“Setting up your perennial garden may seem intimidating, but don’t be afraid…Occasionally I like to shake things up and put a grouping of the same tall plants someplace in the middle of things. I’m an anarchist,” is just one of the cheeky gems to be found in Amanda Thomsen’s gardening guide, Kiss My Aster. Colorful, audacious, and above all insanely helpful, the book (released last winter by Storey) is like a Choose Your Own Adventure into landscaping, all based on what you’re into — whether it’s veggies, herbs, stately trees, angular shrubs and/or fever-dream flowers. Amanda’s deadpan irreverence and Am I Collective’s illustrations breathe fragrant life into pages that also include sections on pests, composting and lighting.

Amanda is a Master Gardener and landscape designer. And ever since we were mere chickadees first getting our gardening legs, we’ve been fans of her Kiss My Aster blog. We mean — just check out her memes. And don’t get us started on Ryan Gosling hey-girling our compost.

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Author Amanda Thomsen lives outside Chicago.

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So we’re excited to chat with Amanda here! Below, the queen bee of garden blogging fills us in on her favorite spots to go landscape snooping, her desert-island tools, and the surprising state of her own garden.

What’s the weirdest plant behavior you’ve ever witnessed? 

Oh, so nerdy. I had a chocolate cosmos come back once, in Zone 5. No one believed me. I didn’t even believe me. Also, I love dog stinkhorn and telling people to go Google Image it up.

Your book shows readers how they can make their gardens their own. What was that journey like for you with your own garden? 

I’m so on the journey still. I hope to never stop. We just moved in a year ago and it took me about six months to figure out what I wanted to do. I really needed to spend time with this house and think about what worked for the house and not just what I wanted to do. This house has old, jacked-up landscaping that will keep me off the streets for a loooooong, long time. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

How did you come to gardening? 

My parents had a big victory garden when I was a kid. I grew up on a nice parcel of land and was just one of those outdoor kids. I wanted to know the names of all the weeds. It seemed natural to me, I didn’t know it was anything special until I was in my 20s.

Inside your garden, what are you obsessed with right now? And what are you looking forward to? 

I’m waiting on my dahlias like a junkie. I’m working on a black and white garden around the back of the house and I’m obsessed with making it interesting every second of every day. I’ve also got a few zilllion weirdo tomatoes that I can’t wait to meet.

Wait, what? A black and white garden? Tell us more!

It’s mostly black plants along with herbs and some vegetables. It’s my old-school punk ways, plus I thought it would look great with the color we are painting the house later this summer. We are battling out the house paint color: There are 10 swatches on the side of the house and we can’t decide. I can best describe them all as bronze/gray.

Plants: ‘Black Lace’ sambucus, bronze fennel, borage, black mondo grass, various intense and dark dahlias, ‘Black Sprite’ centaurea, Verbena bonariensis, bull’s blood beets, Twilight Zone rose, Rosa glauca, Nicotiana sylvestris, freckles lettuce, white kernel corn, white cucumbers, white pumpkins, indigo rose tomatoes and black hollyhocks.

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What’s something about you that might surprise people?  

That my yard looks like shit right now. I think people expect me to work miracles! I know what I’m doing, I just don’t have the time and money to do it overnight. Plus, I’m enjoying every lick of it. Why rush?

The illustrations and the tone of the book are perfectly matched — exuberant but also wickedly funny. How did it all come together? 

I’m pleased to say that the publisher made that match and I didn’t have to do much. Those guys are geniuses! I wrote a very brief idea of what each page could look like, they came up with the rest. I’ve never even spoken to them. The only gripe I have is that I kept asking them to make the “me” fatter. And I still hate the outfit the Too-Skinny-Me on the cover is wearing.

Something that didn’t make it into the book you want to share? 

I wanted to thank 40,000 more people. But that’s okay. I’ll get them on the next one!

Speaking of which, what’s next for Kiss My Aster?  

I’m working on a ton of things, none of them fast enough. I’m working on putting in this really huge garden, starting to make some videos, maybe? Another book, hopefully. Blogging more, cleaning out my garage…

Yes, please on those vids! By the way, what are your favorite spots to go Landstalking™?

I love the Chicago Botanic Garden, neighborhoods with authentic midcentury modern ranches, and the Michigan Avenue median planters.

What’s the biggest mistake people make when they first get started gardening?

I know it’s cheezeball but — being so scared that you don’t do anything. I don’t know why people get so intimidated. I guess gardening is such a common sense thing and people aren’t so common sensey anymore.

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Do you take your own advice?

I do. Except we just moved into a house with not one outdoor faucet or electrical switch. That’s a big no-no in my world, but it’s house love! What can ya do?

What do you consider the most underrated plant?

I got all this dusty miller for free last fall and…damn. I know it’s a bore. Overused and…It was evergreen in Chicago and now it’s flopping all over and blooming its crazy blooms and…I love it.

And the most overrated?

I still think Endless Summer hydrangeas are silly. I may not be in love with macrophyllas as a group though. I’m trying to understand, but so far: Pfffft.

What are your desert-island plants and tools?

Ah! You know, the basics I need are ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas and ‘Black Lace’ elderberry. From there, I have to have cardoon or artichokes, castor beans, black knight buddleia and old, dark red, deeply scented roses.

I cannot live without my Felcos, and I’ve never been a gloves-wearer, but I sure look chic in my Foxgloves.

You and lava rocks are not on good terms. Why do they incur the ire of Aster?

Because I moved in to a midcentury modern ranch that’s engulfed in them. They are sooooooooo hard to deal with. So light that they don’t stay in place; thankfully that lightness is making them easy enough to remove. But it’s taking a long time to get them all.

Finally, what’s the best lesson you’ve learned as a gardener?

Patience, texture, pattern…mostly patience. I can buy all the damn plants in the world and I’m still not in charge. It’s bigger than me.

—TH

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