Thalassa Cruso Returns!

The indomitable Thalassa Cruso, doing a typical bit of "light" root pruning.

The indomitable Thalassa Cruso, doing a typical bit of “light” root pruning.

A few weeks ago I went to see Julie/Julia – which was terrific by the way – and I was reminded again how much I enjoyed watching PBS when I was a boy, and, how formative  good television could be on receptive little minds. But while Julia Child is certainly the best remembered of that generation of TV pioneers, she wasn’t the only great guru of the age. I refer in particular to Thalassa Cruso, the indomitable Brit who taught an entire generation of Americans, including me, how to garden. I will plainly admit to you: Thalassa Cruso was my hero when I was 10. I adored this woman, with her wonderful, no-nonsense approach to gardening that made you believe you could accomplish any horticultural feat if you really tried. Even the title of her show (and book) Making Things Grow, spoke volumes. You didn’t just let plants do their thing: you MADE them grow. If they weren’t ship-shape and all spit and polish, OUT they went in a brutal thwack of pot, or blaze of pruning shears. She was, in short, pure delight on the screen. I vowed I was going to be a gardener just like her, and one day at age 13, after years of watching, I summoned my courage to write to tell her so. Never in a million years did I expect an answer, but to my utter surprise, she wrote me back. My original letter to her is long-lost, but it’s obvious from the reply that I must have peppered my missive with multiple questions, which she kindly answered one-by-one in her usual methodical manner:

TH-2(For those interested, the story to the yellow clivia is explained in Thalassa’s indoor gardening guide, Making Things Grow, which by the way, I still use as a constant reference. And as another complete aside,  I managed to track down an offset myself, which sits today among my proudest horticultural treasures – but that’s the subject for another post)

Of course, I could never have imagined that one day this little Wisconsin boy would wind up in Boston, working for the same television network; nor that one enchanted afternoon, I would find myself filming in the very same studio, in the very same spot, where my gardening mentor had stood four decades earlier.

That level of cyclic karma is simply too boggling to even contemplate.

Those few golden moments in the studio, however, were probably the apex of my Thalassa Cruso love affair, for it remains one of my life-long regrets that we never managed to meet. By the time I arrived in Boston, Thalassa had retired to tend to family illness; and despite so many common overlaps – in addition to gardening, she too, had worked in Classics and archaeology) our paths never crossed. She died in 1997.

For those of you who weren’t privileged to have watched Thalassa’s original programs on public TV, or to have witnessed her hilarious appearances on Johnny Carson (not to be believed!) the last 40 years have been a desert. The master tapes, locked in the archives at the Boston studios of WGBH, had been filmed in an archaic video format that would have cost countless thousands of dollars to restore. While I was there as the host of The Victory Garden, I inquired many times about bringing these episodes back to the small screen, only to be told there simply wasn’t the budget for such nostalgia. I was thoroughly disheartened. Then one day, our producer announced that she had a present for me: it seems that somewhere along the line, a single VHS copy had appeared.

Hallelujah! I immediately ran and popped in the tape, and suddenly before me reappeared the sounds and images of my childhood, just as I had remembered: the familiar tinkle of the harpsichord to a theme of Corelli; the broad smiling face topped with bangs and bun; those inevitable and equally incongruous pearls; the perfectly clipped British diction that tolerated no fools, human or horticultural; that wry sense of humor, which never failed to make me laugh; even those magical, rustic swinging sets that made you just want to run out and build your own potting shed. Best of all, I discovered to my delight that Thalassa had stood the test of time: unlike old outdoor gardening programs where such common admonitions as tucking “double orange French marigolds in about the foundation planting,” or dusting all your crops with Sevin – “just in case” – have long since become taboo, most of Thalassa’s tips (she was one of the earliest environmentalists, after all) remain as valuable, and viable, now as they were then.

In short pure gardening bliss. A piece of TV’s gardening past preserved.

Or so it was – more or less. The VHS tape too was showing signs of age, and this casual copy (probably never more than an editor’s preview tape and never meant for preservation) appeared to be a mishmash of episodes, with scenes out of order, terrible sound and much buzzing and whirling. Still, it was better than nothing.

Then this past spring, on an annual whim, I popped the tape back into my last remaining VCR player, and I realized to my utter dismay that the tired cassette too was starting to decay. The picture began to twitch, the sound warble, and I feared I was on the verge of losing the old girl all over again. To arms, I thought, to arms! But I was quickly thwarted. No ready transfer mechanism was at hand, and how to get this half-hour program into modern format? After months of technical aggravation with millions of digital bits teetering on the edge of virtual extinction, I finally managed to swap sections of the tape back and forth into a functioning version, restoring, more or less, a whole episode, Bonsai. (Two other episodes exist in fragmentary form.)  And just in time, too: on the final pass, the VHS snapped and broke, never to be played again.

And so, by a single hair’s breadth (or rather tape breadth), for the first time in 42 years, may I share with you the indomitable, indefatigable, inimitable Thalassa Cruso!

Homage to Thalassa Cruso: Bonsai from Michael Weishan on Vimeo.

Welcome back, my dear Thalassa. I’ve missed you.


(For a more complete bio of Thalassa Cruso, see her obituary in the New York Times, or this wonderful 1976 article in People Magazine (yes, People, when it still had content, imagine!!))




Thalassa Cruso Returns! — 33 Comments

  1. Michael, thank you! What a treat! I too devoured Thalassa’s “Making Things Grow” as I had only indoor gardening space as a young writer. I read and reread it. Still use it now. I never saw the WGBH show, till this minute. Love it. Your letter must have really tickled her, clearly she put you top of the pile and really talked to you. Reading your letter made me recall writing Walt Disney at age nine to suggest he make a film of “Anne of Green Gables.” He wrote back too, but without the warmth Thalassa shows you. Funny that we did these things! (BTW WD’s response was that someone else had already optioned the rights to AofGG before he could get them. Later Disney revisited it.)
    MW, thank you for such a wonderful start to the day! Do you see a lot of her in you? All the best, Sally

  2. Michael, I love this story! Thank you telling us about Ms. Cruso. Maybe some day there will be money in the budget to convert the old master tapes which would be wonderful.

  3. Hi Michael,
    I love this post and your blog. Thank you for letting me know about it. I linked to it from my blog as well since I know everyone will enjoy reading your letter and seeing that precious video that was nearly lost to time. Let’s hope WGBH will rescue the tapes they have and release them.
    All the best!

  4. OMG–MTG!

    I also watched her as a young boy, have and have reread all her books for over 30 years, became a plant nut heavily influenced by Thalassa (I fell in love with clivias thanks to her!) and have scoured the web for hope of video of her show, to no avail, having read that the transfer cost was prohibitive. OMG I just watched Thalassa. It is even this very episode that has remained clearest in my memory.

    Thank you, you divine man, for sharing this. I can’t say you have no idea how thrilled I am to find this, a Thalassa fan knows the thrill. Thank you.

  5. Well, I’ve been labeled many things in my day, but never before a divinity… lol. Nonetheless, I’ll take what ever I can get in these less than civil days, so thank you. Let’s hope this enthusiastic round of support for Thalassa may lead to greater things.

  6. Um, gosh, Michael, looking back, I certainly was effusive with my comment! Having found the link to your blog totally by surprise, I stayed up way past my bedtime to watch, and then gushed forth my unfiltered unedited delight. Here’s a second to your hopes that someday it will be feasible for WGBH to make the archive available. Once again, thank you for sharing the episode, and do keep us posted!

  7. Like you, I loved her as a kid and was reminded of that when I saw the excellent Julie/Julia. She had even more personality than Julia Child and certainly I grow plants today better than I cook!

  8. Michael: Your article was like visiting an old friend . . . thank you so much! What a surprise to search Thalassa’s name this evening and find such a recent article, written with the respect and admiration I think most of her viewers had for her. As a child, I wrote inquiring about the theme song and received a typewritten reply on a post card with similar typing errors, though not signed because whoever had written it ran out of space (recently found in my childhood home!). I wrote again to ‘GBH in the late 80s to see if VHS copies of her show could be purchased, but they said no because of the transfer cost, and also because they were filmed in black and white, which apparently made them very undesirable. I’m surprised to see her face tonight and realize she was a young woman while making the series (I’m in my 50s now). I used to love the way she’d look over the top of her eyeglasses while examining a plant to make sure her audience was paying attention! I’ve enjoyed the reading the other comments you’ve received, as well and will check back again to see if others have been added. Have to go water the plants now.

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  11. Thanks for posting the episode on bonsai. My mother and I used to watch Thalassa together and howl at her absolutely arid humor!! I’m sure that, without realizing it, some of Thalassa’s gardening knowledge has become part of my own technique over the years. I always loved watching her seeming to brutalize plants and then, have them survive and thrive in spite of it. She was a botanical force to reckon with, for sure!! I wish there were more episodes. I could do with a good laugh, along with some gardening tips. I was surprised to see this episode in color, but enjoyed watching her teasing her guest and teaching us all in the process. I always enjoyed her little smirks here and there, letting us know she was just playing. WONDERFUL!!!!!!!!!!! Thanks again!!

  12. How nice to read your tribute- broght back great memories of her television show, and of the books, too. I was so poor I had to check them out of the library, but I did so again and again- and eventually bought my own used copies. I would love to buy her shows on DVD- and I hope they still exist in studio archives.

  13. Dear Nancy,

    Thank you for your kind note. Yes, we have tried, and tried, and tried to rescue Thalassa. But so far, WGBH Boston, which owns a complete set of the restored tapes, but NOT their copyright, has refused to release the prints to a group led by myself and the Thalassa Cruso heirs. WGBH is a public station, “paid for by viewers like you,” and you should let tell them your views. The person to contact at WGBH is David Bernstein, Vice President and General Manager: Let him know we sent you, and that we want to see Thalassa Cruso again!

  14. We are attempting to add Thalassa Cruso to the website. Find A Grave is a resource for finding the final resting place of famous individuals as well as family and friends. Unfortunately since we do not have Ms.Cruso’s burial information the site has refused her inclusion. This is unacceptable since both Horticulturist, Author, Host of “Crockett’s Victory Garden.” James Underwood Crockett and legendary TV chef Julia Child are included in Find A Grave’s famous people section.
    So the question is: In which cemetery is Thalassa Cruso buried?

  15. What an enjoyment it was to come across your website and find a viewable episode of Thalassa’s. It brought back many memories for me from the past where as a child in Boston, I remember her coming to visit my grandmother at our home. Thalassa being the steely, stubborn-jawed Brit’ that she was enjoyed just these same qualities in my grandmother of Dutch background, and the two of them would spend many hours talking/arguing over two of their greatest common interests – horticulture and archeology. I remember visiting Thalassa’s home with my grandparents on several occasions as well, and in one instance being particularly fascinated by a Bowiea volubilis she had growing on a sill in her parlor. Well, in short, I got more information about that plant than I thought anyone could ever know that day, and when it was time to leave she whisked the pot off the sill and landed it in my hands as a gift. Her zeal for the plant kingdom no doubt contributed to the fact that I am an avid collector and grower of exotics today, and the Bowiea she gave me way back in the 1960’s has grown to absolutely enormous proportions and is still with me to this very day.

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  17. Oh it was just a delight to find your tribute to Thalassa Cruso and the bonuses of your sharing her reponse to you and the recovered video. Thank you for the memories.

  18. This is so weird. As a boy, I used to watch Thalassa on PBS and she left and indelible “shall I say” mark on my proclivities as a gardener. I have never forgotten her ruthless intolerance of unworthy plants. To this day, when one of “the little ingrates” is failing to thrive I invoke her spirit and “toss it without a second look” I figured I was the only person on earth who still remembered her! Thanks for digging this stuff out and enabling my first watch of Thalassa at work in many many years… And now, I’m afraid this crappy looking Jade plant simply must go!

  19. I watched your Thalassa video with great tears of joy. I was just 9 years old when she bewitched me with her folding gardening shed. I planted grapevines in Attleborough! She was right about the african violets! Darn finicky. I was afraid that i might be the only one who remembered her. I treasure my copy of “Making Things Grow”. Thank you so very much for giving us the gift of Thalassa. Will her programs ever be made available to us?

  20. Thank you (belatedly) for posting this video! Would you happen to know which Corelli piece plays during the credits?

  21. So thrilled I decided to “search” Thalassa today! The blog is so charming! I haven’t taken time to see the video yet. As a young mom I watched her shows and appearances on Dinah Shore’s show. Her 3 books have sat on my shelves since way back, and I started the OUTDOORS book many times but never got too far, bogged down by the stories of the 2 properties. At 69 I have decided to cast off stuff that isn’t being used, so I started with that book, and am 1/2 way thru TO EVERYTHING THERE IS A SEASON, and will finish with her first book. Funny, I received a Clivia about 1980 which is still going strong, having furnished so many new plants given to friends and Rutgers Master Gardeners fundraising efforts. I have never seen as much info ANYWHERE on Clivias as Thalassa presented! Also, I would say that her enthusiasm for compost has made me a very avid composter! I have far fewer resources to compost, but use all of them to the max! Thanks, Michael! I enjoyed you too on the Victory Garden!

  22. Thanks for these three wonderful episodes, Michael. I’ve watched them over and over (and will continue to do so) with great fondness, remembering when, as a young boy, I’d watch “Making Things Grow” on Saturday afternoons, and how mesmerized I was by everything about the show, especially Thalassa. Her ability to connect with her audience still amazes me, and I do wish WGBH would make her shows available on DVD. I think they’d be surprised by the interest out there. Thalassa’s horticultural advice rings as true today as it did years ago—and I suspect she’d quickly have a bit of a cult following! Thanks, too, for sharing her letter in response to yours!

  23. Michael: ‘tho comparisons are odious I’d like to suggest the actress Phyllida Law does a fair imitation of Thalassa Cruso in the TV episode “Rumpole and the Blind Tasting.” Possibly available on YouTube. She plays a tough-minded wine expert who ends up giving expert evidence in criminal court.

    Sorry, nothing to do with gardening.

  24. What a shame that such a landmark figure in american horticulture isn’t better known today. Very few people today know how much we owe her. She certainly was a singular figure. Her familiarity is fading with her video medium. Thank you for these posts.

  25. I was so excited to find this. As a teenager, Thalassa gave me so much knowledge about plants that you couldnt get anywhere else. I have been an avid gardener all my life because of her. I am so grateful to you for allowing me to see her again. If only there was a teacher like her on tv now. Out generation was lucky. Thank you Thank you!

  26. Thank you, Michael. My mother was a huge fan, and I remember vaguely Thalassa’s books and her program.But as an adult, I also became a fan, and find her practical tips on indoor and outdoor gardening so helpful.

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