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For indefatigable Martha Stewart, gardening is one more ingredient in 'the good life'


Her photo shoot on restoring old wood floors started at 7 a.m. and now, an hour and a half later, Martha Stewart has a few minutes to squeeze in a telephone interview. The shoot's still going on, of course, people are coming and going, answers are needed to numerous questions, and then there are the dogs -- "They can come in now, can't they?" But the first thing you learn about Martha Stewart, doyenne of domestic distinction, is that she is very focused.

Focused, articulate, intense, even passionate, Ms. Stewart has attracted a loyal following who read her books, cook her recipes, buy her magazine, watch her videos and take her advice on menus, painted flowerpots, stenciled package wrap, floor pillows, flower forcing, beach accessories and bathroom decor.

And gardening. Ms. Stewart is a dedicated gardener whose 6-acre Connecticut homestead was lovingly documented in "Martha Stewart's Gardening" (Clarkson Potter, 1992, $50). "You should see what I've got in my basement right now," she says. "I'm experimenting with pansies. I've planted a hundred different varieties -- the whole basement is grow lights."

When, with her frantic schedule, does she garden? "This weekend," she says, laughing. "This weekend I'm going to do the tomatoes. This is my hobby, so I find time to do it. I may not play 10 sets of tennis a week, I do this."

People farsighted enough to have snapped up $60 tickets to Saturday's daylong "Gala Gathering" garden-related benefit will hear Ms. Stewart's gardening philosophy firsthand when she speaks at 10:30 a.m. at Marriott's Hunt Valley Inn. Tickets to the event, sponsored by the Harford County chapter of the National Volunteer Organization for the AMC Cancer Research Center, have been sold out for weeks.

"I'm going to be talking about entertaining and the garden," Ms. Stewart says. "It sounds like an odd combination, but it's not. It's how you use the garden for entertaining, how to plan the garden to be beautiful as well as useful. It's how to arrange the architecture of the garden so you have pretty spots -- among the trees, a pretty gazebo area -- where you can set up a table and serve a meal."

Details are sketchy because she's still working on what she'll say. "I never give the same lecture twice," she says. But her message is plain: "I don't garden just for productivity, but for creativity, to create a beautiful space."

She's not surprised the lecture is sold out. "The subject is so popular now. People are spending more time at home, more time worrying about the things around them. Gardening is the fastest-growing hobby in America."

If people respond to her, it may be because her message is so personal. There is a lot of Martha Stewart in the books and in the magazine. People feel they know her, and they come up to ask advice.

Gardening, especially, she says, "is a kind of self-centered project for people. They're really trying to improve the view of their personal life. They want to know how to find time to do these things for themselves. And they're concerned about teaching their children these things" -- the gardening, cooking and creating that are all part of what she calls "the good life."

Critics who contend that no one has time these days to microwave a potato or pull a weed, much less pull off a Tuscan-inspired Sunday lunch or top-dress the flower beds, are dead wrong, Ms. Stewart said.

"I know how hard people work. But every single one of my friends -- the people I know -- they're all interested in eating well and in treating their friends well. They're all fixing up their houses, taking pride in their homes. People want good things.

"It's not fancy, it's not expensive, it's not about brain-washing -- it's just good stuff."

The goal of the bimonthly magazine, Martha Stewart's Living, is to "educate, to inform and to inspire," she said. "That's why readers respond the way they do. In focus groups -- I'm not a big fan of focus groups, but we did them for the magazine -- we found these readers are so interested in finding a little bit of time to make things better for themselves."

As with her gardening, Ms. Stewart said, people will find time to do the things that matter to them. "There are no more couch potatoes," she said. "I'm very much against couch potatoism. There's a big difference between cocooning and couch potatoism."

Couch potatoes have given up, she says, but people who care about their surroundings -- "that's the kind of people we're trying to appeal to.

"The cynics I have no patience for, because we're proving them wrong. That's not our object, but we are."

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