Scottoline's plot thickens

Seconds after the doorbell rings, Lisa Scottoline opens her front door with a wide smile and a handshake. We're here to check out her new garden, the one she claims has already driven her insane with weeds, deer damage, and assorted other plagues.

The New York Times best-selling author doesn't look deranged. A bit harried, yes, with a cell phone in her ear and hair still wet from the shower.

She is barefoot, petite, looking younger than her 58 years and shorter than her 5-foot-2 self. It's just 11 a.m., yet she insists we eat lunch: a salad of summer-sweet tomatoes, nubby feta, and avocado, with iced tea and mint clipped from a container out back.

As we head for the patio to eat, a scrum of pint-sized King Charles spaniels yaps loudly, out of synch, rushing Scottoline, tumbling over the sleek hardwood floors, refusing to shush.

There's Little Tony and Peach, Kit and Boone. Ruby the Corgi is at the vet getting dipped, and the cats - Vivi, Mimi, Spunky - are hiding. Scottoline, as readers of her weekly Inquirer column "Chick Wit" know, is an ardent animal lover who also owns four horses and a coop full of chickens, the latter largely responsible for her conversion from carnivore to vegetarian in 2008.

"Chickens come when they're called. They're smart. They're sentient," she explains over lunch.

Scottoline lives on a beautifully restored, 18th-century dairy farm on 43 acres in Chester County. It's a storybook setting, but not necessarily where you'd place the author of more than 20 crime thrillers and humor books. (Accused comes out Oct. 29, Keep Quiet in April.)

Scottoline writes obsessively, as if time is running out. She is tethered to her laptop at the kitchen island or upstairs in her hot-pink office (next to a workout room) from 9 a.m. till midnight or later, seven days a week, twisting plots and developing characters against a background of constant TV - Breaking Bad, Dexter, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, anything reality-based.

No surprise, then, that Scottoline's household to-do list is more like an "overdo" list. "I go crazy on projects," she admits.

That includes the new garden.

In July, having just finished Keep Quiet, Scottoline wanted to take a couple of weeks off before starting the next book. But there would be no trek to the beach, no vacation at all. Instead, she decided she needed a fenced-in area for the dogs out back, landscaped with a few Knock Out roses.

In typical Scottoline fashion, one thing rocketed to another, and soon she was planning an English cottage garden, studying plants 24/7, ordering garden books, and designing the beds on a big chart, just like a book plot. She bought plants online and at Waterloo Gardens' going-out-of-business sale. (Had she done this earlier, the garden center might have survived.)

There followed a frenzied period of preparing soil, raking, planting, watering, and mulching, with plenty of fatigue and pain tossed in. (A handyman removed sod and dug holes.)

In her Aug. 11 column, Scottoline wrote: "Now I'm finished, and it looks beautiful, and it was worth all the trouble."

Cue the knowing laughter.

But first, what about this garden?

Some 1,500 perennials fill 1,400 square feet on a little hill. Scottoline protests that she "made every mistake in the book," citing the following: "I overwatered and under-weeded. I put some plants in too deep, and some in too shallow. I really regret the lavender, which was awesome for probably 48 hours and then turn to dried husks."

But Scottoline did a lot of things right, especially considering she began this grand adventure with zero gardening experience or plant knowledge.

She thought about what kind of garden she wanted, deciding on wildlife-friendly and colorful, "the informal, stuffed look." She did her homework. She created a plan. And in the end, she selected some terrific plants: black-eyed Susans, catmint, coneflower, agastache, hydrangea, salvia, crocosmia, phlox, lobelia, butterfly weed, heuchera, tickseed, false sunflower, veronica, lavender - and more.

Perhaps because she's a lawyer, trained to mind the details, Scottoline knows her hardiness zone (6), and her plants' Latin names and varieties. She knew to "put the tall stuff in the back." She even saved the plant tags.

And boy, was she thrilled. "It was like I had a new baby," she says.

But, like new babies, new gardens have issues.

Scottoline's had leaf damage inflicted by unknown insects and an unanticipated deer invasion. (She's already on to deer repellent, but its putrid stink is repelling her.)

She's learning the hard way, which is the only way, that gardening is not the gauzy experience purveyors of garden products would have us believe. It can be frustrating, difficult, hard on the body, and expensive.

"I never want to whine. I know this is a very lovely problem to have," Scottoline says, a few days after referring to her "new baby" in print as "this stupid garden."

And yet.

The creator of "this stupid garden" is still trending poetic about it, too.

"If you really have to suffer for something, you love it more," she says, calling a garden "an adult way to love yourself."

No longer "on vacation," Scottoline has no time to weed. But the plants are recovering from the deer. They're attracting bees, birds, butterflies, even a pair of playful foxes. And the view from the house, especially beyond the laptop in the kitchen, is "awesome and vividly colorful," says Scottoline, who offers this advice to anxious fellow gardeners:

"Calm your ass down and don't sweat it."

She may even exploit it. "There's a rosarian in my next novel," she confides.

It's called Burial, due out in October 2014, and she's already 5,000 words in.

Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or