Monday, July 22, 2013

Growing Up

In a rather shocking move, I've decided to make a relatively brief post this week. As usual, though, something has been on my mind.

This weekend, I participated in a conversation about wine with some younger people. When one mentioned that his girlfriend loves White Zinfandel, another said, "Oh, give her a couple of years, and she'll grow out of it." I quickly agreed.

And that has troubled me for the last couple of days. After all, what about that wine suggests immaturity, and why was I so quick to think it does? What bothers me is not the issue of the wine. I'm mostly irritated that any of us should make rules about what constitutes maturity in some cases. Don't get me wrong. I do, in fact, believe that people need to be responsible for themselves. I'm less certain we all need to meet sweeping expectations about our tastes. If you like Cap'n Crunch or Blow-Pops or whatever is someone else's version of edible immaturity, I say, eat up.

You see, I'm another example of this immaturity of taste. I have come to understand that having one of every plant is the true mark of a gardening novice. Mature gardeners, I've been told, restrain themselves and become more selective so that the garden is more cohesive. I've been trying to do that over the last year. After this weekend's wine discussion, though, I think I may very well live in a sort of gardening Neverland and grow one of every plant that I love and can grow well. Anyway, it's still cohesive through its celebration of flowers. In this instance, I will not grow up.

I shall leave you all with that thought and with some photos of my favorite plants, many of which have no mates.

Don Juan flying solo

Veronica...table for one

A Black-Eyed Susan, single and loving it

The lone salvia in the Secret Garden, surrounded by
colorful friends

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Beauty Is in the Design

Prince Charles's gardens at his Highgrove estate have left an indelible impression on me, so much so that I returned to the local library this week to check out his book Elements of Organic Gardening once again. I wanted to spark my memory on a few things I had seen during the tour we took at Highgrove.

Visitors to the estate are not permitted to take any photographs during the tours. Initially, I was disappointed when I heard about this rule, especially since the most common picture of me whilst visiting gardens is one with my camera attached to my face. At the end of the day of our visit, though, I realized what a difference leaving my camera behind had made on my experience of the gardens. I was simply more aware, not distracted by any attempt to get the perfect image of everything I saw.

I was struck by so many things there, not least of which was the great eye for design that the Prince has. I remember admiring a quiet spot in one of the gardens, thinking how pretty it was, and with a turn of my head, I was given a completely different view that was awe-inspiring. A statue, and just beyond it, a beautiful water feature, and beyond that, a seemingly unending line of topiary. Each element demanded my attention, and then my eyes were drawn further on by the next element. This kind of "trick" was done in so many clever ways throughout the estate, and I wondered if I could take this design principle on a grand scale and apply it in some way to my gardens on a small scale.

I do wish I could finally get rid of all the lawn here and walk through my own meadow, up to my elbows in a beautiful mix of wildflowers. But I'm ultimately a realist. That would likely lower the resale value of the house. Instead, I've decided to select a few more reasonable items to incorporate in my garden. While we were walking around, I made one of my grand proclamations (which I often do make, and I rarely carry out). We entered many of the garden spaces through doors of all designs, and I said that I would incorporate doors or gates when I returned home, something to arrest the attention before drawing the eye on to the next spot in the garden.

So I built a wooden gate and attached it to the entrance arbor in the Secret Garden. It is completely made of wood, joined with wooden dowels. I didn't want any screws or nails to mar its simplicity.

The simple new gate

Something to arrest the eye before
entering the Secret Garden

Something beyond the gate to draw you in

 I think it has added so much to the garden that I've drawn up a design for another gate in the vegetable garden, one that will test my skills with the mitre saw.

I'd love to hear about things that have inspired the rest of you in your gardens, so share your story and a photo. I might even include them in next week's post.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Dead-Heading as Meditation

Lest anyone assume that the title of this week's post refers in some way to The Grateful Dead, let me begin by saying that the closest I've ever come to that band (let alone turning a version of their name into a verb) is eating a pint of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream. I'm sorry to report that I did not find the ice cream very satisfying. Dead-heading flowers, on the other hand, provides infinite pleasures.

For those who do not like to garden because "it takes too much time," learning what dead-heading actually entails may cause you to consider it a special kind of self-inflicted torture. For those of you who, like me, find yourselves desperately wishing that you could cultivate more patience and a meditative mind, dead-heading could very well be the conduit to a great transformation.

For illustrative purposes, I offer you a photo of an egregious example from my garden this morning.

The Daisies are looking downright funky
The whole life purpose of a plant is to spread its seed and colonize the earth. In the case of the plants pictured above, they do this by flowering. Inside those flowers are seed heads. So they flower in order to set seed, and then they drop those seeds and generally head to the grave. As gardeners, we mostly just want them to flower again and again, so we sort of have to trick the plants into putting on more flowers. This is done by cutting off the spent flowers. It makes the plant look nicer, and it refocuses the plant's energy into producing more flowers. Once we get to the stage you see above, we really are pushing our luck. Having done the bulk of its required work, that daisy plant is really thinking about the long dirt nap. Removing those ugly flower heads is the act of dead-heading, and it should keep that plant producing for me. It is something I must do almost on a daily basis throughout the garden, and I am in love with it.

One of the reason I enjoy dead-heading is that it requires precise attention. If I am not completely focused on the task at hand, especially with Gallardia (the flowers in the foreground), I risk snipping off the wrong stem and sending a lovely flower to an early grave. Cutting off a healthy flower when I mean to cut off a spent flower head also doubles my workload, as I have to go back in and locate the right stem.  

I also have to be rather judicious about which heads I will remove. Some people prefer to strike at the first sign of fading petals, but I do like my plants to seed themselves. That way, I feel a bit more as if the plants and I are working together to keep the garden beautiful. So I need to leave some heads on in order to afford the plants an opportunity to let the seeds fall.

So dead-heading forces me to place all of my attention on one spot, and that has the strangest effect on me. I am suddenly aware of the tiny hairs on flower stems, running my fingers carefully down them to find where the stems begin. I can feel the blades of the secateurs sliding together and the slight crunch of the stem when they overlap one another and make the cut. I notice my breath moving slowly in and out, in a rhythm that seems to match the one my hands create in the process of clearing the plants. I sometimes count the cuts when the job seems daunting at first. I'll make a deal with myself to cut 100 and feel good about it, and then I'll notice that I'm at 187. Time slips by so easily.

Looking a little less disheveled

And the remarkable thing is that when I'm finished, I feel calm and the garden looks so much the better for it. The plants look refreshed, and the compost pile has some new additions. And sometimes, in dead-heading other plants, like my basil, I'm also rewarded with a little something extra for myself. 

The basil cuttings
From a good pruning, I end up with a pile of basil that I turn into pucks of pesto. I freeze the pucks for storage and later melt one as needed into a skillet and toss with hot pasta or spread over flatbread or pizza dough. Now that's my kind of meditation.

I see pesto in my future!

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Life Lesson from English Gardens

I've been thinking lately about two adages that I've heard for most of my life. The one I heard first (and frequently) was "Patience is a virtue." The second came a little later, but has muddied the water on the first: "Carpe diem."

Until last week, I've long considered these two statements to be in conflict with one another. You can't really be exhibiting patience when you're seizing something, I think. To seize something is to grab, to lunge, to snatch and to do so with aggressive intent. It doesn't not suggest in any way (to my mind, at least) a careful consideration that ends in a calm selection. When I think about which side of the equation I most end up on, I would have to say that I am conflicted. I am terribly impatient with myself and other people (sadly), but when it comes to things I would really like to have, I can't be described as seizing them. I usually simply hope that they will fall into my lap. Oddly enough, visiting gardens in England this year has taught me an important lesson on both of these points.

As a gardener, I plant sparsely. I cannot explain why I do that now. Maybe it's the fear of spending too much on plants. Maybe it's thinking that if I plant too closely, I'll soon have to dig things up and move them. So I plant with great gaps and hope that my patience will be rewarded someday when everything grows together. I've had enough of that thinking, in my gardening and in my life.

Here are some examples of how English gardens are planted.

A Stanton village garden...brimming with plants

A bed at Hidcote...packed to the gills

The Secret Garden at Sudeley Castle...jammed full

And then there's my garden. A few plants (those in the right foreground) died while I was away. The French lavender (just to the left of the dog sculpture) gave up around the same time. But really, there's no excuse for the scene below.

Patience is not a virtue here

Life is an adventure, something to be celebrated, packed full, lived every moment. It should be exuberant, like all those English gardens I saw. My garden is not exuberant. The same may be said of my life, in general. Well, my patience has worn thin, and I'm feeling pretty virtuous about that.

Just a sampling of the plant purchase

I've completed part of the planting...

What is the grand lesson from English gardens? It's strange that I saw so many of them during our trip last year, yet I didn't get the message. I suppose I wasn't ready for it. But this time, I clearly heard them asking, "What are you waiting for?" That's their lesson. Carpe diem. Don't wait for things to fill up. Fill things up yourself. Let it all spill over. Let the description of your garden and your life be "ebullient." You can seize the day and be patient. They each have their place. Patience is a virtue when it comes to your interactions with others, but not in other areas of life, and certainly not in the garden.