Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On Expectations

I’ve seen multiple versions of Buddhism's Second Great Noble Truth: desire is the root of all suffering (does this mean that life = desire?); craving (isn't craving more than desiring?) is the root of all suffering; delusions (caused by attachment, anger, and ignorance) are the root of suffering, and so on and so forth. Surely these can’t simply be variations of a translation problem, though in the end this Second Great Noble Truth does clarify my life-long problem; apparently, I am ignorant (no protest on that count), desire too much (again, no protest), and expect more than can, might, or will be delivered (on that one, you’ll need to consult with my students).

If any particular activity or profession might be singled out as excessive for its expectant ways, then I would venture that neither the stock-broker nor the American banker, neither Goldman Sachs executives nor the politician (and no, not even the now-dead, shamed chief executive of Enron, Ken Lay) is as desirous or covetous as the gardener. No, gardeners are most immoderate in their expectations.

If one plants a tomato seed, one expects more than a few tomatoes, correct? If one plants a dahlia tuber, one expects it to make an appearance, not to be eaten by slugs (the tender young shoots of which are the nectar of the slug kingdom), and to produce magnificent flowers by mid-summer. And what if these things do not happen? Well, we get frustrated, we may think dirty thoughts and say dirtier things. We suffer. Buddhism is right after all: whether our sufferings be found in our cravings for a fresh Caprese salad in July or in our ignorance of the dietary needs of the slug. (Perhaps those versions were not translational at all; perhaps casting such a wide net of root causes was intentional...)

Surely, my dear readers are well aware of my suffering caused by 42 inches of snow as many plants in my front sun garden did not fare well. But my backyard shade garden...well...what a different story! Superabundance! Plant proliferation! Exuberance!

So today I write not about failed expectations but about exceeding expectations.

I’ve been apparently under the spell of ignorance, relying on the old gardening adage of “sleep, creep, and leap” which pithily and rhythmically summarizes the first three years of a perennial's life. This year was supposed to be "year of the creep" for many plants, but I’ve done something (wrong?) because my plants have decided to skip the creeping and instead start leaping. And why is this a problem, pray tell?

Well, my Petasites japonicas (Giant Butterbur) loves deep shade—a shade much deeper than where I planted it. Last year it would wilt each day as the sun hit its preternaturally large leaves; I remained tethered to the hose to help it through, watering Petasites became my quotidian ritual, my homage to botanics and to life itself. I intended on transplanting it to the dense shade of the east garden (protected as it were by the neighbor’s towering hedge). But lo and behold, my 3 ostrich ferns this year have become 9 and thus have conquered territory that would have belonged to Petasites. Also, not to be outdone, Petasites engaged in a bit of subterranean mischief as last year’s 2 plants have become this year’s 7. I am no quantitative methodologist, but I would say that it is a significant multiplier effect!

And my new Tassel Fern has suddenly become a neighbor to the Hosta Francee (who comes up with these awful names?!), as the hosta has tripled in volume during the last two or three weeks.

I could name numerous other “problems” but I shan’t because it is both immoderate and, really, not at all a problem. My suffering is a labor of love.

True, I could very well remove the ostrich ferns and transplant Petasites, but I have not yet become an intrepid gardener (see an earlier blog post). The Buddhist would say my suffering of love is but a ridiculous Western label to hide my avoidance of the real issue: I am attached to things, and this attachment occludes my judgment. My attachments produce cravings. And my cravings, not love, are the cause of my suffering. (Damn you Buddhist critic, for making a mockery of my logic!)

And so my botanical superabundance and the saturation of my expectations moves me to a precipice I never thought I would experience, or at least would not experience with such trepidation or angst: to kill or not to kill? I haven’t a large property and thus am constrained. The choice must be made.

But now I think I have figured out age-old gardening wisdom and practice—one which I admittedly could not understand as I am, as my Buddhist critic has revealed, a materialist at heart.

To position oneself as arbiter between life and death produces such great discomfort and paralysis that the only thing one can do is to give: to give away that superabundance, to see life transferred, and to experience joy at not having to make such awful decisions.

Who would have imagined that gardening could be such morally trying work.

Color Me Happy

And so he’s mine: Kerria japonica Golden Guinea five-petal cultivar, not the double-flowered, less hardy Pleniflora cultivar! Victory!

To wit, I’ve been lusting after him ever since I saw Kerria at the garden center many weeks ago (the garden center only sold Pleniflora, and at a hefty price). Last weekend, I just happened upon him by accident (or was it fate?) at the UD Botanical Garden Society sale while scouting for a dwarf witch hazel, all of which were reportedly sold out, though I secretly hoped someone had stashed one away behind some bush for me to find, purchase, and steal away to 410.

I also purchased Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus) Athens cultivar, and a “Waterfall” Japanese maple. Who knew happiness came in so many colors and shapes?!

Why I masculinze Kerria I do not know. His flower —such a vibrant, arresting yellow— is delicate, yet his stems are strong. He sits back in the corner, of 410's shade gardens, his foliage unassuming, his flowers drawing attention to this presence. In the winter, his stems stripped bare, he displays an inspiring fortitude of chartreuse stems—green (a non-evergreen green!) in the dead of winter! How robust! How daring!

Kerria and Nandina (Heavenly Bamboo or False Bamboo) shall look divine together during the barren winter months, I am sure; his green will offset her green and red foliage, as well as the intensity of her crimson fruit.  

Saturday, April 24, 2010

This isn’t a Pretty Picture

I’ve referred to the ravages of the 2009 – 2010 winter several times in this blog, and in particular two exceptional snowfalls that, in slightly less than a span of 4 days left northern Delaware covered in 42 inches of snow. Several chrysanthemums did not survive (of the 6 in the front sun garden, only 3 remain, and of those 3, 1 is much smaller than its showings the previous two years, not to mention the carpet phlox which daily encroaches on its wayward offshoots); the rosemary bush, which measured over a foot in diameter, has been reduced to an eighth of its former glory; and of the 3 ground cover Blue Star Lithodora, only 2 survived, 1 of which has but 4 or 5 diminutive branches. I also noticed we lost several tulips and daffodils in the upper terrace of the front garden. And the Feverfew at some point lost its bulk, and this year sent up but one stem (which I pinched back early this morning to encourage mass).

Yet to my delight the Lithodora managed to produce a few flowers thus far, and I see many buds (mostly on one plant). {Please be advised: The “nice” photos are from 2009.}

Thus, while these pictures are not pretty, they do capture an element of beauty and the vicissitudes of gardening. Destruction is omnipresent, whether in the form of hail or squirrels, ice or Gramsci-cats, drought or humans. We strive to cultivate, we nurture the plant for and towards longevity, we aim to design and plan, but in the end other forces are at play, forces that may in any moment obliterate our care.

And the reverse is true as well. Sedum spectabile “Autumn Joy” (a.k.a. Stonecrop) managed to sow some rather healthy seeds such that the space between the triangular placement of the parents is now populated by a few vibrant offspring; plants we took for dead or near-death, like my Lithodora, stage miraculous recoveries (perhaps the source of day-time soap opera plots).

Thus this spring’s display of the Lithodora gratifies more than usual. I appreciate more the juxtaposition of the pale green of the variegated Siberian iris with the rich evergreen of the Lithodora, and the way the thick ribbons of white are replicated in miniscule ways along the edges of the diminutive flower. A few weeks later, and the juxtaposition will be somewhat reversed: the vibrant blue of the Lithodora becomes the deep Technicolor blue of the iris (the picture is last year’s, as this varietal blooms in late May to early June).

Despite its size—the Lithodora flower is roughly comparable to one’s pinky fingernail—and despite its proximity to the lustrous fuchsia azalea and the carpet of fluorescent phlox, it commands full attention. It is back. It is here. And in its infinitesimal way, it stands as the quintessential embodiment of spring.

Friday, April 23, 2010

On Gratification

So many flowering plants are lascivious little creatures, seducing us with their flamboyance their stamens yearning to be touched by the wayward, industrious bumble bee or by the edge of your pant leg as you stoop to inhale an aroma that you hope will be there—and usually is. The flower easily reduces even the most irascible schmuck or impermeable soul, if only for an inestimable moment, to accepting pleasure. We all give in to temptation, though some of us prefer to maintain a more uncompromised position with respect to the art—and yes, it is an art—of seduction.

But I…well, I like to work for my pleasure. Instantaneous pleasure is surely appreciated, but effort heightens and extends gratification. Effort rarely alienates; indeed, it attracts.

And so I do like to get down on my knees. Yes, the view from down there can be quite sublime.

How many people miss the wondrous little white flower of the May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum)? Sure, its umbrella-alike foliage transports you to the beach, and a sea of May Apple suddenly looks like an aerial shot of Waikiki, albeit an oddly monochromatic photograph of uniform green umbrellas.

Or Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum communtatum)? Or, despite its name, the Large Flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) with its narrow, butter-yellow bell-shaped flowers extending downwards? Or, as pictured at the top of the post, the Asian Fairy Bell (Disporum flavens)?

The latter three’s flowers are harder to miss, not positioned as they are beneath large canopies of palmately lobed leaves. Yet they face downwards, much like a New Yorker,and thus present a challenge for those who want a more intimate experience. Without getting down on the ground, without expending a bit of energy, you miss their tubular structures and lovely, elongated petals which gently curl to protect the sexual element from the more promiscuous amongst us, but to attract those who like a challenge.

Effort, these kinds of plants teach us, is so often worth the rewards, even if those rewards are not always so readily visible.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Color in the Garden: Blue, Redux

All artists (and indeed, according to one New York Times art critic, all cultures) are said to experience their “blue period;” surely Picasso’s remains the iconic expression of monochromatic sobriety and intensity of mood. Gardens, too, may be designed with “blue periods” in mind; I think of Delaware’s Winterthur gardens and the blue phase in mid to late March.

My shade gardens have entered their “blue period:” Corydalis flexuousa (Purple Leaf or Blue Corydalis); Brunnera; blue (or, more technically, indigo) bearded irises; and the lovely blue spikes of ajuga have cast the backyard in a particular hue of contemplation. When I look down upon the gardens from the second floor windows, or when I walk on the stone patio along the ajuga, or stand in front of the bearded irises, I am mesmerized. My eyes affix not upon an incident of color but on a vast swath that links the various beds in a way that minimizes space between parts and accentuates the whole of the gardening experience.
I think of Leonard Bast, the lower class clerk in the Merchant – Ivory film Howards End who, in one scene, traipses through a field of luminescent bluebells as he walks through the night, compelled, as Margaret Schlegel concludes, by “ancestral callings.” Indeed, blue may be the color of Romanticism and of what the German philosophers have called Innerlichkeit; the Merchant-Ivory team thus could not have been more exacting in its direction and production of E.M. Forster’s eponymous masterpiece, able in their infinite wisdom and aptitude to visually depict, not to mention evoke, a very particular mood.

I think of my Aunt Annie, a master gardener in New York, and a story she likes to tell—one that puts me in touch with my own ancestral callings, albeit of a more contemporary sort. When I was six, my father brought me and my brother Todd over to her house for a visit. She was in her garden. Apparently I ran over to her and asked if I could dig in her garden. (She omits what I think must have been her first thought: “Oh my goodness, this 6 year old very well might ruin my garden!”) Without missing a beat, she handed me a trowel and taught me the pleasures of feeling dirt between one’s fingers, of how to loosen the silky-textured roots of tender young plants, and of proper watering techniques. (By the way, she continues to show me how to properly water, and though I want to tell her she has taught me many times, I quietly listen, smile, and allow Aunt Annie’s warmth, knowledge, and nurturing to envelop me as if I were a rare specimen awaiting residence in her award-winning gardens.)

And then I think that her gardens, not mine, are my vision of heaven. (I think all of us fantasize about what heaven should look like, of how we would like to spend eternity.) They remain my standard: not to emulate, mind you, not to revere, but to appreciate. Her gardens spawned my gardening life, however interrupted it became for 2 decades, and her gardens engendered my aesthetics.

And then I wonder if our cultural associations merely compel rather than reflect any pre-existing propensities for melancholy, calm, or introspection supposedly inspired by the color blue. Stated more bluntly, culturally-based color associations condition us, even though as mere, often solipsistic mortals, we like to think that we, as single selves, determine our own reactions and thoughts. For instance, Westerners who wear white at funerals may be as out of place as Asian Indians who don black at a funeral. The introspection I experience as I gaze upon the gardens of 410, awash in a sea of blue, may be real introspection, but the effect of the color has been, culturally speaking, predetermined. Thus it seems that our gardens reflect not simply or even primarily our selves—our aesthetic inclinations, our moods, our desires—but importantly our subjective responses to and absorptions of cultural associations.

And then I think…

In the end, I am convinced that only the color blue and its multiple variations permit us to feel and remember in ways we may usually, consciously avoid.

For blue links the parts, unites the soul, and heals the fractures...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Groundcover, or Measuring the Courage of Your Convictions

For the small garden gardener, groundcover—for example, creeping phlox, alyssum, creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), ajuga (Ajuga reptans)—may be categorized as either blessing or curse. In its former guise, groundcover may almost instantly transform small patches and beds into floral carpets or coverlets of richly-textured and colorful foliage; the arresting display is worth the effort, or lack of effort as it were.

But groundcover may also curse the soul of the gardener who planted it. It invades. It conquers. It recognizes no boundaries. I spend considerable time and energy cutting back ajuga each morning as it nightly assaults the ramparts of Golden Tiara Hosta, or ripping out the improperly named Creepy Jenny (a more apt designation would be Leaping Jenny) from the front garden. Now, my stunning lavender phlox may need some trimming as it overtakes a chrysanthemum and threatens a Bird’s Nest Spruce. (Admittedly, I really wanted my Blue Star Lithodora to do what the others are doing, but it could not withstand nearly 4 feet of snow over the winter.) At the time, planting groundcover seemed appropriate, a rescue remedy for the barren earth than is the new garden.

But choices need to be made, aesthetics pleased, tastes acquired, and plans amended. With regards to amending plans, the gardener needs to dispose of remorse and shed sensitivity; the Realist gardener must take hold and show no mercy on errant plants.

I shan’t obliterate my ground cover, but I shall attempt to control it with some concentrated excisions by the trowel or, as with the larger sprawls of ajuga, the shovel. In this respect, I won’t permit those lovely blue spikes to influence my decisions, as compelling as they are. In part, I know ajuga will always grow back. Also, ajuga forms a critical part of my long term strategy in my war against nature with nature. I simply transplant ajuga to those sparsely populated areas of the so-called lawn. Given that I do not own a lann-mower or weed-eater (save for my Gramsci-cat, who can’t keep up with what grass does exist), I don’t care. In fact, I grant it a "marque of reprisal and proliferation" in my war against weeds, lawn, and, after heavy rains, mud holes that Gramsci always seems to locate and, well, enjoy.

In the garden beds, however, I have learned that greater control is needed. The property of 410 is limited; thus I don’t wish to relinquish valuable space to excessive ground covers (and ground covers always end up excessive), or, more importantly, any opportunity for experimentation and the introduction of additional specimens which attract and seduce me. The size of my property, not vanity or snobbery, remains the central source of my selectivity. Hence when I scoff at day lilies or impatiens--which, as I realized last year in my own gardens, are the real flowering work-horses as they continued to produce blooms even after 2 frosts--I reflect my bourgeois distaste for my proletarian limitations.

Groundcover, I conclude, becomes the perfect proxy for measuring the certitude of one’s will. One either succumbs to its beauty (which has the advantage of permitting the gardener—or ought that title be stripped and the person simply referred to as a property owner?—to do other things), or one plants and celebrates it (as I have done), only to attack it with occasional ferocity in an effort to manage it. Only with such experiences, ones that pit us against improbable foes, can one develop the courage of one's convictions.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, but No Neighbors Might be Preferable….

…which is impossible in a city. And so you must adapt.

Yesterday, I learned a valuable lesson that reminded me of an oft-cited quotation by Mary Cantwell: “Gardeners, I think, dream bigger than Emperors.”

Apparently, ideationally, I am a gardener, unfettered except by my own imagination. But in practice, I am an Emperor, foiled and restrained by reality.

We own a typical semi-detached house in Wilmington. The long, narrow strip of property that is neatly situated between the front steps of both 410 and 412 is, of course, legally divided between the two homes. For a variety of reasons, the neighbors do not garden. Neither do they have trees nor even grass. What they do have is a generous supply of mulch that is once a year spread over the property by the grounds-keeping company. Despite their best intentions, though, weeds—as they always do—still manage to burst through the soil, reminding them, and me, that nature doesn’t necessarily prefer to be controlled.

At the front edge of our property, I planted a lovely purple chrysanthemum which had been given to us by our neighbors W and H as a welcome gift to the block. At the back edge along my stairwell, I planted two boxwoods. In between, I situated bearded irises (mostly pale yellow, but a few blues got mixed into the bunch and I haven’t the heart to remove them; their whimsical placement reminds me of one of the reasons why I garden: one can only control so much; some of life’s treats and greatest rewards result from the unexpected and unplanned). Big Blue Liriope lines the walkway. But the bulk of the property needed something, so I transplanted into that space every single darn invasive root of the ordinary day-lily that the previous owners stuck in 410’s main garden. I actually dislike day-lilies (public confession #4). But (a) I hate to kill plants, (b) I wanted something to fill in the space, and (c) being devious, I knew that the promiscuous day lily would spread by its own volition. Perhaps I—nay, perhaps the joy of flowers—could convince the neighbors to allow me to tend to their property.

For two years peace has reigned between 410 and 412. The day lilies, as, ahem, intended, have extended their dominion, and this year thus far it appears they have conquered the front third of that narrow strip. And despite my dislike of then, I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed their floridity last year: not only were the lilies were as tall as me, but the orange so perfectly contrasted with the blue of the house! (Denver Broncos fans take note. Dear reader, did you like that nod to the sports kingdom? Actually, that reference was for you, Bob!)

In any case, last summer I began to imagine and dream, and so colonized the land by planting a few extra clumps of Rudbeckia and sedum next to the boxwoods. The Rudbeckia grew so large this early gardening season that just last week I thrice divided it, each offspring an appreciable size.

Yesterday, 412’s grounds-keeping company came and razed the Rudbeckia and the sedum. They were the English New York to my Dutch New Amsterdam.

Viet talked me down from the ledge, from my scheme to retake my colony, much as the Dutch had done in 1673 (but, as we know, lost again, this time for eternity, in 1674). But sometimes empires are best left to die a quiet death after such dramatic defeat. It is true that I planted on the 412 side of the property-line, and so the owners had every right to excise beauty in accordance with their proprietary prerogatives and austere aesthetics. As I continued to denounce their philistinism, Viet proffered the reasonable thought that they probably just did not know Rudbeckia and the sedum were actually plants, for they indeed left unmolested the irises (which, as far as I can tell, remain legally on the land of 410) and the day lilies which, yes, have slowly conquered a sizable chunk of their property. Besides, comparatively speaking, the Rudbeckia and the sedum remained diminutive next to the towering irises.

So gardening, in imagination and in practice, has limits. And day lilies, in their subtly charming, unassuming ways, actually colonize where my will cannot. They may very well have become a welcome, and not simply a tolerated, presence in my garden. And that was the spirit in which New Amsterdam was founded, which continued unabated and flourished in New York, and remains the single most powerful pulse in that city today. Perhaps, also, it is the real root of gardening and the gardener’s imagination.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

You Get My Rocks Off, Baby

A few weeks after Viet and I purchased and moved into 410, I went out to survey the barren front garden. My neighbor, “S,” approached me. After some friendly banter and exchange, she recounted the anxiety experienced by the block leading up to our move-in. “S” and the neighbors were aware that two guys had come to look at the house several times, which sparked visions and worries of noise, beer kegs and the detritus of parties littering the neighborhood. Apparently their anxiety increased, but one particular moment dispelled their no doubt frat-boy movie inspired images: I had arrived at the house with my rock collection.

According to her narrative, as I carefully and methodically unloaded my life collection of rocks, “S” got on the phone to our other neighbor who I shall identify as “SK” to say “Those guys have rocks! They're gonna be okay!” The block breathed a sigh of relief.

Yes, dear reader you read that correctly: I unloaded a car full of my life’s collection of rocks.

Surely my rock fetish must count as public confession #2. Viet thinks I am crazy. Several rocks—like the lovely melon/red rock, or this delightfully striated one (to the right)—hark from my Colorado years when upon a hike I would discover an unusual (and for me, breathtaking) rock, and then proceed to carry it back to Denver. (Now my friends should understand why I stopped hiking; carrying those rocks back was exercise enough!). With hopes for a garden of my own, I packed up those rocks and shipped them in the moving container, back to the East Coast nearer to my origins (side note: it thrills me to note that I have now lived in both former North American-based Dutch colonies!).

Though Viet thinks I am more than a bit peculiar (public confession #3: I even have a paintbrush which I use to clean dirt off the rocks walls), my father understands and indeed has indulged my fetishistic desires. He brought two extra-fine specimens: an anvil-looking creature and a waist-high rock-with-ledge (pictured at the top of the post) which is currently hugged by boxwoods and graced by the wispy branches of Lena Scotch Broom. Of course, he also tried to pass along a seated angel garden tchotchke, but I was wise to his plan and foiled it. And he gave me a Washington Monument-esque piece which I adore. But then again, I adore all my rocks.

Rocks punctuate the rhythm of the garden bed and permit the eye a rest. They accentuate particular colors (like the reddish hued fronds of the Tassel Fern) or, like my Obsidian, dramatically rupture the sea of green to provide necessary contrast. Importantly, rocks help the gardener paint the portrait that is the aura of the gardener’s life with additional color, textures, and shapes.

As for the origins of certain other rocks, well, there are far too many to mention here. This melon-Gramsci colored rock came from deep within the heavy-clay soil beneath 410 as we labored to make the west-side shade garden bed. This nickel-rich green stone pictured below…well…let’s say misdemeanors may have occurred and the rock may have found its way into the gardens of 410. Occasionally even a rock needs a surreptitious rescue from "improper" garden usage.

And, by the way, my neighbor “S” chastised me last year for making the rest of the block look bad. Happily, I don’t think I’ve heard the last from her.