Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Happy Anniversary

Today marks the 3rd anniversary closing on the house at 410.

I stood in the backyard the next morning (picture by realtor, above), in complete awe of the bourgeois pleasure of property-ownership, and in complete elation of the blank garden slate that was mine.

The grassy area on the right of the above photo marks the edges of what became the east side shade bed, which I thought would be an appropriate focus (on transformation and process) for this anniversary blog entry.

There are those who think gardening involves putting plants in the ground and calling it a day. Joy evolves from watching those plants grow and fill the spaces into which they were thrust.

And there are those who reject that view as somehow anathema to the concept of gardening. Let's get grammatical for a moment. Gardening, to be technical, is the present participle of the verb “to garden,” and therefore speaks to an activity or a process—perhaps without end. Gardening is about transformation—of design, of plantings, of arrangements, and of self. I consider myself part of this crowd. The east side shade bed illustrates.

We devoted the first year in the house to interior sorts of projects. By the spring of 2008, I was ready to begin gardening (see above photo). I soon discovered that the ground on which 410 sat consisted of dense, heavily compacted, bedrock quality clay. And so began the task of digging out by hand what would become the east side shade bed: one foot down, 7 feet in width, and 16 feet in length. (And why did I not rent a rototiller?) After working into the soil approximately 800 pounds of manure (which I have discovered was not nearly enough), I began planting thanks to the generosity of friends Jim and Patricia, and Phyllis, about whom I wrote in an earlier entry.

In 2009, Viet and I purchased 2 palletes of rock, removed the concrete walkway and patio, and constructed stone walls around the beds. I re-shaped the east side shade bed, and created a new, Buddha Bed, which I then connected to the existing bed with a small ‘isthmus’ in which I planted European ginger and Lady’s Mantle, which Gramsci decided he did not like and so, consequently, over-watered. 

This year, I introduced a few new plants into the east side bed—Corydalis flexuousa, Big Blue hosta, Petasites japonicus, a Tassel Fern, and Ligularia Britt-Marie Crawford—but am increasingly convinced that the central area of the bed needs redesign. One hosta simply doesn't like its current situation; the Tassel Fern was soon overtaken by one of the hostas; and I am frankly tired of the ostrich ferns (at least those in the middle, all of which are now beginning to aestivate, while the ones more protected from the harsh sun are 'holding their own'). The Nikko Blue Hydrangea is feeling rather blue (and not in a good way) since the winter storms took down one of the largest evergreens in the neighbor's yard--the very one that shaded the hydrangea from the late morning and early afternoon sun.  The poor thing droops each day, and I must douse it with a bucket of water to keep it properly hydrated.

But that renovation will have to wait until early next spring. Already the projects line up, and I look forward not to enjoying the remainder of this sweltering summer, but to next year and all the things that can, and must, be done.

Good thing, as we face another 27 years of mortgage!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sirius and the Slug

Warning: aestivating plants are not pretty.

Sirius did not earn its name for being just an ordinary star. No. The Greeks christened this astral illuminate Σείριος or Seirios, meaning scorcher. Sirius was so serious, in fact, that Homer devoted a few lines in the Iliad to it:

      On summer nights, star of stars,
      Orion's Dog they call it, brightest
      Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
      And fevers to suffering humanity

Even Aristotle in his Physics devoted a one-liner to the “dog-days” –an homage to this brightest of stars (apart from the Sun, of course).

(Perhaps my ‘moon burn’ owes its origins elsewhere!)

The Egyptians searched the nighttime skies for Sirius, which appeared just prior to the flooding of the Nile. Ah, the irony, for Sirius here in more northern latitudes signifies paucity, not abundance, of water.

The Romans understood and experienced this irony, and came to refer to those driest and hottest of days (for them, 24 July – 24 August) as diēs caniculārēs, which comes down to us moderns as the “dogs days of summer,” when Sirius illuminates the constellation Canis Major. Perhaps an early recognition of ‘global warming’, The Old Farmer’s Almanac pushed up the beginning of those dog days to 3 July. Editors take heed: that starting date may need to be moved up even further.

This summer in Delaware, the dog days began in mid June. According to the National Weather Service, northern Delaware has experienced its second hottest spring in 116 years, and, for the period April – May, the 4th driest. (Read: it could be worse, though or lack of precipitation in June might very well make this situation worse.) Consequently, the Ostrich ferns and Corydalis flexuousa Purple Leaf varietal have begun aestivation, or summer hibernation, rather early. Last year, the Ostrich ferns did not recede until late July. This is my first experience with Purple Leaf Corydalis, and I have learned that he usually re-emerges once the heat passes and conditions favor his sensitive constitution.

Though we may curse Sirius for heralding ‘heat and fevers to suffering humanity’, and for compelling the more sensitive of the garden pack to hibernate, summer dormancy has one particular perk for the gardener: invertebrates like snails and slugs, as their habitats dry, also aestivate. (And I thought my chemical warfare killed them off.)

So, in between the constant watering, let the gardener enjoy the hostas sans slug damage, temper Sirius’ seriousness with gin and tonics, margaritas, and mojitos, and celebrate the temporary demise of the slug with a very Martha Stewart toast: “It’s a Good Thing!”

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Color in the Garden: Red

Hours before its partial eclipse, and hours before its totality, the waxing gibbous moon rose in the dusky blue sky above Wilmington. At first, it was barely noticeable, a faint disk set against a hazy, steel-blue backdrop. But as it ascended into the darkening azure sky, its color became more pronounced: its reddish hue became deeper, richer, then gradually shaded to salmon, and now, at 9:11 p.m., appears vibrant red-orange. Here it is: the Strawberry or Rose Moon, Vanguard of the Early Summer Evening Sky.

Red: the color of the lascivious and the corporeal. Red pulses through our veins; titillates the extremities and urges; commands attention; connotes courage; signals danger and, in some cultures, death; and pushes the bounds of excitability.

Tempestuous and audacious, the primal force of red awakens the creative spirit, propels, compels, seizes, and rejects. The most dynamic of colors, red magnifies its own power, elevates its self, and projects energy into the world. Paired with the vibrancy of green, red is intensified and uplifts. Juxtaposing red to yellows and oranges inflames its passion. Red set against blues or silvers at first dramatizes, then tames an otherwise mercurial display.

Red—electric and bedazzling—needs tempering, and I think Rose Mallow (Hibiscus coccineus, ‘Blaze Starr’ varietal) knows it. For now, she has swapped the stunning burgundy red hue she has donned over her deeply lobed, palmated leaves for a vibrant green. And I have a theory. In a few weeks, she will sport those accoutrements than have earned her the nickname ‘summer poinsettia’: stunning scarlet red flowers, each with 5 elongated petals, yearning to be ogled and touched.

Rose Mallow is a refreshing garden resident. Her stalwart beauty cheerily greets all who venture to 410’s front steps. And she is confident without being cocky; she relies not always on her floral display to attract attention, but is content to permit her unusual red-hued, serrated foliage to do the work for her. And yet even while she shines, she comfortably recedes into the panoply.

This year red lacks a prominent floral display in my garden: Rose Mallow and a blood red dahlia are left to carry the load that was once shared with red chrysanthemums, among others, which the February winter storms eliminated. But I am finding that lack of red acceptable, for it concentrates and thus heightens the impact of this most vibrant of colors.

I have also found opportunity in those winter losses: I welcomed both Rose Mallow and a Japanese maple into the garden this spring. And I have (re)discovered the joys of texture, color, and variation of foliage—certainly a more understated approach to introducing diversity into the garden, and, I sometimes think, a more effective way of communicating to the outside world and working with color. Sure, we all want to seduced by brilliant, colorful flowers—but too much can be, well, too much. The eye scans, cannot rest, and the garden is a blur. Pockets of color interspersed among rich tapestries of textured, serrated, variegated, hued foliage offers the eye and, more importantly the mind, opportunity for repose and reflection. The garden becomes you, and you become the garden. And we take it with us.
This year, the brilliant red new growth star-shaped leaves of Mountain Fire Pieris japonica, Rose Mallow’s burgundy attire, the potted Vancouver Geranium’s rich burnt red (which intensifies with increased exposure to the sun), Ligularia dentate (Britt Marie Crawford) and the quintessential red Japanese maple serve as the Vanguard of the Garden, quietly ascending, offering, like the Strawberry Moon, a dazzling array of colorful variation and permitting us to see deep into and beyond the early summer haze.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Abuzz with Activity

Hardly a place for repose, the garden is quite the contrary the center of activity.

I write this from the garden in early morning; of course I am not equipped with my camera to capture the yellow jacket that just drank from Gramsci’s water dish; or the honey bees that visited the hosta flowers; or the cardinal that sat atop the Buddha, then flew to the pot in which the Japanese maple resides (for now), and then to the bistro chair, and finally over to the Lady in Red Hydrangea before it flew away; or the moth that fluttered about; or even the worms that perform their composting digestive feats below the surface.

So much happened this morning, but now, mid-afternoon, the garden is quiet. A slight breeze occasionally blows, just enough to ruffle the leaves but not enough to make Lena’s maracas clatter. The heat of the day stifles; even the birds, though they chirp, are not as active as they were this morning.

But the bees still gather pollen, and Gramsci cat rouses from his afternoon slumber to eat a few blades of grass and Liriope.

And the first chrysanthemum blooms, heralding a not so long march towards autumn.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Thoughts for a Sultry Summer Solstice

Solstice –Litha – the Feast of St. John (or San Juan or St. Jean) – Midsummer – Hạ Chí (Vietnamese) – Geshi (Japanese romaji stylization): a few of the many terms for that celestial event marking the maximum tilt of the Earth towards (if you are in the northern hemisphere) or away from (if you are in the southern) the sun, giving the impression of the sun “standing still.”

Of course, in the summer heat, we here in the northern latitudes do as much as possible to stand still. We venture to the beach, lie in our hammock, plop in front of the television in uber-air conditioned homes, take vacations at lake-side cabins, sprawl on couches with reading material in hand—all in a effort to sit still, cool down, and “enjoy” summer. We bathe ourselves in the simplicity of life, awash in the knowledge that we will rejuvenate even as the blazing summer sun saps our energy.

As dusk befalls languid, parched lands, fireflies help alight our way, inspire a magical awe, and, by the frenzy of incandescent bursts of light, rouse us from our stupor. One can’t help but feel the presence of Puck, playful and mocking, compelling us to mischief and escapade. If summer light, even on this longest day of the year, has the curious effect of masking and subduing life, then summer’s briefest of darkness enlivens. And in the night sky, nearest the solstice, the full Honey or Mead Moon bedazzles. Legend has it that this is the time to harvest honey from the hives so engorged; fermented honey becomes mead, which young newlyweds drank to titillate nighttime romance.  

Midsummer is, for many in the northern hemisphere, the halfway point of the growing season. So while we celebrate the plenitude of the sun and the arrival of summer, the firefly reminds us of the temporality of life. Yet it also reminds us to fulfill our fancies, to follow the light, and revel in the mysteries of the night.

** No fireflies were harmed during the production of this entry **

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lena Concertante in D Minor

Okay, that title was all embellishment, but the effect is the same.

Quite unexpectedly, as I watered the parched front garden, I reached between the Dwarf Fountain Grass and the Lena Scotch Broom to wet the Northern Sea Oats Grass (Chasmanthium latifolium) and heard a distinctive maraca-like rattle: the black, pea-like pods of Lena emitted an unexpected Latina sound, a counterpoint to the Blues performance of Verbena and the Euphorbias on the other side of the garden. A veritable international music festival—right here in my garden—could now be added to Wilmington’s rather impressive (and surprising, for a small “city”) list of summer festivals!

My purist critic, of course, will no doubt remind that the maraca hardly constitutes a concertante (I know that, but I rather like the aural and visual juxtaposition of “Lena” and “Concertante”), and most likely its musical emission is not in the key of D minor. So why propagate such falsities?

In her afterword to Katharine White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden, Jamaica Kinkaid mused that “a real gardener knows nothing at all of garden design; the design of the garden comes about through love. Things have been chosen, not with any regard for theory, but from love of a particular plant, an obsession with a particular plant, a particular feeling for a particular plant.” Real gardening actualizes the “meandering spirit, deliberate and haphazard, carefree and yet not, around and in a space large or small, with the world in mind, and also nothing at all in mind.”

Put differently, real gardening is an exercise in unplanned delight!

Thus my Scottish Lena, instead of donning the bagpipe, plays her Latin American maracas, which mimic the haphazardly placed Northern Sea Oats Grass’s panicles of flat, green flowerheads that shimmer and undulate and rustle in the breeze in a sort of North American rubato.  

And as for D Minor, well…How fitting! Beethoven composed his inimitable 9th—officially, “Op. 125 Choral,” but perhaps more colloquially known as the “Ode to Joy” in honor of the symphony’s fourth and final movement which is set to Schiller’s eponymous poem and is belted out by 4 soloists and a chorus)—in the key of D Minor, a move than made Bruckner apprehensive about writing his own 9th in the same key (though he did it anyway). If inimitable, it nevertheless inspires, as it did Dag Hammarskjöld, the 2nd Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The Philadelphia Orchestra performed Beethoven’s Ninth—the SG’s favorite—on UN Day following  Hammarskjöld’s tragic death in a plane crash. He devoted his poetic 24 October 1960 UN Day address to analogizing the Charter to the symphony. “Beethoven,” he asserted, “has given us a confession and a credo, which we, who work within and for [the UN], may well make our own. We take part in the continuous fight between conflicting interests and ideologies which so far has marked the history of mankind, but we may never lose our faith that the first movements one day will be followed by the fourth movement. In that faith we strive to bring order and purity into chaos and anarchy. Inspired by that faith we try to impose the laws of the human mind and of the integrity of the human will on the dramatic evolution in which we are all engaged and in which we all carry our responsibility.

So perhaps it inspires because it is inimitable.

D Minor is the scale of counterpoint and chromaticism, and therefore an appropriate key for the garden sinfonia concertante. The flatness of the rattle and unexpected sounds, the juxtaposition of hues of green and a myriad of textures, combine to produce an elegance of spirit that few designs, if any, can rival. Kinkaid captures the point well: “[I]n the beginning was the Word; and then the Eden, the garden, among the last things to be created. After that, the whole drama began.”

Friday, June 18, 2010


18 June 2010, Wilmington, Delaware. Mini-drought.

The ground is thirsty. The clay is baked, cracked.

Verbena bonariensis and the Euphorbias, singing their "duop-duops" in the silver corner after an opening act of Provence lavender blues, don't seem to mind; in fact, I think they rather enjoy being hot and bothered, swaying in the southern breezes. "Bring me my G&T," I hear myself saying aloud to no one in particular. This show is proving to be good. Only Miss Gray Kitty responds with her meow. And I continue standing there, empty handed, Bombay Sapphire awaiting me in the freezer. Go figure.

Others, however...well, they dislike this early onset of summer aridity. Rudbeckia, now in full bloom, droops, while the Blood Red dahlia bows her pretty little head in somber remembrance of moisture past. Thankfully, I had the wherewithal to plant her next to Verbena, whose leggy height and clustering of elongated leaves near the base provide her some relief. One of her sisters, however, fares not thee well. I planted her tuber in an open span at the mouth of the Lysimachia river, whose course has since been diverted since I last wrote about my riveting trip down her chartreuse colored waves. If her shielded sister has mounded, dense and tight, and has sported two appreciable flowers, the other's new shoots were repeatedly assaulted by ravenous slugs whose nectar is the young dahlia. She remains under assault, but this time by harsh early season sun and dry conditions.

In the back garden, Climbing Hydrangea, a striking Medusa incarnate, splays her tendrils. Though she produced an appreciable display of flowers in mid spring, she really needs more sun to work her magic. The lack of moisture (save for the water I occasionally provide) does not seem to bother her; perhaps it only stunts her growth, for which the neighboring plants thank me profusely by awarding me with full displays. Should she prove a more vigorous grower, however, she might not turn my plants into stone but rather into withered, wilted remains which I think worse given my fetish for rock.

And so we wait for rain. Nay, we beg for rain. And water those who yearn for April showers, now a distant memory.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Life and Death of It

For a long while, I possessed two rather simplistic notions of gardening: one biological, the other aesthetic. One may measure one's gardening success by whether a plant is alive or dead, and whether one's arrangement of plants pleases the eye.

(Snobbery side note: Viet and I took a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood and happened upon one garden that looked very much as if the owner merely sprinkled wild flower seeds across the bed and waited to see what would appear. All of them appeared. And the result is a dizzying array of florid vomit. Sure, I like my English cottage garden, the more random and piecemeal the better, just as much as I like my austere French and Zen gardens and everything in between. But this was a bit too much, too random. Hey, I told myself, at least they do something!)

Using those measures, if I may be so self-indulgent, I've been a fairly successful gardener.

Well, sort of. (Reader take note: no self-professed snob, if truly a snob, would ever publicize such failings, let alone post photos as evidence of such failings!)

Take this False Indigo and my back bed, for instance. Two weeks ago, my friend Erin so generously shared with me several specimens from her garden (a delightfully deep blue Delphinium, a dark purple Day Lily, a Spiderwort, and this False Indigo). The False Indigo, while drooping owing to the shock of being transplanted, certainly looked much better than it currently does. After a few days of unhappy existence, its leaves quite suddenly turned black. And now look at it. Maybe it hated the compost into which I dropped its roots. Perhaps he (why do I masculinize False Indigo?) is a misogynist, and reacted the way he did because I placed him behind the elegant, wispy Lena Scotch Broom. I thought he was man enough to stand proudly aside Lena, but obviously I was wrong.

I never planned the back bed; it was an accident that resulted after two days of non-stop, strenuous gardening activity last spring (including digging out the entire west-side bed--down a foot of nearly-impenetrable clay; heavy amendment of the soil; mass plantings; etc.). We had some "remainders" and so they went into an impromptu-created back bed. I did not amend the soil in that bed, failed to create an aesthetic plan, and ignored the needs of the plants themselves.

On my first, biological measure, one can say I have been successful. Giant Butterbur grows, not flourishes (though admittedly it receives too much sun--any sun is too much for what I thought was the venerable Petasites); the day lilies rapidly spread (as they are wont to do), and some even flowered. But the truth is that Petasites needs to be watered everyday--the 2 hours of broken sunshine render my hunky amor limp like Superman after being exposed to kyrptonite--and the day lilies (which I never planned on keeping) are beginning to brown (also, I surmise, due in part to some Gramsci-style watering and fertilizing). Very little rain--even during torrential downpours--infiltrate the maple tree's dense canopy, making the clay soil more impenetrable. And I'd rather not waste valuable water on what I think to be my weeds.

On my second, aesthetic measure, I am not successful. This bed fails to satisfy me; even my planting of Kerria japonica Golden Guinea has not excited my senses. The bed needs work--nay, a radical overhaul, including substantial amendment of the soil, construction of ramparts or some kind of border, and a reworking of the walkway. In due time.

Gardening is a process, ever a movement, a rethinking of the parts as well as the whole, a continual engagement with the life that surrounds--but never a destination. To treat it as such robs it of its vitality and its essence.

And that is what pleases me: gardening permits as much reinvention as one would like, not only of the beds, but importantly of the self and how the self engages with the world. 
Gardening is so much more than mere biology or aesthetic principles. Gardening is about care and cultivation. Sure, I can blame False Indigo for his sexism, or the weed-like orange day lily for its own browning, but the fact of the matter is that I have failed as a gardener, for I have neglected to ascertain or even care about the needs of the specimens themselves.

Learning evolves as much from failure as from success--and perhaps even more so as I am increasingly inclined to believe. For in failure, we learn that in death there is life, and in life there remains, inextricably and irrefutably, the reality of death. Neither is so simple, and neither can so readily be forgotten. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's Evolution, No?

Aren't weeds basically plants we do not want? Or, put differently, aren't plants the weeds our ancestors so long ago decided they wanted--for aesthetic, medicinal, or other purposes--and so began to cultivate?

Of course, some weeds are rather beautiful. Why, after all, would we own books such as  Wildflowers of Delaware and the Eastern Shore? (Unless those books are merely devious tools to help us identify the subjects of our murderous rampages.) Regardless, I had not the foresight to photograph the ones I banished from my father's gardens this past weekend, and so I resort to borrowing two images from the internet.

Those tall weeds (Daisy Fleabane) with their formidable, extensive root system sported lovely diminutive daisy-like white flowers with cheery yellow centers. And they proliferated. And proliferated. And proliferated. Their subterranean orgy resulted in a demonstrable display of their fortitude, a shroud of white across the multilevel beds. They crowded out the Tiger Lilies, and nearly killed the Large Flowering Bellwort. Of the four Burning Bushes my father and I planted last summer, only one was visible through the thicket. And to serve as a vast underplanting carpet, Creeping Charlie invaded the chrysanthemums and the lilies, the Spirea and the sedums, the climbing rose and the astilbes. The weeds were so dense that even the English ivy, itself a noxious invader, was stymied.

Ah, yes, evolution. It both "saves" the pretty plants and obscures our better judgments.

As I wandered the gardens in my bedclothes with morning coffee in hand, I heard those weeds speak to me, nay mock: "Ha! All I needed to do was produce these silly little flowers and voila! I survived--and not only have I survived, but I conquered!"

And so I donned gloves and began pulling and yanking, careful to grasp the base of each clump and pull upright to get as much of the root system as possible. The many days of rain made this more intensive form of weeding rather easy and, consequently, addictive. I couldn't stop. (Well, that is until 2.5 hours had passed and I only cleared half a bed--there were many weeds to be sure!) After clearing that portion, my father commented: "Oh, that looks great! I would have done it myself but I hated to kill the pretty weeds."

I suppose I trace my garden snobbery back to such (dirty?) thoughts. These weeds clearly resembled daisies (or vice versa), and so why would I waste valuable real estate on such ordinary, weed-like plants?  I can say the same thing about so many plants, but surely the visitor to my gardens would comment on my hypocrisy (for instance, I have Feverfew--it mysteriously sprouted two years after we bought the house) and my own brand of ordinariness (more hostas?! Gees. So pedestrian.). I supposed just as 'one man's trash is another one's treasure,' one gardener's plants are another one's weeds. This is the stuff of evolution.

My brother and 9 year old nephew were visiting from Florida, and soon my nephew, C, joined me in my weeding frenzy. Just as my Aunt Annie introduced me to gardening when I was 6, so it was my opportunity not to pass the baton, but to introduce and perhaps indoctrinate(!). C was a great helper, and listened well. I implored him to extricate the roots; if he did not, the weeds would merely return with a vengeance. If at first he merely broke the stems, he soon found the joy in yanking the plant out, roots and all.

I think he enjoyed weeding--or perhaps he just enjoys my company--because he offered to come to my house and help me weed. "But I do not have weeds," I responded. "I don't," I repeated with authority, and with a smirk. C liked my smirk, and we both stood up and surveyed his Grandpa's gardens, looked at each other, and grinned ear to ear.

Ah, evolution: the omnipresent struggle between transferring knowledge (and passion) and devising ways to stay alive, seduce, and become coveted. And all animated with a healthy dose of snobbery!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Color in the Garden: Orange

In my estimation, orange is an other-worldly color, which may explain its sparse, fleeting appearance in my gardens. Growing up, unlike so many other young boys I presume, I was cognizant that things could have ended up quite differently (and indeed I wanted them to be). We could be speaking Dutch.

But, like many imaginations, it could not have been that way. The Dutch, led by the House of Orange-Nassau, faced more pressing realities, being at first embroiled in an eight decade revolt against Spanish rule. The English, feeling threatened by Dutch domination of the seas and its respectable, far-flung collection of colonial and trading outposts, challenged the United Provinces in a series of wars, and took New Amsterdam in 1664, christening it New York. Having briefly retaken New York (1673-1674) and renamed in New Orange, the Dutch were obviously seduced more by nutmeg than by beaver, and decided Suriname represented that orgiastic future it so imagined and thus relinquished, by the Treaty of Westminster, New Orange to the English. The rest, as they say, is history.

One might muse, then, that orange is paradoxically the color of victory and the color of defeat, the color of imagination and the color of reality. Orange bedecks, indeed cloaks itself in an aura of unexpected juxtaposition; orange challenges us to reconcile the vision with the fact, the ought with the is, just as the color itself reconciles the vibrancy and intensity of red with the seductiveness and cheeriness of yellow.

My youthful imaginations, however, were of no match for reality (or perhaps reality was no match for my imaginations) and into those imaginations I increasingly retreated until living there became quite untenable.

And so I find vestiges of a life once lived in orange and with its associations. I do not wish to return to that imaginary life, yet I welcome reminders of parts of it (I refer not to ancestral callings but, for the reader, more obliquely to a peculiar lived history, which each of us has, and some of us wish were not so). Thus I retain my Dutch language tapes, disused and tucked away as they are in a dusty corner of a closet. I reacted with impassioned levity as I read Russell Shorto’s riveting The Island at the Center of the World, for it transported me back in time to the place in which I wanted to Be, free of my factual burdens and liberated from my fictions, and actualized the imaginary world I desperately tried to create in my own New Netherland. Lena Scotch Broom makes her dramatic spring appearance—her orange deeply rooted in this world—and the orange day lilies, now in full bloom, follow several weeks later, pairing nicely in an echo of the former Dutch flag with my fireworks-quality Verbena.

And Orange Marmalade hosta: there it is, not quite orange, but nominally connecting me throughout the gardening season to the brighter shades of that haunting color that constituted my past.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Borders are to the gardening world what they are to the international political world: sacrosanct staples of organization. Borders delimit, demarcate, denote, detach, disconnect, distinguish, and divide, contain, corral, encase, enclose, and exclude. (Aside: Rhetorically, aren’t such lists—even if they duplicate meanings—authoritative, commanding, conclusive, and even elegant?)

Yet borders blur. Garden borders curiously blend spaces even as they clarify them. The problem, it seems, is the concept of the border itself.

Take, for instance, my recent Google search on the compound term “garden borders.” Some websites defined borders in terms of botanical design: basic elements include “lacey fringes, accent colors, layers of short-to-tall plantings, and color echoes.” Likewise, deployment of ornamental grasses can be used to “soften walls” (the actual border, I suppose) by “creat[ing] leafy screens” (isn’t the effect a layering of borders, a duplication of them, the creation of a decidedly new space akin to the no-man’s land between the barbed wire fence and the Berlin Wall?).

Borders may also be defined in terms of functionality and specificity. Borders may be “invisible”—steel or plastic that is inserted into the ground to contain wayward roots—or visible aggregations that constitute the architecture of the garden—flagstone, brick, stone, cobblestone, and other such materials that are used to erect, heighten, elongate, guide, and otherwise carve out specific spaces. One particular website declared with perspicuous, stating-the-obvious (!) aplomb that “garden borders are not only attractive but functional. They prevent grass and weeds from spreading into your flower beds and keep mulch from spilling out.”

But my penchant for precision demands clarification. The hardscape materials are in my view properly termed “edging” (or “walls,” depending on height and construction). The collections of plants I call “beds.” So what, then, is a border?

I do not know. (Public confession #?)

“Border,” I conclude, is one of those terms of gardening—pretentious and old-fashioned—that when used seems to mask an esoteric knowledge but when interrogated appears to mean little. “Beds” may sound for some rather pedestrian; “gardens,” too generic. The chief function of the term and concept border, then, seems only to satisfy the innate snob in each of us gardeners ("My heavens: he doesn't know that plant or the Latin name for False Indigo?! Well, I never..." or "Look at that border! Such a clever arrangement!").

Yet “border” is much too fluid, much too imprecise.

So here is my humble solution. Let us dispose of the outdated term "border." Let us reserve the term “edging” to refer to the spade-produced incision marking the end of a lawn and the beginning of a collection of plants, or the low parapet of stone that distinguishes a "bed" from that beyond the bed. Let us use the term "bed" to refer to the actual span of property that contains the plants. And if "bed" remains too imprecise, then do what I do: name your beds (I have the Buddha Bed, the west side shade bed, etc.).

My solution precipitates not from my own innate snobbery, but from more serious, conceptual concerns as well.  Borders contain, and thus by their very nature seem to invite transgression. And we gardeners are inherently averse to such, for we like to control the "transgressions" (the alyssum spilling over the stone wall, the ajuga weaving its way over and beyond the beds and edges and onto the adjoining walkway, the lavender that extends beyond, begging the wandered to brush up against it and release its fragrance--all those are examples of planned, controlled transgression, not the result of sheer whimsy).

Anything less is surely blasphemy, an affront to the ordered life itself, a task for the intrepid gardener to demonstrate the putative law of the powerful: affirmation of the border by brute force.

Disclaimer: The photos used in this post are from the internet, and do not reflect my own disordered, un-bordered garden beds.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Color in the Garden: Violet

An unexpected pleasure appeared in the shade garden this year. The Lady-in-Red Hydrangea, which sports strikingly intense red stalks, red veins set within deep green leaves, and pink lace-cap flowers, has this year produced most ethereal, fluorescent violet flowers. This is botanically odd, since the backyard shade garden soil is highly alkaline, which affects certain plants (like my Nikko Blue Hydrangea) by turning blue flowers pink. Pink flowers ought to remain, I thought, pink.

But this year's display is decidedly violet. Each day produces a more vibrant, slightly deeper hue. The camera cannot capture its incandescent glow. Only visitors to the garden can experience it; the best times for viewing are at dawn and at dusk.

And now I surmise why this most luminous of colors is so elusive: violet is the color of unity—but not just any unity.

Violet, I have learned as a fitting follow-up to my previous entry, is associated with the seventh or Crown Chakra, the Sahasrara, which links the individual (the immediate) with the universal. Violet, in the Vedic tradition, is the inescapable essence of the cosmos, the infinite, and as such cannot be arrested in finite time by a camera. We can only hope to be entranced in its presence, yearning to break free if for a moment of the pressures and demands of the finite world in which we live.

This primal unity, or enlightenment is, to be sure, available only to a select few. This is not to imply enlightenment is, from the standpoint of admission, an exclusive, regulated club. It is to imply that we humans lack purity of self and soul, and thus are constrained (or constrain ourselves) from achieving a non-theoretical, spiritual Oneness. Our words, our actions, our thoughts fracture our consciousness and our relations with others. 

True, some have what we might call a bodhisattva complex, and willingly and graciously refrain from entering that Promised Land, that nirvana, that unitary consciousness, all in an effort to help us more fallible beings get from here to there in basically one piece. How kind of them.

Perhaps violet is my bodhisattva. It certainly is the first thing I look at early in the morning (yes, dear reader, it now distracts me from my prize Nikko Blue Hydrangea), radiating as it can only do at particular times of the day. It arrests me; I find myself having to consciously break my trance. 

But like anything in life, violet in the garden simply is. What we do with it, how we interpret it, is up to us. Sure: culture ascribes particular meanings to particular colors. Our inclinations and interpretations are most likely influenced by that which is external to us. Yet in the end, meaning only attains resonance and import upon deeper reflection, when we have unified the external and the internal, the immediate and the universal.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Parable

I’ve always conceived of gardening as an activity larger than life. My conviction is supported etymologically. (Please bear with me.) The Latin verb colere means many things—including to honor or worship; to protect or nurture; and to inhabit or till—and is the present active infinitive of colō. Cultus, the perfect passive participle of colō, also means to tend, and from cultus we derive the words to cultivate (cultivare) and culture (cultura). Cultivation of the soil engenders a culture, a world. To garden is to escape immediacy; gardening superimposes a self’s work onto a broader landscape of community and culture, a universality of life—or, to be a bit philosophical, gardening is the surreptitious infusion of a universality of life into the immediacy of selfhood. In this very specific sense can we understand connections and duties to others (some accounts of the rise of nations and nationalism often connect the agricultural activities of peoples to a sense of rootedness in the soil, rootedness in the soil to collective activity, collective activity to a sense of place, sense of place to connections with others, and so on and so forth). But how far those duties extend has always been a point of ethical and political contention. Indeed, that issue drives some of my research.

The immediate and the universal recently came to clash in my little piece of the world. A neighbor commented that my garden was her “eye-candy”—a compliment to be sure! If I offered texture and dimension, color and form, she offered a scarred, barren slope of hard clay, some grass, and a rectangular tract of red rock. Not a tree, not an element of interest anywhere. Apparently she read my face and construed what I was thinking, because she immediately added that though she wanted some thing, her “black thumb” impeded her. Wanting eye-candy myself, and feeling the need to reclaim some valuable real estate in my garden, I immediately offered some plants to my horticulturally challenged neighbor, and even planted them for her: a creeping juniper, Lysimachia (Creeping Jenny) and Rudbeckia. They are “low maintenance” plants to be sure (heaven knows I have neglected them in favor of more unique specimens, and they have thrived). She was thrilled! But, knowing her affliction, I donned my professorial voice (whatever that is!), went down an octave (impossible!) and warned her that despite their “low maintenance” status, the plants need water, especially in the weeks after being transplanted. And especially in this heat. She understood, and declared with certainty her resolve to water and tend.

Well, four days later it appears that the creeping juniper is the only thing that has survived (and I fear for it). Creeping Jenny is now Crispy Jenny: baked to a golden brown by the unforgiving sun. The spirits of the clumps of Rudbeckia—now Deadbeckia—must hate and curse me (though one remains). During these last four days, I resisted watering them for her, debating as it were my moral responsibilities. Yes, I have relinquished ownership of them. Yes, the plants now reside on her property. Yes, I have instructed her to water generously (especially given her poor soil). No, I did not contract with her to tend to the plants. No, I cannot liberate them from the desert to which I banished them. How far indeed do my responsibilities extend? Self-referentiality will only take community so far...

This morning, just after I wrote the above, I watered my own front garden. And lo and behold, my neighbor came outside and asked me about watering. Apparently, she had no idea how to water them. Her first watering attempt nearly ended in disaster: the plant nearly came out of the ground, propelled as it were by the force of the water. So this morning became a "teaching moment" for both of us: for her, a lesson on how to water; for me, a lesson on how to be a good liberal (not the usual sort that simply helps others without regard for what the recipient wants, or without soliciting the recipient's input, or even, worse still, disregarding the recipient's input because "we know better"). I listened, instructed, and she performed. We cultivated the immediate and the universal. And we both became better people as a result.