Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Bridge into Autumn

So often the visitor and casual observer of the garden asks of the gardener friend, “which is your favorite flower?” The question has the same irritatingly demanding, damnable, and impossible-to-answer quality as the “if your house were burning and you could only save one of your several children, who would you save?” hypothetical tragic query we hope we never have to face. Surely I inflate the moral imperative of the decidedly more innocuous gardening variation, but the theme remains the same.

Of course, gardeners have favorites—but notice the plural use of the word: favorites, as in multiple, many, more than a few. To isolate a single flower is the pronounce irrelevance on the rest, to erase the montage that becomes and is the garden, even if the gardener reverses the conventional gardening equation of flower over foliage, and opts instead to celebrate and showcase foliage texture and color over flower, which is only occasionally deployed as accent.

Most gardeners would be polite and respond to the question, though I suspect many would probably disregard the singularity of the expected response and offer a plurality of responses—typically one for each of the major seasons. Though perhaps surprised, the questioner would most assuredly understand the folly of the question and accept distinct seasonal (spring, summer, and autumn) responses. That might be the best kind of response: one that adequately (if a tad excessively for the questioner’s proclivities) indulges the questioner’s curiosity about the tastes of the gardener, and one that politely responds to the question being asked but implicitly warns the questioner to either never ask this kind of question, or to frame it such that it at the very least captures variation, both floral and aesthetic.
No. The better response is a storm. Interlocution becomes monologic litany. The questioner will soon be embarrassed (and ultimately sorry) he or she asked. Even a simple list of primary seasonal favorites will not suffice, but rather a listing of flowers in order of micro-seasonal appearance: that is, early, mid, and late spring, summer, and autumn flowers, with perhaps even a winter flower or two (usually witch hazel, perhaps Winter Jasmine, and maybe even Hellebores which technically begin blooming in winter though many would associate it with spring) thrown in for spectacular, learned and comprehensive effect. Why? Because, as every gardener experiences, seasons are disaggregated into distinct micro-periods given variation in temperature, light, and moisture.

 I shan’t bore the reader with my own litany, for my favorites should be obvious: this blog is a testament to my varied tastes and favorites, from the early Blue Star Lithodora to the late mum, from Petasites to Pieris and iris (Siberian, Japanese, bearded) to (false) indigo (even if I killed it), and everything between and beyond.

But here, I should like to identify a trans-seasonal favorite: the dahlia. Space (as in my property) limits me severely, and thus I am unable to grow multiple varietals or have an array of plants without looking like I had a few too many gin and tonics (always a danger with me). The disciplinary effect of geography and income have been good for me, despite my desires for more property on which to garden, for I have learned to be selective about plants; have been forced to reign in my promiscuous ways; have been forced to research each beauty with whom I would like to begin a life-long, intense love affair—for I need to be discriminating in terms of balancing design and aesthetics in my small spaces, and in terms of plant needs in my very peculiar and multiple micro-climates caused by soil, temperature (brick absorbs and thus radiates heat, for instance, thus creating an entirely different kind of micro-garden within the space of one foot), and drastic variation in light and moisture.

So I selected this blood red dahlia two years ago. She both coheres with my mid to late summer garden bathed in the intense vibrancy of summer colors, and serves as a dynamic yet complementary counter to my early autumn blues and purples which mellow her own intensity all the while accentuating her distinctiveness. She blooms from July until our first frost (usually in late October or early November). She rewards me.

This trans-seasonal favorite seems an appropriate muse, a perfect parallel to one of my heroes in life, Dag Hammarskjöld, the 2nd Secretary-General of the United Nations, who died on this date 49 years ago in a plane crash while negotiating a peace in the Congo. His example, like the dahlia’s garden presence, like all of our heroes, illuminates and uplifts, inspires and compels from us the very best of our efforts.   

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