Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Adult Pleasures VIII: Indecision

The title may be a misnomer. Indecision is not pleasurable. That indecision debilitates is frustrating, deflating, denigrating, and downright embarrassing, especially when visitors remark on the number of plastic-container plants dotting the garden.

In the gardening world, indecision results when one purchases oneself "a little happy"--sometimes with distinct ideas of where said happiness should be placed. But upon return to the garden, decisiveness evaporates, or, more appropriately, explodes like a grape when caught in the snares of indecision's vise-like grip.

The result: a landscape of black (or green) plastic containers punctuating the only verifiable evidence of decision, that is, the planted garden itself. Somehow, the planted specimens and varietals do not attract nearly as much attention as the plastic containers.

I've already documented my arduous, painful process of decision-making (see "On Instincts, or, Anatomy of a Decision"). If that entry offered an instance of success in the ability to finally come to a decision, this entry focuses more on debilitating indecision and lack of success.

I have indulged myself of late. At the Philadelphia Flower Show, I purchased the hardiest Camellia varietal on the market: the autumn blooming Survivor Camellia (hardiness to Zone 6b). It provides a showy display of white flowers from early autumn until the first frost, and offers evergreen foliage (read: year-round interest) with a dense, upright growth habit. It sat in a pot from 12 March until yesterday, at which point I planted it in the spot I originally intended, bordered by two Sum and Substance hostas which I think will complement Camellia's yellow hues, while Camellia's dark green tones will contrast nicely with the more leavened hues of Sum and Substance.

MSW: 1. Indecision: 0.
Given the rapid growth of the Nandina in the front sun garden, situated as it is next to the very full Rhododendron, a mid-height void has developed (as the Nandina grows taller, the bottom leaves have dropped). I needed a nice little evergreen bush to fill in the gap--one that could handle morning sun, but could tolerate (and thrive in) the shade provided for by the rhododendron by late morning and through the day. I found the most exquisite Kalmia latifolia 'Minuet', or Minuet Mountain Laurel. A dwarf, it will offer 3 feet wide and high upright growth stalks with striking slender leaves in the shape of spikes. And in the late spring/early summer, it rewards with generous clumps of white flowers which open to reveal circular, maroon-red inner bands of color.

Yet I waiver. Should I place the Latifolia in that space or the equally exquisite Salix integra Hakuro-nishiki Dappled Willow? It too can tolerate morning sun and then thrive in the afternoon shadow of the rhododendron. Instead of flowers, it sports salmon-colored new growth that fades to a variegated creamy white. And its added bonus: though it may be deciduous, it compensates for its winter denuding by its chameleon-like ability to turn its bare stems from typical brown to crimson red!

Or should the Dappled Willow be placed in the west side shade garden (which does receive about 3-4 hours of interrupted sun throughout the day), between the Oak Leaf Hydrangea and the Lady in Red Lace-cap Hydrangea? It would provide a nice bridge between the two: it combines the white of the Oak Leaf with the pink (in the guise of its salmon/pink colored new growth) of the Lady in Red.

Might the flowers of Kalmia latifolia compete with the electric fuchsia of the rhododendron? Might the crimson-red stems of the Dappled Willow be lost on the burgundy stems of the Nandina?

MSW: 1. Indecision: 2.

And then there are the hostas. I purchased multiple bare roots of three varietals: Halcyon Big Blue Hosta; Brim Cup Hosta (its broad, irregular yellow to creamy white margins with deep green centers melts my heart); and, finally, Blue Ivory Hosta (the combination of creamy white margins with blue-gray centers is other-worldly; somehow, while gazing at its spectacular color combination, I feel transported into a Merchant-Ivory period film).  I have no clue where to plant any of them.

MSW: 1. Indecision: 5.

But composing this entry has given me some degree of certitude in where to place the Latifolia and the Dappled Willow. And before the nasty weather predicted later this afternoon until Friday morning (with potential snow on Friday morning!), I might very well take a break from the chapter I am writing to go and plant!

As I noted in my earlier entry on "Anatomy of a Decision," gardeners should learn to trust their instincts when it comes to design, placement of new plants in the existing garden, and aesthetics. Giving in to instinct might be easy in the gardening world, for there are few mistakes. If you do not like something, you simply dig it up and move it somewhere else. Unless indecision paralyzes and you wait until the roots of that tree you planted too close to the house have burrowed into your septic system and foundation, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage...

Perhaps that is the ultimate lesson in how not to be indecisive.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When Cover-up was All the Rage

"Politicians are magicians,
Who make swindles disappear.
The bribes they are taking,
the deals they are making,
never reach the public ear.
The left betrays, the right dismays
the country's broke and guess who pays
But tax each swindle in the making:
profits will be record breaking!
Everyone swindles some
so vote for who will steal for you."

--Alles Schwindel, Lyrics by Mischa Spoliansky

Ah, yes, Berlin cabaret songs from the Weimar era: who cannot but love to hear these little ditties about corruption, the collapse of social idealism, the bankruptcy of (Weimar) democracy, and the need to absorb oneself in the enjoyments of life (as the ominous Nazi clouds gather and the writing already appears on the wall)?!

Corruption and cover-ups: the inseparable twins of political life. Just think of famous scandals: the Catholic Church sex abuse, the Valerie Plame affair, Iran-Contra, Watergate, the My Lai Massacre, the Dreyfus Affair. All share at least one thing in common: cover-up.

Yes, cover-up is all the rage. But sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime, at least when it comes to non-political scandals, and some, even domestic doyens who I and many others idolize, find that the cover-up ("Obstruction of Justice" is the technical legal term) truly is worse. It just sends all the wrong messages.

But gardeners, I am convinced, are IMMUNE from all that cover-up implies!  Yes, we are IMMUNE!  Indeed, we do great things when we engage in unapologetic acts of cover-up.

We hide the detritus of winter: the leaves, the dead plants, and the unsightly accumulations of half-decomposed vegetation, such as that which has accumulated in the corner where the stairs join the front porch and Corydalis lutea, profligate tart that she is, thrives on rotting organic material.

We help conserve moisture: adding a generous layer of mulch on the garden helps keep root systems, especially those that cloister around the surface, cool, and considerably slows evaporation, thereby reducing time spent watering.

We add organic material to the soil as mulch from previous years decomposes. During this year's mulching project, I disturbed some of last year's layer of mulch and discovered worms just below the surface hard at work, eating decomposing materials and expunging the excess, which is itself a tremendous source of nutrients to the soil. Though I clean out the egregious masses of debris, I do leave a generous supply of organic materials deposited by the winter winds, over which I lay the mulch. Not only is this method beneficial to plants and the soil, it also reduces the amount of work involved in cleaning the beds in early spring! Yes, we gardeners may indulge our inner bouts of laziness!  

And, aesthetically, we make the garden a more perfect, more beautiful place. If I may analogize for a moment: somehow, art museums think that white-washed walls highlight art. The point, curators aver, is to focus attention on the paintings, not on the environment (I worked in a museum for 2 years, and that is basically a direct quotation from a curator). Yet white-washed walls in my view have the opposite effect: they subdue that which we are supposed to enjoy. Place a painting in a different environment--against espresso colored walls, or in a vibrant red dining room--and art pops. Notice the difference between a museum's permanent galleries and its temporary exhibition spaces. Often much more creativity is deployed in the latter; the walls are swathed in luxurious colors. Subduction (if I may employ the term from tectonics) morphs immediately into elevation. Look at how Corona kaufmanniana tulip (the earliest blooming tulip), or the hosta spikes picture above or the new growth of the Sawtooth Aucuba are accentuated by the dark mulch (please ignore the over-exposure of my photos, as photographer I am not).

The same effect can be discerned in the garden. Plants pop against the dark background of mulch. They hover in an other-worldly space, just above the ground, drawing our perspective upwards and around, permitting us to concentrate on the charms of individual plants, listen to the conversation between the plants, and see the aura that is the garden.

But the cover-up that is mulching does have one significant cost: sore backs.

But the effects are worth a few days of aches--especially when there is a special someone waiting indoors to give you a massage...

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Power of Flowers

Power is one of those overused, under-explained words in the English language--especially so in political science and international relations. If by power we mean an ability to influence--the most general meaning of power in the literature--then we invariably ask a series of questions: Who or what influences who or what? How is such influence enacted? Is all influence necessarily power? Is power always reducible to relationships of influence? If influence is the measure of power's presence, then is power omnipresent such that the weather has power over us (in determining what we should wear, for instance)? Does it make sense to attribute power to unintentional acts and inanimate objects and processes? Does the substance of power lie not in that which presumably exerts some influence or control over the subject, but rather in the subject over whom power is presumably exercised--precisely because it is the subject who decides to be influenced or not?  

Perhaps the very vagaries of our conceptualizations of power give birth to serious, systematic inquiry, and we should have it no other way.

No matter what we may think of power, I suppose one might declare it an undeniable fact that there is nothing like spring flowers after the doldrums of winter. Sure, winter has its attractions. But spring: well, spring enlivens. Longer and warmer days, brighter sunshine, daylight that extends past 7 p.m. are welcomed after gray days, long nights, and a cold that seeps into one's bones. Even the most impervious soul cannot help but pause, if but for a moment, to see the shining smile of the daffodil, or reflect briefly on his or her own vanity and worth when confronted with Narcissus. These flowers come to influence us. They affect our moods, even if ephemerally. And therein lies the power of flowers. 

Sure, daffodils and Narcissus may be pedestrian, banal even. But they are markers of time, signifiers of spring. And every garden seems incomplete without them.

And then there is the magnolia. My friend Adam is currently studying in Beijing. Over the last few months, he has sent various photos of flora in and around Beijing. Recently, he sent me these 3 photos of lovely magnolias (I saw a few in north Wilmington in partial bloom). In his latest email, Adam wrote, "I never thought flowers would have brightened my day as much as these did...after a gray, bleak winter I guess wildlife--flora or fauna--is that much more welcomed."

Contrary to my earlier musing, his formulation suggests that the subject does not always consciously decide to be influenced or not. We simply are influenced--and the smile across the face, or that je nais se quoi feeling we experience in the presence of something beautiful indicate the profundity of the experience of encountering the flower. Inanimate objects can and do exert power over us--and that is the power of flowers: omnipresent, multivalent and varied, and rather deeply psychological and emotive.   

A Love Affair Gone Awry

Mother Nature seems rather perturbed of late.  I deduce that she's either having an affair with Jack Frost and is letting him blow his frigidity into her nether regions, or Jack took old Father Winter by the, er, well, let's just jump ahead with the story..and the two of them forgot about her for some (fore)play of their own! Don't underestimate the hostility of a spurned lover.

No matter what is happening, we earthlings in northern Delaware suffer. And suffer we do! My Canadian friends will laugh condescendingly, to be sure.

"Suffer? Cold temperatures and frost in March?! Oh dear boy," I hear them say, "you are pathetic. Delaware has thinned your New York blood."  (Though to be fair, Washington, Colorado, and Houston surely played a role in my thrombocytopenia.)

But I protest and plead: won't you listen to my woes, if for just a bit?!

I present to my dear reader the following evidence:

Exhibit A:  The garden beds at 410 sport an astonishing array of plants, even so early in the spring. A substantial portion of the herbaceous plants have pierced the warming soil, greeted as they were by seemingly unseasonable highs in the 60s and 70s, but Mother Nature has bitch-slapped these importunate children several times this week with blasts of cold air, ice, and yes, even some snow.

Exhibit B: A thin layer of ice appears each morning on my water barrel. Yes, the water barrel is back outside: too early it seems. And the spigot leaks.

Finally, if those exhibits are not cause for sympathy, I present damning evidence in the form of Exhibit C: No matter who fools with Jack Frost, be it Mother Nature herself or profligate, potentially bisexual, Father Winter who needs himself a little cozy, he has left telltale signs of his presence: a morning whiteness worthy of a Ken Starr investigation. Shameful.

Dear Canadian friends, (and dear upstate New York friends): do I have your sympathy yet?! In the meantime, Cixous packs herself away in my bag for warmth and sticks her tongue out at mean, nasty Mother Nature and the shenanigans of Jack Frost.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

“Dela-where?! Magical Little Microcosm of the World”

Today marks the first year anniversary of “Dirty Thoughts.” Thanks to all my readers for urging me on, encouraging me to dangerously new lows in dirty thinking!

In the spirit of dirty thoughts, I entertained a variety of ideas, some related to performance anxiety, others related to, let’s say, premature display.

But a friend from Canada gave me yesterday the perfect one year anniversary “gift” and subject. Despite our early spring frost yesterday morning, and despite the mid-20s temperatures last night, the damage from which is not yet apparent as it is the wee early hours of the morning as I write this, the gardens are reawakening from their not so long winter slumber. A lot is happening: from unfurling fern fronds to the protrusion from the soil of many hostas and the Solange peony cultivar (a Chinese double white I bought last fall), to the flowering of Pieris japonica, the daffodils, and Corona kaufmanniana tulips (the earliest blooming tulip varietal).

George, having seen photos of all that is occurring, asked yesterday, in response to seeing photos of my garden on Facebook, “Are you kidding me? Your garden looks like this right now? Dela-where is this magical little microcosm of the world?!?!
What a perfect anniversary gift.

When I interviewed for the job at the University of Delaware, I was “wooed” with the fact that “Delaware is close to everywhere you want to be: New York, Washington, Philadelphia.”

Perhaps in the gardening world little old Delaware—The First State, the three little raucous counties that took history by the horns and told the heirs of William Penn and Lord Baltimore to hell with each of you and seceded from Pennsylvania—really is everywhere you want to be (at least in late March).

(The now 7 inch tall flower of Petasites japonica, a.k.a. Giant Butterbur)

(The spikes of one of several hostas protruding from the soil)

(The fronds of the Holly Fern in the East Side Shade Garden)
(And Gramsci's delicacy: Hakone Japanese Forest Grass)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nature’s First Green is Gold

…or is it?

That line from Robert Frost’s 1923 poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” awakens my inner empiricist in ways that things I professionally study cannot and do not. In New England, the birches and willows do indeed offer a delicate haze of gold. But in other parts, say, even here in Delaware, one may witness the orange-red haze produced by trees the species of which is unbeknownst to me even before the golden haze of the willow. Frost’s assertion reveals itself to be not absolutely falsifiable, but a regional truism.  

But why split hairs?

Who cannot help but love spring green or spring gold, coming as it were after months of winter white and/or morose browns?

But germinal spring—that period before the paroxysm of pastels begot by bulbs and flowering trees and shrubs that are iconic spring—is not monochromatic.

In my garden, spring greens appear as the spring burgundy of Ligularia dentate (Britt-Marie Crawford),

or the regal burgundy of Ajuga "Purple Brocade" set against the spectacle of the apple-green flowers of Giant Butterbur (Petasites japonica),

spring reds of tulip tops, some set against Euphorbia x martinii Rudolph Waleuphrud,

more spring reds of Golden Kate Spiderwort (Tradescantia x andersoniana)],

and spring purples of various hostas.

To appease Robert Frost, Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia) sports her flamboyant greenish gold against red Pennsylvania shale.

The variety of spring greens and golds titillates!

Running of the Bulls, Wearing of the Green, Cutting of the Liriope

Frenetic, unpredictable lives need stability and a guarantee that the passage of time offers something more than aging and gray hairs, wrinkles and aching joints. The Easter egg hunt or the Passover seder, the Fourth of July barbeque and Halloween costume parties, Christmas decorating or Hanukkah menorah lighting—precisely because of their commonality and regularity—offer something decidedly uncommon and exceptional.

Rhythm cannot, and should not, be overrated. Indeed, we seek it. We crave it in the midst of uncertainty. But make no mistake: regularity can be boring. It is what we do with rhythmic regularities, how we treat them, that makes the difference between monotonous observance and celebratory occasion.

We might look upon the cycle of nature with indifference, or we might allow ourselves the luxury of seeing the emergence from the cold wet soil of the greenery and buds of the spring bulbs that festoon the otherwise drab landscape, accompanied by herbaceous perennials that vanished late last fall, with wondrous eyes. We might celebrate the blooming of the Pieris (2 weeks earlier than last year, pictured below), and the leafing out of shrubs (Kerria, pictured to the right). We might relish the “chores” of gardening throughout the season—the deadheading and weeding, the pruning and transplanting—as moments outside ourselves.

But gardening, like all life, also contains its barbarous, ruinous rhythms. Each year, coinciding with the wearing of the green, some gardeners need to eliminate the green. Those with Liriope must part ways with their gratitude for “Lilyturf’s” verdant winter display and unceremoniously cut it back to the ground. After exposure to desiccating sun and wind, and entombment in various snowfalls, by February and March its foliage browns and its remaining greenery looks pale.

We can lament this act—and lament we do for the barrenness it temporarily imparts to the transitional garden—but we must too anticipate Liriope’s fecundity in the coming weeks, its projection of artfully rounded tips into the warming air that provide a contrast to the spiky tips of hostas as they emerge from the soil.

Fortunately, there are so many other developments in the garden to distract us.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Other Peoples' Gardens: The 2011 Philadelphia Flower Show

Many years ago in Boulder, Colorado, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks labored for several days, on full public view, to create a sand mandala. A mandala (Sanskrit for "circle") is a spiritual tool, a visual representation of sacred, cosmological space, and is used to acutely concentrate our spiritual reflections and inward journeys that in the end remove us from our selves.

At the end of the process of sand mandala creation--a painstaking endeavor requiring uninterrupted powers of concentration, a steady hand, a perceptive eye, and an aesthetic precision that presumably emanates from divine concentration--the monks ritualistically destroy the object. As some chant, the sand is swept into a pile. Oddly, unexpectedly, the vibrant colors (the reds, yellows, oranges, greens, blues, whites, blacks, pinks) all become green.

At the particular Boulder event I attended, the monks packaged the sand into tiny packets and distributed them to those in attendance. Viet and I retain ours to this day: one package is positioned in the lap of our bronze Buddha from India, the other on a very old wooden reclining Buddha from Java or Bali, I forget which. And when this was handed to us, the monk issued stern instruction, nay, a commandment: never let this package touch the ground, for if it does, its spiritual powers dissipate.

The remainder of the sand was carried to the banks of the Boulder creek and dispersed in it, as a series of chants and bells swirled around us.

Flower shows are the sand mandalas of the gardening world: temporary, almost other-worldly constructions. In Boulder, a few hundred came to witness; for the Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest indoor flower show in the world, tends of thousands of people make their pilgrimage to witness, to absorb, to seek design ideas, to relish, to escape ordinary lives replete with their ordinary demands. Pilgrims may arrive with many purposes and intentions, but all in the end are transported, which is exactly the point of pilgrimage in the first place.

Like the mandala and the flower show, gardens, too, are mediums--and by this I do not suggest that gardens ought to be viewed as purely instrumental. Quite the contrary. Gardens assume a life and a meaning separate from that intended by their creators. And these lives and meanings are only in part determined by the spectator's multiple and varied intentions and perspectives.

This year's Philadelphia Flower Show theme is Springtime in Paris. As one strolls into the convention center complex, one immediately encounters the centerpoint: the base of the Eiffel Tower. It is, like its model, grand. It commands attention. It rises above, it elevates as we strain our necks to see its top. We are delivered into the heavens above, our eyes lingering at the space between the tip of human creation and the infinite beyond.

Exhibits beckon, all peculiar vignettes of other places in others' lives, real or imaginary:

a grand salon of opulent Paris,

a campsite,

a maison,

a modest country house,

a Parisian carousel and various scenes of street life,

various storefronts,

and Underground (catacombs) Paris.

After one adjusts to the throngs of people (courtesy of my friend Sachyn, I attended on the "media and members only" preview day), one comes to be transported--if only for a moment--outside of oneself. We are invited to linger outside the boulangerie, or by the boxwood hedge outside of the salon, peering into a life that is not ours, a life that perhaps we wished to live but that should remain not ours.

By the evening of March 13th, the flower show will become mandala sand, its whole deconstructed, swept into a vast whole, its various parts (re)distributed, reminders of a moment in time when time itself stood still for just long enough so that we could become other people, walk the streets of another place, and look back into ourselves, just beyond the boxwood hedge that defines the edge of our lives...