Saturday, April 30, 2011

Adult Pleasures X: Being Fashionably Late

Yesterday, those who cared to partake in the experience via television were treated to a royal wedding spectacle. Guests arrived at the Abbey and photographers were all too happy to indulge them by capturing their glam and fabulous-ness. The men looked dashing, and some downright scrumptious, in their morning suits, but the event went, as events do, to the women.

Each tried, it seemed from an outsider's perspective, to outdo others. But that, I am not convinced, is the ultimate reason for the ├╝ber-sense of fashion that pervaded the assemblage. To be fashionable is socially expected. Aside from the Queen and La Reina Sophia, and perhaps other seasoned royals, whose mostly unadorned attire embodied understated elegance, others treated the body as a showcase for the spectacle. And what a spectacle it was (click there to see a slideshow): from the black (lacecap hydrangea?) flower and twisted sticks on Victoria Beckham's hat, to what can only be described as a post-structural conception of a bow towering into the sky from Princess Beatrice's hat; from Miriam Gonzalez-Durante's stunning dress that evoked the artistry of the flamenco (she is Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's wife) to the dramatic canopy worn by Lord Frederick's wife Sophie Winkleman. One was not disappointed. British women do love their hats.

Which reminds me...on Christmas Day, 2005 in London, Viet's cousin Lan treated us to high tea in the Ritz Carlton's famed Palm Room. To describe the experience would be an injustice. Suffice to note that upon departure, an elderly British woman, who was just as "made-up" as any one of the royal wedding guests, caught Viet sizing up a French woman who wore what looked like a deconstructed Eiffel Tower on her head. After the woman left, the British woman winked and, like an overly affectionate grandmother, gently scolded Viet though, if I recall correctly, she also made some veiled remark about the outlandishness of French fashion.

Of course, arriving late, even fashionably late, to a wedding--any kind of wedding, not simply royal ones--is an insult.

But to any other kind of party, save perhaps for a royal one, we take pleasure in arriving late. Indeed, in some circles it is considered gauche to arrive on time.

And so the mind games begin: calculating the earliest possible moment one can arrive without being the first to arrive. Calculate incorrectly, you arrive too late and seem nonchalantly rude, as if you could not be bothered.

The garden party is another matter entirely. Plants arrive (and always bloom) on their own preferred schedule. Springtime weather fluctuations dramatically alter arrivals; one can never plan. Last year, for instance, my pale yellow bearded irises didn't begin blooming until mid-May; this year, several bulging buds about to open already appear. As I await to host a garden party for my class in 2 weeks, I begin to stress: will there be anything left of my mid- to late- spring flowers for them to see?

Yes, during spring the gardener becomes somewhat schizophrenic, as if a servant at one of those grand British country houses, moving into a frenzy when the guests do appear, either early or late, never on time.

But at a certain point in time, especially when the beds have filled after days of torrential rains punctuated by unseasonable heat, the gardener--who really is a servant in the specific sense of one who tends to others--examines the several bare spots in the garden, and realizes that winter took its annual, unforgiving toll. We count the dead, lament their losses, and turn to filling the spaces--especially when there is a garden party (for humans!) to plan.

Rose Mallow, I determined, died. I wasn't convinced that the Autumn Ferns had died, having seen the little black bulges from the crown, just above the soil line. But still, even with last week's tryst with temperatures in the 80s, nothing happened.

On Friday evening, I went outside to trim the spent daffodil and tulip stems and to gather some Boxwood clippings that evaded my cleanup after their Monday haircut. And there, nestled between the stumps of her 3 legs, were two little shoots of Rose.

With her glamorous sense of fashion, I decided her exceedingly late arrival is most welcome.

And, as if to outdo Rose, the shade garden Autumn Ferns decided to coincide their arrival just after hers. Their rose colored "gloves" and cinnamon colored stipes exude understated elegance. If Rose Mallow is Victoria Beckham, then Autumn Fern is the Queen herself.

All I can say is "welcome back."

Friday, April 29, 2011

Color in the Garden: Melon

Melon is not a common color in the garden. Too much red, and flowers err on the side of orange. Too much yellow, and they exude harvest gold. Red and yellow must hang slightly askew, with preference accorded to yellow--and that just may be too much to ask for from domineering red.

So these tulips, which I did not plant, seem, at least to me, a rare exception in the garden.

At times they appear pink. At times orange. But often: melon. I never did photograph them fully open when they revealed their full, melon ripeness.

Melon evokes freshness. It is summer's casual elegance.

Its fleeting appearance each spring anticipates the months to come: the months of maturation and profligacy, the months of languor and ebullience.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Leap Year

Yes, this is a leap year folks!

There is no 29 February on your calendar?! The next leap year is 2012?!  (One extra day to prolong the misery of February, one extra day before one gets paid: what is there to actually love about leap year day?!)

Forget what conventional wisdom tells you.

No, folks. This is my leap year (though I admit, this may not be your leap year).

On what basis do I argue this?

There is an old gardening adage when it comes to the plant kingdom: the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap!

Now, forget what I just told you about conventional wisdom. This adage is right. It is no longer a hypothesis, but a veritable nugget of wisdom cultivated in fields of black gold.

(I agree: the metaphors were mixed, the image idiotic, and the sentence just plain stupid.)

But the proof is in the pudding (ha! gotcha with another metaphor!). Try it.

While dating my garden is difficult to do--one always adds and subtracts, things die over the winter, etc.--the entire front sun garden dates to 2008, as does the East Side Shade Bed which I renovated late last fall. And the two beds that run along the backyard deck also date to 2008. The newly-dubbed Lantern bed was planted in 2009. So for much of my garden (construed as a whole, not simply as the aggregate of its many parts), this marks the 3rd year of existence.

And already I see signs of lots of "leaping!"  (I haven't space to showcase particular plants, so I've opted to provide "aerial" shots of the back shade garden, some taken in the rain.)

Keep in mind that some plants--especially those in the deep shade of the extension of the Buddha Bed,  the autumn ferns, and the blue based hostas--have only recently emerged. Keep in mind that though we've had some rather unseasonable heat, the temperatures have wildly fluctuated over the last 6 weeks (indeed, just late last week did we experience temperatures in the 30s with a threat of frost last Thursday evening).

Despite those caveats, the many specimens are flourishing thus far!

The Lantern Bed (of 2009; so this would be the year of creep)

My blue bed: a veritable sea lashing against the shores of Sedum ellacombanium, with the towering red mountains of Pieris japonica and Sum and Substance Hosta presiding...

 The renovated East Side Shade Bed, with Kerria japonica now past its prime flowering, with color being provided by the flowering blue spikes of ajuga and the yellow-oranges of Orange Marmalade Hosta and the Golden Kate Spiderwort

More of the ESSB and the Buddha bed, with the neighbors fragrant Viburnum towering above

The Lantern Bed looking back at the newly renovated rear corner, with Ostrich ferns proudly dominating over the new addition to the garden, Leatherleaf Mahonia

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Adult Pleasures IX: Surprises

Who doesn't like to come home to candles ablaze throughout the dining room, up the stairs, and into the boudoir?

Who doesn't like a surprise birthday party?

Who doesn't like an unexpected card from a far-away friend or acquaintance?

Surprises come in many forms. We simply like to highlight the pleasant ones.

But sometimes surprises are, well, downright atrocious: like the burst pipe in the basement, or the exploding hot water heater, or the roof that suddenly drains onto your prized antiques or closet full of suits. We don't like to refer to those; and if we do, it is usually years after the fact, that is, after the hefty repair bills have been paid and the shock and anger have long dissipated.

And then there are different kinds of surprises: ones that strike us immediately as wrong but which, after a bit of time has past, are welcomed and perhaps even celebrated.

Last summer,Viet and I spent several weeks touring a small portion of Europe, and I brought back 50 tulips bulbs from the Netherlands: 10 each of Corona kaufmanniana tulips (of bright yellow with an inner corona of striking red); Tulipa Triumph White; Princess (Prinses) Irene (orange with red flashings); Tulipa Triumph Deep Blue; and Queen of the Night Black.

 The Corona tulips--the first blooming tulips--regaled us from late March well into April.

The white tulips opened on 17 April, and the Princess Irene on the 20th of April.

Then, the black tulips buds began to engorge, and on the 21st, they opened.

Except they were not black. They were yellow. Mislabeled.

I was miffed.

And then I looked at what I thought were the Princess (Prinses) Irene and saw some blue coloration. Those were actually the BLUE tulips (mislabeled).

Today, 23 April, the Princess (Prinses) Irene are about the open (picture not provided until they actually open).

I remained agitated, but who can remain agitated at a flower?

The yellow tulips are actually quite spectacular: fringed edges and black centers accentuate the magnitude of the color yellow.

And the red tulips with tinges of blue are in their own right perfect for the garden: they converse with the May Night Salvia and play upon the red-hot pink of the azalea which is only now coming into full bloom, their flamboyance tempered by the ethereal white tulips.

I'd like to say I planned this riot of color, but clearly I did not. Sometimes the controlling personality of the gardener just needs to take a backseat to the garden itself, and let it work its magic on us.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Occasionally we hear stories of the improbable: a burning bush (can we be certain Moses didn't actually see a Euonymus alata in its autumn splendor?), the parting of a mighty sea that allowed an oppressed people to escape to freedom (40 years wandering the desert constitutes freedom?! Are you kidding me?!), the resurrection of the dead (are we sure wolves--or Romans--didn't steal the body?). 

And this is the week when those items are discussed or honored.

Admittedly, recent scientific modeling that demonstrates the very probability of the parting of the Red Sea aside, the events strike me as, well, in need of additional empirical verification.

Well, the last two weeks have tested my doubt and I offer my own resurrection story.

Late last summer I reported on the discovery of the fatal Sclerotium rolfsii, a soil-based fungus that afflicted my beloved June Plantain hosta. (Side note: I really need to stop using that adjective, as all my lovelies in my garden are my beloved.) In any case, June was special. Her overnight metamorphosis compelled me to question my beliefs and my drinking habits. Kakfa, she seemed to say, was not crazy.Nor was I, she proclaimed: my morning martini was not to blame; rather, her genetic makeup programmed her to metamorphose. What a gal.

Well, upon discovery of the sclerota in June's crown, and in other parts of the garden, I resorted to drastic measures: shoveling massive piles of dirt into the garbage, spraying a bleach solution on everything, emptying my compost bins. That dire situation demanded extraordinary measures. Sclerotium rolfsii was my terrorist attack, and I became a George W. Bush.

Most of June had died, and the little bit that I replanted, having washed in bleach, was not in the best of health. June Plantain disappeared in the fall, and though I assumed she died, I always kept hope. Mad scientists, and morning martini drinking folks, do keep hope alive. Obama has no monopoly on hope, let me tell you.

During the last few weeks when the garden sprang alive, most of the hostas emerged from the soil (save for the blues, always the last ones to reappear), but June was not one of them.

Three recent, unseasonably warm, non-consecutive days, though, compelled the improbable: the resurrection of June Plantain.

And here she is, as of 20 April 2011, dressed in vivacious spring color!

Resurrection: you'd better believe it.

Which makes me wonder: did someone spray you-know-who with a bleach solution?

I know, I know, I'm going to hell....

Monday, April 18, 2011

Color in the Garden: A Spring Panoply

Often when we think of the garden in springtime, we think in pastels: pink cherry blossoms and lavender lilacs, pale yellow crocuses and daffodils and pale blue scilla. Splashes of color no matter the hue are welcome after a long, dreary winter.

As glorious as those aforementioned flowers are, I think gardeners need not be so limited in their imaginations and experiments. I like to treat color in forms other than flowers, and in hues richer than pastels.

My springtime rear garden--a mix of shade and part-shade beds--illustrates the diversity of spring color. And foliage is the primary mode of underscoring the depth of the garden experience even in the early to mid spring period.

Greens, for instance, need not be boring. Rather, the sheer diversity of the shades in which greens appear demands that we think of and use foliage in ways that accentuate their strengths and variances. The chartreuse Lysimachia accentuates verdant grass and the deeper hues of the Lady in Red Hydrangea, not to mention the deep evergreen of the Camellia (not pictured). The golden margins of the Golden Tiarra hostas (already ascending to prominence so early in the season) echoes the chartreuse tones--all the while both find their foil in the rich green and burgundy leaves of the ajuga, whose lovely spikes of deep blue-purple flowers are beginning to burst.

The Mountain Fire Pieris japonicas, still dripping with strands of diminutive white bell-shaped flowers, offer new growth of deep, vibrant red, while the Bonfire Euphorbia contrasts nicely with the lime-green Sum and Substance Hostas, and the blue-gray hues of the Cobalt-blue bearded iris leaves. The Bonfire Euphorbia, by the way, offers dramatic clumps of yellow flowers in spring--and those, I think will provide a nice parallel to the bright golden single-petaled flowers of Kerria japonica.

The blues of Brunnera's puffs of florets find complement in the blue-gray, increasingly towering spikes of the not-yet-unfolded Solomon's Seal (just visible to the right of Brunnera), while the White Feather hosta's unique contribution to the spring garden (partly occluded by the Ostrich Fern) finds resonance in (and is simultaneously highlighted by) the white margins of the (ordinary) hostas I've situated throughout the garden.

And the Obsidian Heuchera pulls out the salmon undertones in the new growth of the Hakuro-nishiki Dappled Willow.

Though one color in particular, of all of the colors in my spring garden, stands out: orange.

No, it is not the orange of my prized Orange Marmalade Hosta.

No, it is the brilliant sheen of the orange Gramsci-cat. He turns his back to me, frustrated, as he awaits my departure so that he may once again knock over the cage that protects the very expensive, and very slow-growing, Hakone Japanese forest grass. The boy has expensive taste to be sure...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"You Don't Bring me Flowers, Anymore"

Romance may not always begin with flowers, but it must include flowers.

Paramours, husbands, wives, and lovers: take note.

Look at how Kerria stoops down to offer the outstretching, sinewy, furry arms of Tassel Fern a bouquet of its own vibrant, golden yellow flowers. The two meet, barely touching, until the slightest breeze compels the connection. Electric.

The scene is reminiscent of Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand's performance of the 1978 hit, You Don't Bring Me Flowers. But in this scenario, we don't have the impression that Kerria and Tassel Fern lament a love lost, or a love eroded, as it were. Rather, we feel a distinctive romance, a connection, borne out of the pangs of winter barrenness. This is a joyous reunion.

Romance harbors many expectations. Indeed, one might even muse that romance is expectation (of a certain sort). We engage the objects of our affections with hair tossing or coy smiles. We laugh at even the most inane comment, simply because it emerged from the lips of the beloved. We expect touches and kisses; we expect, perhaps, a candlelight dinner or a concert. We expect a phone call or, as must be prevalent in the younger generation, a text message (email must seem so antiquated). We expect attention. It doesn't have to be lavish attention, though I suspect in the beginning stages of romance, lavishness may indeed be welcome as the definitive antidote to dreaded nonchalance.

In time, romance may grow into love, and love, as Alan and Marilyn Bergman, composers of You Don't Bring Me Flowers, warn us, may atrophy: for love enacts its own kind of stabilizing force to tame the tempestuousness of romance. Love, to remain alive, demands an occasional revolution, a romantic paroxysm. Without it, love becomes inertia itself. Perhaps that is the real reason why the song reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978: all of the flower children of the 1960s, having bent to conformity, married, and had children, began to lament not necessarily the love lost in their lives but the loss of freedom and blitheness. The song captured for them the passage of time, and what a better way to conceal underlying irritation and disconnect than by singing along with Barbara. But even Barbara cannot stave off the blues or save marriages, and so the divorce rate skyrocketed.

Flowers may fare no better than Barbara, but flowers may be that occasional paroxysm, the stimulator (pun intended) that is romance's rejuvenation that permits love to grow.

** Source of graph: OECD Index of Statistical Variables--Population, Marriage and Divorce**

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Drink, my pretty, drink!"

...or was the line actually "Eat, my pretty, eat"??

Perhaps it was, since there was an apple involved.

Regardless, "drink, my pretty, drink," works just as well. After all, I could be offering a love potion (or a poison cocktail!).

Today, I urge all of the lovely lovelies in the garden to drink. Go ahead, my pretties, drink. Drink much and drink well!

(So what if I am a pusher or, as some think, an alcoholic?! Really people. Stick to what's important here: the garden.)

I ventured out in the wee hours of yesterday morning to give a few transplanted plants a bout of fertilizer liquid. It was drizzling already. Yet, under the influence of 2.5 hours of work (already at 7 a.m.!), I needed the garden walk. And, already moistening, I blurted aloud, "'April is the cruelest month', my a--, and in with 'April showers bring may flowers.' Look at this wonderland!"

No matter how much the gardener waters, rainwater does something no amount of tap water (or even harvested rain water) can do: it makes things flourish and look stunning. Varied shades of green appear richer, more enlivened, more vibrant (perhaps because leaves are washed of their dust and pollen). Flowers burst forth. Growth can almost be seen as a verb in action, not as a noun which arrests in stagnation.

Later in the day I had to venture out in a stiff rain to take photos of the early April garden: a study in rain. Enjoy!

The Japanese Hakuro-nishiki Dappled Willow to the left of the Obsidian Heuchera; once the Dappled Willow begins to fill in and grow (it is a dwarf varietal and so will only top 4 feet in height and width), I am certain this will become a favorite garden vignette 

Brunnera, stripped of many clumps of sky-blue flowers by the steady rain; notice the mushroom-like tops of the Mayapples emerging!

White feather hostas emerging against the backdrop of Pennsylvania red shale

It's a bird haven! Berries galore! The purple clumps of berries on the Mahonia (Leatherleaf Grape Holly) provide a nice contrast to the red berries of Nandina). Don't forget the birds when gardening!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Garden Symposium

For nearly 3 days, Daffodil and Creeping Phlox have been deeply engaged in conversation. But this dialogue, I intuit, is not of the pedestrian, gossipy sort, but a philosophical engagement. Locked in each others' gaze, oblivious to the world around them: there seems to be an urgency to their conversation.

What does Creeping Phlox communicate, as she looks upward into the heavens? Her sporadic, fleeting appearance startles. Usually, she offers a dense carpet of ethereal lavender colored flowers. Her appearance in this instance might be interpreted as lending the conversation a gravitas it otherwise may lack. Does she ruminate on ephemeral existence—thus disclosing the very fate that awaits especially the early spring-blooming flower? Is their display equable with the bravery attributed to Achilles, who fought so valiantly to avenge the death of his beloved Patroclus? Or is she making a statement about beauty and love—a statement that seems all the more appropriate given Daffodil’s alias, Narcissus (which actually is but the Latin name for daffodils)?

Daffodil, at times performing the role of intent listener, at other times the pontificator, seems to weep on occasion. We wonder why. 

Daffodil's head droops, perhaps to honor Creeping Phlox's lamentations or philosophical homage to Eros. Perhaps Daffodil's head droops, demonstratively in shame for believing Love to be youth and beauty. Daffodil is the Agathon to Creeping Phlox's Socrates, who suggests that Agathon confuses the Love-object with Love itself.

Or is Daffodil actually Diotima, who proffers that Love is not a god (or goddess) but a mediating spirit, a spirit of the between, that serves as the self's vehicle into this world? 

Creeping Phlox may extend her view upward into Daffodil's corona, and upward into the heavens (in effect reflecting the color of the heavens), in appreciation of that view. Creeping Phlox is, after all, pregnant with buds. And Diotima reminds us that Love is chiefly expressed in reproduction, in the "leaving behind a new young one in place of the old." 

But this pregnancy and this reproduction need not be construed so literally, our Daffodilian Diotima reminds Creeping Phlox: "But they whose souls are far more pregnant than their bodies, conceive and produce that which is more suitable for the soul....[such as] wisdom and the rest of virtue."

I could have acted the part of Alcibiades, stumbling upon the interlocutors drunk and behaving in rather unbecoming fashion, but instead I opt to listen for a while, and then leave them to their dialogue, content that I have been enriched if only for a moment in time.   

Monday, April 4, 2011

For those who like to curse

Yes, it's that time of year again when the F-word passes our lips. Again. And again. And again.

Yes, that one, as we realize as we lay down mulch or plant a new "little happy" that we just trampled a previously unseen hosta spike, or accidentally pulled up the lengthy runner and new shoots of an Ostrich fern (as I did yesterday morning). Criminal.



But upon finishing the laying of the mulch and the planting of new finds, another F-word passed my lips. Like frost, it is another dreaded F-word in a gardener's lexicon: Fear.

Yes, fear.

I fear that my newly renovated East Side Shade Garden bed (ESSB) will look like the S-word--the clumps of "S" that I find scattered throughout various beds thanks to Gramsci-cat fertilization. The boy likes to help me garden, but sometimes I wish he would assume the supervisory/managerial role Simone has adopted and leave me to do the work of fertilizing and watering.

Last fall, I transplanted Kerria japonica Golden Guinea from the rear corner where it performed abysmally to the center of the ESSB. If he languished last year, this year he has thus far proven himself a star! He began to leaf out in February, when all others more than occasionally shuddered as Arctic winds blew across northern Delaware. Today he offers increasingly engorged flower buds, ready to regale with his single yellow petaled flowers up and down the lengths of his bright green stems. He bursts with energy, a call to arms for other plants, the true vanguard of the botanical revolution otherwise known as spring!

Yesterday, I planted around him 5 bare root Blue Ivory Hosta plants, not quite in semi-circular formation (so as to avoid a formality that I assiduously try to avoid because I find it too constraining). I thought its creamy yellow margins would provide a softer parallel of Orange Marmalade's bright yellow-orange (which I transplanted and which has not yet pierced the soil) and the gold-yellow flowers of Kerria, while the blue centers would complement the richer hues of the Nikko Blue Hydrangea and the spectacular blue-violet flowers of Golden Kate Spiderwort.

But then I fear that too much is, well, too much.

Is repetition of color (in both flower and leaf hue across multiple plants) enough to successfully act as design?

Did I plant too many of the Blue Ivories? Should I have interspersed Halcyon blue hosta (I have 8 bare roots as yet without homes) amongst them so as to break up the uniformity?

Did I forget what herbaceous plants existed in which areas of the bed, and thus severely disrupt whatever element of design may have existed?

Will the fuchsia astilbes prove garish against the Blue Ivory hostas?

Did Orange Marmalade hosta survive the winter?

So much fear (and doubt) wrapped up in an activity that brings so much pleasure.

Given that I mused there are few mistakes in gardening, what, I ask myself, is the root of my fear? Is it a presumed or perceived lack of design? Or is it tethered to what others will think? While the former is easily corrected--simply dig up plants, once again, move them around like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, introduce new ones (smile!), and arrange them until they "fit"--the latter is not.

That is, unless we invoke the other F-word (no, not frost, but the other one), and use it with deep conviction...Isn't it strange how the "original," infamous, FCC-banned F-word helps constitute our confidence and embolden our convictions?