Monday, May 30, 2011

Divisions: The Thin Blue Line

Gardeners often speak of divisions. This is not to suggest that gardeners like mathematics, or speak in a private language framed by numerology. No, though I do surmise it may have to do with dollar signs and being "cheap." After all, garden centers (not Lowes or Home Depot, but those local specialty garden shops and nurseries) charge premium prices (albeit for very fine, very robust, generally disease resistant plants),and in these times we may feel the need to "economize."

"Division" refers to the act of digging up a plant and breaking it up (dividing) into smaller plants, each new plant equipped with foliage and roots (click here to see a brief video on how to divide perennials, or to read this article). The gardener can share these with others; keep the plants in one's gardens manageable by controlling plants' tendency to overcrowd; and expand one's gardens themselves by getting more plants for one's money.

Yesterday, restless, I ventured outside at dusk--at the fleeting moment of time when blues, especially, glow in the not quite daylight/not quite darkness. And there I saw a different kind of division: my own thin blue line.

I seem to recall the UN peacekeeping presence in Cyprus described as a "thin blue line" separating the Turkish occupied north from the Greek south. The description is apt: blue helmeted UN peacekeeping forces occupy a swath of land stretching across the island country, a buffer between the parties, both a symbol of the de facto division of the country and a symbol of the inability of the parties to come to a final agreement.
[Side note: A search for "thin blue line" yielded no direct application of the term to Cyprus, though it did produce references to police forces as the "thin blue line" between law abiding civilians and criminal elements and non-law abiding citizens.]

My thin blue line does not separate combatants, but rather the warmer yellows (Corydalis Lutea and the now blooming Sedum ellacombanium) from the calming, meditative whites (of the Siberian Iris, the Diamond Tiara Hosta, Husker Red Penstemon, and Feverfew).

It begins with the Blue Fescue (or Festuca glauca) Grass, extends to the Maynight Salvia, Spiderwort, and the other Blue Fescue Grass, onwards to Blue Star Lithodora (difficult to see in the photo, and at the very end of its flowering season), the Variegated Siberian and Purple Siberian Iris (now both out of bloom), and, on the other side of the garden, the Provence Lavender (though it is neither blue nor in bloom, but it does echo the color).

But no garden deserves to be divided along such stalwart, impenetrable lines. Colors must flow. The eye must be allowed to wander with ease. And so the gardener must visualize in the language of politics infiltrations, spies, and irregular combatants, and place them strategically in the garden to unite the parts and create flow. The red berries of Hypericum (St. John's Wort) and the chartreuse of Lysimachia on the "white side" are my irregulars, and converse with the warm colors on the other side of the thin blue line. The blues themselves, later in the gardening season, will begin to melt into the lower bed as the blue/purple day lily blooms and the Tall Purpletop Verbena rewards us with its July 4th fireworks-quality flowers.

And when the recently relocated Rose Mallow blooms later this summer--right in the middle of the thin blue line--well, then, the blast will no doubt resonate and the effect of the thin blue line will be lost.

For now, though, I enjoy seeing my little blue headed flowers march not in formation, but staggered, through my garden, drawing my eye and my mind into the future, imagining how the garden changes. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Color in the Garden: Fuchsia

Fuchsia is not for the faint of heart.

Look at it. It shouts. Occasionally it screams. It flaunts. It occupies a visual space unparalleled by other colors.

It was a color I never really wanted, a color that I deigned along with pink unsuitable for my garden.

And yet here it is.

The rhododendron and the dwarf azalea resided at 410 long before we bought the property. While I eventually removed the mammoth (read: unkempt, untidy, and unruly) butterfly bush with trunks larger than my forearm, I decided to leave in place the other two.  

Spring 2008 came and the two plants reared their color. There it was: fuchsia. Garish. Uncouth. Flamboyant. Domineering. And occupying prime real estate in my garden. Fuchsia, I imagined, is the young gay man who waltzes into a packed coffee shop (as happened in Denver once while Viet and I worked on our respective writing projects) who opens his suit coat and clearly mouths the word, “A-R-M-A-N-I” while pointing to the interior label. It is the woman in stilettos and painted face, sporting “bling” attached to nearly everything between head and toe. It is that motorcycle that disturbs a quiet neighborhood with its needlessly loud rumble, or the muscle car noise enhancing mufflers. It is the MINI driver who could not say no to Union Jack accessories—accessories in the plural: roof, side mirrors, rear view mirror, seat covers, license plate, stem valve covers, key chain, and sundry. At some point, charm, pizzazz, flash, and individual style and playfulness just cross over into another realm…
The azalea was small and could therefore be easily excised, but the rhododendron was larger and concealed the brick support base for the porch, and softened the angularity of the corner of the porch. I would need to wait, of course, because removing a plant in full flower is akin to murder in the human world. I don’t mean to suggest such removal will kill the plant. Rather, the act just seems wrong, synonymous with theft and unnecessary, deliberate maliciousness. 

But my shock and distaste gradually turned over to appreciation for, put in social scientific terms, fuchsia’s “wow factor.”

And they remain in my garden, unexpected mid-spring anchors, joined now (quite annoyingly, I might add) by a fuchsia colored peony that was marketed as “Benjamin Franklin Double Red.” Grrr….

Fuchsia cannot be tempered—one really can’t soften this rather fulsome color—but it may be paired with deep reds, blacks, rich greens, blues and either bright (chartreuse) greens or grey-greens to accent its inherent sophistication. I’m not sure I’ve done that; no matter, though: the rhododendron and azalea fuchsias don’t last long.  

But during that brief period when they are in bloom, they surely elicit their share of jaw-dropping. Welcome fuchsia into your garden and into your life, for sometimes we just need to be shaken from our foundations. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

"We must clean our garden"

No, that was not a phrase uttered from my lips.

Or from Viet's.

Or from a neighbor's.

Or from a family member's.

No, I heard the phrase during a bout of insomnia last night. I turned the radio on at 2 a.m. to listen to the BBC, and of course the lead story after the bulletin of main news was the Ratko Mladic arrest. A follow-up report focused on the reactions of Serbs: some were notably irritated by the arrest, others pleased but sobered by contemporary political realities that compelled the decision. And that's when I heard the phrase pass the lips of one young Serbian woman, who was 8 at the time of the Srebrenica massacre: "we must clean our garden."

What does ethnic cleansing--let's dispose of the euphemism and call it for what it was: the slaughter of 8,000 Bosnia Muslim men and boys--have to do with the garden?

This must be the Serbian, or Slavic, or Eastern European equivalent of the American expression, "get your house in order."

For afterwards, she spoke of the European Union's condition for Serbian application to become a member: arrest Mladic.  (I wonder how cheap his life was, considering that the Serbian government "sold" Milosevic for a mere $50 million in aid--badly needed aid, but a drop in the proverbial bucket when it comes to such things.) The arrest seems to be Serbia's Meiji Restoration and its Hiroshima: the former, because the arrest symbolizes the beginning of Serbia's "Europeanization," the latter because the arrest symbolizes the price paid (albeit in this case a very small one, considering the Bosniaks whose lives were horridly robbed from them) for its entry into membership--a defeat of nationalist pretenses for some, a bit of shame for others, and Serbia's ultimate relinquishing of ironclad control over its past and, in strong measure, its future.

The garden metaphor, while odd to the American ear, is an apt one, perhaps more so than the house metaphor we use on this side of the Atlantic. Gardens are living entities, subject to forces beyond human control. True, houses are too; but houses do not live in the biological sense, and thus do not grow (exuberantly or feebly) on their own or suddenly (or not so suddenly) die. Such it is with communities of people: untended or misdirected, they may grow into an unmanageable, uncultivated state; tended and managed well with proper regard to the care of others, they may flourish as coherent, healthy wholes (coherent and healthy precisely because the component parts are healthy and in dialogue--and thus in some measure in communion--with others).
That seems a fitting lesson to be gleaned from an otherwise heart-wrenching event. At the base of the Mladic arrest is not the man but the deed associated with his name: the irremediable slaughter of men and boys in one instant on a steamy July day in 1995, a slaughter that was wrapped up in a wider context of brutality and violence.

If only we'd grasp the lesson...but apparently we prefer to look and venture occasionally into the abyss.

Friday, May 20, 2011

On Design I: Skyscrapers in the City

We do not find find anything unusual about skyscrapers in the city. Indeed, we come to expect their soaring presence. To some, they are magnificence ascending, to be caught a glimpse of by coy (more sophisticated?) tourists who only occasionally glance, not gawk, so as not to appear to be the unchristened, naive visitor. When we encounter a small city sans skyscrapers, we may even comment on the "quaintness" of the urban space, and deem it a product of another time, a "nice place" to visit for a "mini-get-away," which is usually code for "you need not spend more than 2 or 3 days" in that particular location.

Of course, skyscrapers are not always to be confused with urban vitality. Viet and I often comment as we approach Wilmington from the south on I-95 that it "looks like a city, but just isn't." [In Wilmington's defense, I will say that it really is trying, and the recent opening of World Cafe Live at The Queen is adding a vibrancy to downtown that it previously lacked.]

Many cities no doubt capitalize on space and manage territorial constraints by expanding not horizontally but vertically. But horizontality and verticality produce the same unwanted effect: pockets of isolation engendered by the private spaces of work-life within skyscrapers (those with badges need not enter), or by the multiplicity of "city-centers" linked together by invariably clogged arteries. Compare, for instance, the borough of Manhattan with the city of Houston. The verticality of the former creates an aerial third dimension of urbanity, the effect of which is to heighten anticipation and expectation. But verticality also produces urban discontinuities between those micro-spaces we call offices or condos in the sky. The horizontality of Houston, conversely or similarly, in its mimetic attempt to re-produce the multiplicity of small-towns linked together by highways, only multiplies exponentially feelings of disconnect.

The gardener, too, must manage spatial constraints by considering expansion in both its horizontal and its vertical dimensions. And nowhere is this more true than for the city (or small space) gardener who is confronted with the confines of space.

My front garden is, partially, an experiment in verticality. It measures 25 feet in width, which is broken by a front walkway, and 14 feet in depth. The space is split into two levels. The space may sound large, but when viewed as an empty container (compared to some neighbors who lack gardens, or a neighbor who uses only one kind of plant), the space is, well, small. It feels and looks confining.

I have thus designed my front garden with five principles in mind (tromp l'oeil) to liberate myself from the smallness of space.

First: Diversity. Every city thrives on diversity--and thus every garden thrives on diversity. I have in the front garden alone 65 varietals of 57 different kinds of plants. Of irises, I have 3 sorts (bearded, Siberian--one of which is a variegated leaf, and Japanese) in 3 color schemes (yellows--both pale and deep; purples--both deep/technicolor and pale; and white). Of tulips, I have 6; of grasses, I have 3 (Norther Sea Oats, Festuca, and Fountain). By emphasizing diversity, you magnify the visual impact of the space. But one must be careful; diversity of plant material alone will not enure a positive visual impact. There must be some coherence between the plants, whether through foliage type or color, flower color, or form. I ensure continuity and cohesion by what I call (Second) color echoes--achieved not simply by replicating the same color, say, of different yellow flowers the bloom simultaneously, but selecting plants that provide hints of a dominant color. Thus, for instance, the flowers on my Lena Scotch Broom, which are predominantly orange, have interior lemon yellow centers, which thus echo the vibrant yellow of the Corydalis lutea and the pale yellows of the bearded irises, the tones of which are ultimately picked up by the Carolina Moonlight Baptisia and, ultimately, the Lysimachia's foliage.  On the other side of the garden, I introduce burgundy via the leaves of Hypericum (St. Johns Wort) to yellow (its flowers), and extend burgundy up into the garden to the pinks of rhododendron.

Third: Verticality. To achieve such diversity, I need space, but clearly I cannot buy more space. So, I have selected many plants with more or less compact, upright growing habits. The slender irises and the Nandina, the cascading habit of Lena Scotch Broom, and the extending-towards-heaven Penstemon are accented by more compact lower growing plants such as the Festuca grasses and the groundcovers (Blue Star Lithodora, Lysmachia, Emerald Creeping Phlox, and Lemon Thyme).

Fourth: Mountains and Valleys. Even before my 12 years in Colorado, I think I always drew parallels between gardens and mountain ranges. The beauty and drama of a mountain range lies not simply in its high points but with the juxtaposition of the highs and lows. Lest the garden appear as one mass of vertical plants, I have interspersed lower growing plants to achieve a mountain and valley effect. I may do this only because of the uniqueness afforded to my garden space....

Fifth: Capitalize on visual entrances. Usually, gardens are constructed  against walls or fences or houses or in corners, the effect of which is to limit the number of "visual entrances" into the garden, or vantage points from which the garden may be seen. My city-scape permits visual entrances on either side, in front, within the garden, behind (on the porch), and even from above (whether on the porch or peering down at it from inside the house). Thus I was able to shed the shackles of an old rule of garden design: tallest plants in the back and descending to the lowest groundcovers in front. Ha! Liberation! Because of these multiple visual entrances, I could frame distinct views in and through the garden by arranging peaks in front, and valleys within. As one moves about or within the garden, some plants are obscured while others are revealed.

So for small-space gardeners, think beyond the (literal planting) box and the one-dimensionality of conventional garden rules (which should generally be regarded, but sometimes must be disposed of), and capitalize on the opportunities that await you!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Care for Crostata or Cristata?

How many love those kinds of parties when wait-staff mix with the crowd in their starched, pristine white shirts and little black bow ties, carrying trays of delightfully displayed hors d'oeuvres asking if you'd care to sample pâte à choux or bruschetta topped with wild harvested porcinis and wilted arugla drizzled with a Port reduction?

Or am I one of the few remaining snobs in the world?

In any case, one of my latest acquisitions--Iris cristata, or Dwarf Crested Iris--reminded me of my snobbery and sheer delight in the unusual and exotic. And this should indicate something besides my snobbery: for Iris cristata is an American East Coast native. Therefore, to think of a native as unusual and exotic is either indicative of the so-called gardener's ignorance or, more seriously, that the native is rapidly becoming extinct. Sadly, in the case of Dwarf Crested Iris, it is no longer listed on the USDA website as native to Delaware--for it has disappeared in the wild--and it is classified as endangered in the neighboring states of Pennsylvania and Maryland. This is very disheartening; nay, tragic.

Look at this lovely: it makes you want to bend down and kiss it.

So, for once I am offering some useful, functional advice for all Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and New York gardeners (yes, it has disappeared from the wilds of New York as well, where it was once native; come to think of it: I wonder if the Henry Hudson or any of the Dutch settlers took note of its presence? They did document other flora and fauna findings...).

(1) BUY DWARF CRESTED IRIS. Mine is a heavenly white. They also come in lavender.

(2) Plant it in light shade such that the rhizomes rest slightly above the soil, with the roots extending down into the soil. This will ensure more blooms each spring. Should you bury the rhizome--which, by the way, I did, thinking that if they existed naturally in the woods, their rhizomes would be covered with decaying leaves and such--you will not be rewarded with abundant blooms. So once I finish this entry, and once I finish grading another paper, off to the garden I go to remedy my mistake!

(3) Nurture it. They need continual moisture during their first year to get established.

(4) It is a natural groundcover and will spread. So plant it where you don't mind it colonizing. For that reason, it makes for an excellent underplanting, especially because of the interest provided by its mini sword like, light green leaves.

(5) Finally, if offered the choice between crostata or cristata, ALWAYS choose (iris) cristata. Crostata can be had a proverbial dime a dozen. Cristata on the other hand, well, its endangerment at least in the mid-Atlantic is clear.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Whore House Madam, or Slum Lord?

That last, rather prurient entry sparked an identity crisis of sorts.

Am I running a whore house with more flavors than a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop to suit every possible kind of "taste," or am I a "reverse slum lord" in need of issuing eviction notices to certain of the more common, less modish, residents to make room for high priced residents?

Can I really sacrifice the more pedestrian green and hostas like Christmas Eve (it does get scraggly by August--so scraggly it might be construed as an affront to the Buddha before which it lies) or Diamond Tiara, which has come to serve as unifying thread of the shade gardens, for more exotic specimens such as Dwarf (native) Crested Iris or Blue Halcyon Hostas? Dare I begin to excise the Creeping Emerald Phlox or the wonderfully blue-flower spiked ajuga to gain precious real estate in some Donald Trump frenzy of acquisition?

Fortunately, with a bit of ingenuity, I managed to squeeze in all of the new purchases without having to evict, excise, eradicate, or eliminate.

True, the gardens at 410--and yes, I like to think in terms of gardens in the plural, given my front sun garden, and rear full shade and partial shade beds, each home to a distinct assemblage of plants--remain a work in progress. (To quote a docent at the Mt. Cuba Horticultural Center: "gardens are works in progress, much like our lives.") True, there are stylistic disjunctures here, and overcrowded conditions there, and these require attention soon.

But for now, I proudly don my moniker of Whore House Madam, and happily set aside the charge of slum lord.

Or was I supposed to be the husky Burt Reynolds giggolo?

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Best Little Whore House in Delaware

Let's face it: sex sells.

Take The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas Broadway production, for example. It ran for 1,584 performances. So successful it was that Universal Pictures adapted it for an eponymous film starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, with supporting roles by Jim Nabors and Dom DeLuise. But films take license, and if in the stage production Sheriff Ed Earl and Miss Mona had a one-night stand, the on-screen version placed them in an ongoing affair.

Ah, yes. Sex in all its guises, licit and illicit, vanilla or more "exotically" flavored, stimulates all kinds of attention.

And so we contemporize the story and situate it, like any good plot, in a variety of contexts across time. It seems we have a quaint little whorehouse right here in Delaware.

In Wilmington.

At 410.


Really, people, don;t be too surprised. After all, I've already admitted my--how shall we say?--"easiness." And we've already encountered certain "characters" in the whorehouse, er, I mean garden, such as Corydalis who add a generous dose of cavalier sexuality to the garden.

But every good whorehouse needs, I presume, a really good madame, and I have (inadvertently?) assumed that role. Yet to be exact about it, I think Viet is the madame and I the Burt Reynolds husky sheriff who frequents said establishment. After all, he instructs me on how much money to bring (last year, $100, this year, an undisclosed amount though in the end I exceeded my allowance as any self-respecting gigolo would do being confronted by beauties). Just sayin'....

In any case, this whorehouse just got larger. For the sun garden:

A new double red "Benjamin Franklin" Peony (again, what's with the freakish or cutesy or seemingly irrelevant names?!) to complement last year's find of a double white Chinese Solange peony; and a (white flowering) Carolina Moonlight Baptisia (False Indigo);

and for the shade garden:

a ghost fern; dwarf Crested Iris, Tiarella Dark Star "Foam Flower," and Hosta elegans for the in-progress blue and white bed; a ghost fern; and Kirengeshoma palmata "Yellow Waxbells."

What orgasmic finds!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Midori no Hi: Greenery Day!

Today, 4 May, is the Japanese equivalent of Arbor Day, except grander.

Originally, the holiday was observed on 29 April, the birthday of Emperor Hirohito. In the Japanese system, the emperor's birthday is a national holiday (much as in the UK, though owing to notoriously fickle weather, the monarch's birthday is always celebrated on the first or second Saturday in June--no matter the actual birthday of the monarch--to increase the probability of pleasant weather).

Hirohito, or the Emperor Showa, reigned from 1926 until his death in 1989. I suppose after so many decades of observance, the holiday became entrenched in the culture. My interpretation may be correct, because after Hirohito's death the Japanese Government wished to continue observance (who wouldn't want another day off from work?) and so the holiday was moved to 4 May and renamed みどりの日 or Midori (meaning "green") no Hi (meaning "day"): a celebration of all things green!

In my estimation, this is a most fitting tribute to the late emperor, for apparently he loved nature (I can attest to the fact that though Japan may be one of the most industrialized countries in the world, it is remarkably green, in the conventional sense of the word: forests and mountain ranges remain, as far as I could tell, pristine, perhaps because of the Shinto notion that the spirits lived in the mountains amongst the trees. In terms of the more metaphoric meaning of green, however, I must confess my doubts. The Japanese love gift-giving, and each gift, and indeed many purchases for oneself, are wrapped lovingly in elaborate packaging and paper, all of which goes to waste. How green, as in sustainable, is that practice, no matter how fantastic it may be?).

According to websites, thousands are mobilized on Midori no Hi to plant trees, clean natural sites, and to partake in public-awareness campaigns to educate about environmentalism.

So, today, on our very rainy day here in northern Delaware, go out into your garden, hug a tree (yes, I did just write that), pick up trash you may see littering your way, and rejoice in the greenery--or blues, as the case is in my garden--that surrounds us.