Saturday, June 25, 2011

Color in the Garden: A Bit of Provence

In the world of color, we humans are Pavlovian dogs. Art, psychology, marketing: all (among others) have considered seriously the implications of color in our lives, and the responses colors trigger. Take blue and white for example. For some, the combination conjures images of Delft ware; for others, Chinese porcelain. In certain contexts, blue and white evoke the rhapsody of the Greek, while in others they exude the cool serenity of a summer beach house.

If there is an iconic color combination that says "Provence," then (in my estimation) it is blue and yellow (or shades of purple and yellow). How do I intuit this? I have not been to Provence. I do not know Provence. I will be in France this summer. Provence is not, unfortunately, on my itinerary. Yet such is the power of popular culture on individual imagination in that it supplies us with facets of a life, images of a scene.

There are books on Provence, and images to be found using Google, and those table cloths sold at perhaps nearly every street fair in America to help us construct multiple Provences. Each sells an image of Provence. And each sale (I use the term loosely, even metaphorically), creates an expectation. Perhaps that is why so many feel tinges of disappointment when visiting the reality of that which had hitherto been an image: it fails to accord with our imaginations.

When designing gardens, some employ particular colors to evoke particular moods: pink for romance, orange for boldness,white for ethereality.

I've always appreciated the combination of blue and yellow--not because I wish to fabricate an approximation of a place I have not visited, but because vivacious yellow is tempered by cerebral blue, while meditative blue is enlivened by blithesome yellow.

Color need not always come from flowers. {Side story: At afternoon tea on Thursday, tea-house matron Judy and I chatted wildly away about gardening and flowers and cats and other such things, and in the course of conversation the issue of annuals came up. Suddenly, the "g" word passed from my lips. Yes. Right in front of a woman gardener of a certain age. Garish.

I scanned her face for a look of horror, when she burst out with laughter and whole-heartedly agreed with me: "Yes, garish! Oh Yes! That's exactly what they are!"

Now, let me put that in context. For the perennial gardener, the annual placed here and there to "fill space" might will look garish especially if little else is in bloom, as will gardens comprised solely of annuals  (which is not, it seems to me, gardening--SNOB ALERTS ARE BACK!--but "dressing up" space, filling just isn't gardening. Not in my view. But who am I to adjudge the act of gardening?!}

In any case, color can come from foliage, and I design my gardens around the juxtaposition of foliage textures and color variations, though of course with an eye always to the color of the perennial flower and its respective bloom time. The effect is subtle; perhaps sublime, but certainly more subtle than using flowers.

My yellow and blue combinations are varied, the effect always the same. As I wrote in a previous entry, "if blue anchors the sky in the garden, yellow anchors the sun."

Sometimes, flowers do the work for us, as with the Columbine and Spiderwort:

Other times, blue and yellow (or variations thereof) appear without planning or foresight, as with these pale purple bearded irises that were mixed with the yellows:

The recent planting of the Gaillardia Gallo Yellow near the Tall Purpletop Verbena was deliberate (it is also appears against a backdrop of lavender,which is planted in the second tier of the front sun garden);

But sometimes I have no idea where to situate a plant, such as this Citronelle Heuchera villosa, as it looks good against a backdrop of Cobalt Blue Bearded Iris blades (it really pulls out the bluish-grey hue),

and against the Nikko Blue Hydrangea,

and, of course, against Miss Grey Kitty (though she looks smashing with everything!)

 In the end, I placed the Citronelle Heuchera next to the (cobalt blue) bearded irises; the effect is more subtle and, I think, more sublime. Miss Grey Kitty agrees.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Devil Wears Red...and Really Well I might Add

Who cannot but relish Meryl Streep's steely portrayal of the ‘holds-sway-over-life-and-death’ fashionista Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada?! If in that film she spoke in that lock-jawed (yet always whispering), aristocratic kind of way, in others she has donned Polish, Irish, Irish-American, Upper Midwest, Danish, Bronx, Australian, British, Italian, Android, and French accents (The Many Voices of Meryl Streep). Her mannerisms, I would argue, are just as iconic. And so Streep has come to occupy a peculiar place in popular culture: The New York Times even dubbed her performances as “that unmistakable Streepness.” If in France, actresses (think Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Audrey Tautou and the departed Brigitte Bardot and Sarah Bernhardt) are regarded “as something between natural resources and national treasures,” here in the US actresses “tend to be idols, commodities, or fetish objects.” Streep, though, may just have ascended beyond the altar.

In any case, in these economic times, it is doubtful the Devil can afford Prada, but no doubt the Devil continues to wear red.

I’ve seen it.


In my garden.


Crocosmia Lucifer to be exact.

With its sword like leaves and outrageously flamboyant, upward-facing funnel shaped flowers populating tall, arching spikes, Crocosmia Lucifer is the perfect dose of waggery to the mid-to late summer garden.

As a reward for “getting things done” yesterday, I visited my favorite garden center and, well, bought myself a little happy (a.k.a. gluttony and lust). Crocosmia Lucifer caught my eye, as the devilish often does. Three were in bloom; I bought the fourth, which has several spikes of as-yet unopened flowers. The anticipation (a.k.a. greed) is killing me.

Poor Crocosmia (derived from the Greek krokos, or saffron, and osme, or odor), identified with capital vices and the Falling Star (him? it?) self. Yet here is where the association gets tricky. Lucifer is a derivative of the Latin lucern ferre, meaning light-bearer, which was the name the Romans gave to Venus, Morning Star, herald of light.

But how did Lucifer--a Latin cognate--get attached to a Hebrew text?

That Lucifer is attached to the concept of the Devil is where Christianity employed a bit of analogical reading. In Isaiah 12:14, the text reads:

"How are you fallen from heaven,
O Shining One, son of Dawn!
How are you felled to earth,
O vanquisher of nations!"

This is but one of 8 verses of a "song of scorn over the king of Babylon"--a rather clear indication that this has nothing to do with the Devil. "Son of Dawn" is a translation of the Hebrew Helal, son of Sherar--the very Babylonian king who persecuted Jews and whose downfall this song of scorn celebrates. The name is translated as Day Star, or Son of the Dawn. That the Christians wanted to tell a different kind of story, the story of a particular angel who fell from heaven, used the Latin Lucifer...and now we know, as Paul Harvey used to say on the radio, "the rest of the story."

Funny: I can think of another fallen star, that of a certain, now-former New York Congressman.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Midsummer Day's Reality

Shakespeare's comedic homage to the solstice, once derided by Samuel Pepys as "insipid" and "ridiculous," celebrates so many things, revelry in the mysteries of the night being one of them. Last year I toyed with A Midsummer Night's Dream, and in particular found resonance in the nocturnal--they very opposite of the summer solstice's emphasis on diurnal plenitude.

Today, the day when the sun "stands still," I awoke to the sounds of a whiny Gramsci-cat, just as the first hints of daylight permeated darkness at 4 something in the morning (he alerted us to his need to use the cat box, er, my garden, at 3:30 a.m.; the boy thinks he is a dog). The fan no longer masked what I made out to be breezes rustling the leaves. By 5, a few birds began their morning chorus. But I lay in bed, coaxed back into semi-consciousness, until the whines from outside could no longer be ignored.

The rustling noise I heard came from, yes, leaves blowing in the wind, but increasingly from the sound of a considerable solstice rain shower.

Gramsci was soaked.

My midsummer night's dream--not in the least filled with lust, love, and fancy, no Puck, no Lysander, no beautiful Indian prince, alas, nothing that I can even remember--quickly morphed into midsummer morning crisis.

And though the boy relished being dried with a towel, protest did he when it came to the drying of his feet! (We really must trim his nails!)

Crisis subsided, I made my way to the study. After weeks of painful wrestling (by which I mean writing) I sat at the computer, staring face to face with the introduction of my book that has eluded me.

But then the solstice bestowed its clarity upon me, and the plenitude of its light beamed onto my torpid brain. And a process we might analogize to photosynthesis occurred, and the introduction is now as complete as it can be (without having fully written the book), and submitted to the appropriate people. And, perhaps more astonishingly, I am happy with it.
 Clarity comes in many forms, and often when one least expects it. The solstice, I suppose, reminds us of that, for in one brief, almost inappreciable moment, the sun stands still and we are one with the sun at the center of the universe.

Happy Solstice!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Color in the Garden: Pink

I never wanted pink in the garden. Banishing pink was my original gardening activity--even before I had a garden.

In 2009, Aunt Annie, my New York Master Gardener aunt, bought me a Lady-in-Red Lacecap Hydrangea as a house-warming gift because I "needed pink in the garden." Protest did I. {With Aunt Annie, though, one doesn't protest too much.} She insisted: every garden needs a bit of pink. And within seconds she managed to carve out an enormous hole in the hard-as-concrete clay soil--large enough to fit the root ball of a rather mature plant. She's that good.

I relay this tale not to suggest Aunt Annie is belligerent or stubborn; on the contrary. But it is to suggest that Aunt Annie knows. She has an eye for beauty, an eye for the antiquated (she did retire early from nursing and ran an antique shop for over 20 years, from which I have benefited...remember the Wedgwood cobalt blue dessert plates incident?!), an eye for quality.

Imagine my delight when my Lady-in-Red Hydrangea mysteriously turned violet in the alkaline soil, and imagine my disgust when the Nikko Blue Hydrangea, on the other side of the stone patio, turned pink last year. I treated the Nikko Blue with sulfur, but left the Lady-in-Red alone. This year, it has turned this ethereal shade of violet, its arresting glow-in-the-dark quality inimitable.

But seeing the Amethyst Astilbes (which have been pink ever since I planted them) glowing in pink against a backdrop of pale blue hydrangeas, and seeing a swath of pink flowers paired with purple salvia in New York's Washington Square, I am convinced that yes, Aunt Annie was right: I need pink in the garden.

 Pink neutralizes. Pink harmonizes. Pink just seems to make everything right...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Jet Set: Even the New Yorkers Couldn't Beat That"

What do fashion and gardening have to do with one another?

Well, one can answer this question in many different ways, but The New York Times' Bill Cunningham has the definitive word on this: "On the Street: Jet Set."

The Phipps garden comes in at 2:39, but the preceding material is well worth the watch!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Blue Blood

We humans are more than a bit silly, don't you think?

In Houston, for instance, I was humored to discover that many an Asian woman donned arm length gloves while they drove to protect their "porcelain" white skin from becoming dark, thereby preventing them from looking like commoners.

The practice evokes the language of "blue blood" that in turn captures the class and status of nobility. The English first used the term in 1834. But, unlike many a fantastic thing (e.g. MINIs, afternoon tea, and clotted Devon cream), the British did not engender the term but--GASP!--borrowed it!

From the Spanish no less (no condescension should be interpreted): the very same noble class of peoples who, in their mighty galleons, symbols of fortitude and world power, were defeated by pesky little English in smaller, more easily maneuverable ships.

Apparently, the Spanish thought the blood of nobility was sangre azul, for superficial veins would appear blue through the pale, pasty white skin of those who did not toil in the fields, as opposed to the less prominently colored veins of those who worked in the fields and thus had darker skin.


And even sillier because sangre azul was initially used to differentiate those descendent from the Visigoths, from the North African Moors who conquered the southern half of the Iberian peninsula (and created, incidentally, one of the most spectacular gardens in the world at Alhambra in Grenada). Apparently, noblemen would expose their moon-burned arms to reveal their blue blooded veins as a signification that they were not "contaminated" by the darker skin (and presumably lesser) peoples. And I am sure if we delve back farther we will discern that those "identities" too were silly fabrications.

{There is another historical explanation for the appearance of sangre azul: the Spanish royal family was afflicted with the "Royal Disease" of hemophilia, which apparently casts royal skin in a bluish hue.}

Ah yes, we humans constantly need to differentiate ourselves from (often, sadly, as superior to) others in the most ridiculous sorts of ways.

And yet, admittedly, I am no better.

[Whatever happened to my snob alerts of earlier entries? When did this become a confessional of the most unflattering sort?  I mean, revealing my weaknesses...really.]

In any case, take my Nikko Blue Hydrangea. The first year it was trampled by a sizable branch that fell from the neighbor's unkempt tree. The second year, it was pink. Pink: in my garden. The very color I banished. That prompted me to learn that acidic soils produce the blues, while alkaline soil produce the pinks. And Delaware, with its heavy clay, is alkaline all the way. So last year I, with reckless abandon, treated the soil around Nikko Blue with organic sulfur and voila: my deep blue, Nikko blue, hydrangea.

All in an effort to assert the Nikko nobility of my hydrangea...

Pinks be damned in my garden!  (Though my snobbery has faded and I admit I am becoming more smitten with pinks... DAMN IT. Snob alert:  -2.  Unflattering Confessional: +2).
Nikko began to open about a week ago, and the prominent early color (as last year) is white. As the days wore on, the white shaded to pale blue, then a deepening blue, and then, in some parts that absorbed apparently an excess of sulfur, a near purple. It was magnificent.

This year I have some pale blue, but mostly white.

So out I ventured into the garden this morning, armed with a liberal dose of sulfur.

And despite washing my hands twice, I still occasionally catch the unmistakable odor of sulfur clinging to my skin.

See, snobbery does have costs, costs that in the end reveal how silly we really are: for the royals, hemophilia; for the gardener, the smell of rotten eggs.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ice Cream Cones and Shame in the Garden of Eden

I am not a fan of hot, humid summers. I melt. Living in an old house with only marginal insulation--and many an air leak--makes it all the more unpleasant.

But if we must endure, then at least there is ice cream. I once worked in an ice cream parlor--one of those high school summer jobs to pass time and earn some money. The shop closed at the end of the summer. Surely it had nothing to do with the fact that I single-handedly consumed tens of gallons of ice cream--at full employee's discount, of course--when my youthful metabolism demanded that I constantly feed it.

So when I see the Oak Leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and its conical panicles, I think of ice cream. Tahitian vanilla, or Madagascar vanilla. And I crave it. Especially this week, with temperatures in mid to high 90s, made more unbearable with humidity. Despite my workout regimen and diet--now a necessity owing to middle-age metabolic deceleration.

But Oak Leaf Hydrangeas are good for something else. For covering up. Yes, as in Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or post Garden of Eden as shame came after the expulsion.

Let's just say that I have a habit, especially in the wee hours of the morning when the world is asleep, of venturing out into the garden, clad, ahem, only in the most marginal of ways. It's completely unintentional. I feed the cats, make the coffee, and then peer outside and see something--a new flower, the way the light hits a plant, or, as is the case with "wildlife" in the garden, something more sinister like a broken plant--and move silently outdoors into a magical world.

And then, invariably, it happens. One of the neighbors opens a door or window, and off to the Oak Leaf I go. It may not be a giant fig leaf, but its rather generously sized leaves does the job.

Yesterday morning, I emptied the kitchen composting container and decided, in boxers only, to venture to the spigot to clean it out. Despite being near the front of the house, the spigot is fairly well concealed, and so I thought I was safe.

And then something unusual happened. I heard  a "woo-hoo!  WOO-HOO!" and I stood up to see a man standing at the base of the stairs that descend from the alley and meet the silver section of the front garden. "Did you happen to see a red garden cart that suddenly 'appeared' in your area?"

I glanced around, looking for Oak Leaf. But Oak Leaf is in the shade garden, and I was far from it. At that moment I appreciated all of the cover-up protection afforded by that Southeastern US native.

"Um, no, I haven't. But I feel your pain. People come by in the middle of the night and steal my flowers."

"Gardener's curse," he responded dryly, thankfully turning quickly away, probably feeling the shame that no doubt exuded from my pores.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Wildlife Garden, My Ass"

Contemporary garden fashions tend toward the ecologically friendly: xeriscaping, water conservation, increased use of native plants, and wildlife-friendly gardens. In the food world, the analogue is the potager, the French term for kitchen gardens (i.e., growing one's own food) and the local (and organic) food movement made popular by Alice Waters.

[Side note: There is a fabulous restaurant in Denver called Potager. In keeping with the principle of local, organic food, the menu changes each month; the results are spectacular! To add to one's dining experience, patrons can dine in the potager itself--my favorite part!]

In any case, wildlife gardens have also come in vogue. Planting for butterflies and insects, birds and small animals (after all, who wants deer or elk in the garden? They'd decimate it.) is supposed to enhance the experience. I agree. Up to a point.

First, though we live not near any standing body of water, the rear garden is always swarming with mosquitoes. The resident bat moved away (apparently I took too many pictures of it, which of course I cannot find to add to this post). So, to attract birds, which no doubt feast on those blood-sucking fiends, I planted bushes with delicious berries (Nandina, Mahonia) and Liriope with its spikes of purple fruit. But those ungrateful aviators simply take the fruit and fly away, leaving me to serve as the feast for my mosquitoes. That leaves me with two methods: dropping mosquito pellets in my water barrel to keep the swarm slightly at bay, and dousing myself with mosquito repellant. The 23 bites I suffered while watering last night testify to the fact that I need more repellant spray.

Second, an opossum family took up residence next door, and part of my garden acts as a transit cooridor. Look at the broken Ostrich Fern fronds. Look at the flattened Sum and Substance Hosta, which normally stands very tall and proud. Look at the Pieris japonnica, its branches either broken or so bent that they run parallel to the ground.

 Third, those damn squirrels dig holes, always next to a plant, always dislodging roots.

And then there is the Gramsci-cat, the rarest of the wildlife species, whose penchant for watering and fertilizing has destroyed many a plant.

Sometimes wish I had a BB gun (but not to use on Gramsci, of course).

Wildlife gardens be damned!