Friday, September 30, 2011

The Autumn Star

Autumn is a season of riches.

We celebrate the harvest, reap the bounty of our spring and summer toil, return to school to bathe in knowledge, witness metamorphic coloration, welcome that "temperate sharpness" as Keats described the air to a friend (perhaps in preparation for his ode, "To Autumn"), and festoon our bodies with layers and swaths of cloth (a luxurious panoply of wools and cottons and silks painted in seasonal hues, tempered by checkered patterns).

Gone are the pastels that speak a language that ushers in life and prefigures a youthful idealism. Here are the dramatic hues, at once vibrant and intense, melancholic and ruminative, that balance the warm intensity of summer with the cool purity of winter.

Those colors: nature's apology or compensation for waning daylight.

We almost hear the voice that nature speaks: "I diminish celestial light, but in its place I offer a fulgent landscape."

Our evening galactic friends have, too, reversed roles. Nocturnal beacons become diurnal candelabra.

Tricyrtis x Sinonome Toad Lily, of the two varietals I have, is by far the chief Autumn Star, the shamash in the menorah. Five arching branches, each roughly 3 feet in length, offer masses of spectacular spotted flowers (and buds) awash in regal purple.

Autumn has arrived.

And Tricyrtis x Sinonome Toad Lily, bathed in the color of royalty, seems well positioned to usher in this most magical of seasons.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Chaos Theory

Several days ago--or was it weeks?--I attended a garden lecture by W. Gary Smith, a BLUE HEN! (For all of you non-UD, "Dela-where?" folks, that means he is a graduate from the grand University of Delaware where I teach.)

Smith is a wildly successful artist and landscape architect. His vita reads like a veritable list of garden porn: the Santa Fe Botanical Gardens; the Children’s Garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas; the Discovery Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York; the Therapeutic Garden at
the Birmingham Botanical Gardens in Alabama; the John C. Wister Rhododendron Garden at Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pennsylvania; Winterthur; the Tropical Mosaic Garden at the Naples (Florida) Botanical Garden); and Longwood Gardens.

Of course his awards list is long.

And his talent is unquestionable.

And his creativity boundless.

And his charm--a natural, almost boyish, completely un-self-conscious charm--really endearing. 

Are you jealous yet?

I am.

Well: nah, nah, nah.

He did not did not work on my garden!  Shazam!

So we can't add my FIRST PLACE winning garden to his list. Um-hmm. Snap.

I digress.

His talk focused on unleashing creativity in the garden--and I think he took a most unexpected approach. He bound creativity within parameters set by nature: replicating its patterns, shapes, and forms.

He discussed eight basic patterns found in nature, which he more thoroughly covers, among other things, in his new book (yes, he writes beautifully too), From Art to Landscape: Unleashing Creativity in Garden Design.

The eight include scattered, serpentine, fractured, naturalistic drift, radial, spiral, dendritic, and mosaic. His book adds a ninth: the circle.

But poor Gary, accomplished as he is. Why poor? Well, now, I actually have something to teach him. Yes, me. Teach. Gary. Oscar-equivalent winning star that he is. Me.  Teach. Him.



There is another pattern he forgot:  THE MESS.

That is correct. Mess, as in my garden. Mess, as in "not naturalistic drift."

Mess, as in "not scattered."

Mess as in "what the ... ?!"

Mess as in "that explains why there's no color in your garden."  (There is; that person just happened to come "between seasons.")

Mess as in the awards announcer saying, after she read a blurb about my garden, "those were his words, not mine!"  Laughter.

Mess, as in "uh, what did you say your design was based on?"


My garden. The first place winning mess. (Thank you, Delaware Horticultural Society, for being blessed with southern gentility and having the grace not to mention the obvious.)

But Gary, as much as I'd love to talk to you, have you for dinner ( I blushing as I write this?!), introduce you to my garden, well, I love my mess. You can't touch it. But....

But perhaps it could be representative of something--oh, that's right, a mess--in your next book? A sort of guide on "what-not-to-do?!"

I can see it already: my little idea propels him to create a wildly successful HGTV program to embarrass all those folks like me who think they garden, but actually all they do is play in the dirt and create messes of all sorts.

If that happens, just promise you'll remember little old me, okay Gary?!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"The Sky is Falling!" And other Space Debris in the Garden

Henny Penny has wailed once again, and once again we ignored her. Poor Henny Penny, for this time she actually got it right!

Well, sort of. The sky was not falling, though things were certainly falling from the sky--and I don't mean the drenching rains we've been having in Delaware for what seem to be an eternity.

No.  I mean something else.

Today was momentous: a dead NASA satellite hurtled towards Earth and broke apart in the atmosphere. Major pieces were expected to survive its re-entry, and the guessing game began on whose heads those pieces would potentially fall.

We all waited with baited breath, including this elephantine spider (about twice the size of a dollar coin), which wove a massive web that measures approximately 4 feet in diameter, from the deck railing to a chair, all in hopes, I surmise, of catching a piece of space debris and then selling in on Ebay so it could retire to Florida and never face the threat of cold-induced death again.

Yes, folks: pieces of space debris reigned down upon us. Well, "us" in a generic, inclusive sense. That "we are the world" kind of meaning.

Which we know in the end means, practically, nothing.

This event, though, is now a non-event. The drama is over. The satellite on its final orbit passed over Eastern Africa and then across the Indian Ocean. It changed trajectory over the south of Australia and turned northwards over the Pacific, with North America (and our friendly neighbors to the north, in Canada) in the line of potential crash.

Yet no one in North America saw anything. Nada. Zip.

All of the pieces and parts of the satellite are now most likely resting on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, though no one knows exactly where.

Still, I ventured outside to look for pieces of space debris in my garden.

And lo and behold I found some! 

Yes, folks: space debris in my garden at 410!  Imagine!

 And here it is: a STAR!  Yes, a star. Tricyrtis x Sinonome: Toad Lily. She's large for a Toad Lily, perched atop a pendulous stem of roughly 3 feet, appearing ever the beacon in these dark days of grey-black clouds, shortening days, and much rain.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

All the World's a Stage...

Shakespeare’s famously articulated metaphor obtains a new twist in Wade Graham’s American Eden: From Monticello to CentralPark to Our Backyards: What Our Gardens Tell Us About Who We Are.

Since we ask “our gardens to speak for us, often assigning them certain lines in the play that we write about ourselves,” the garden inhabits the role once occupied by the Greek chorus. It communicates the background of the stories that become our individual lives, and reveals to others our hidden emotional baggage.

And that, my friends, is far from outlandish.

It is a heavy thought.

And a scary one.

Imagine: all our dirty laundry airing between wisteria and forsythia, our closeted skeletons hanging from our Crabapples and Smoke Bushes, our Freudian desires situated between our Pelargoniums and Penstemons!  

But calm down.
Garden viewing is an interpretive affair, so your nosy neighbor who “sees” depression in your prized collection of Weeping Cherry Trees might actually be witnessing your celebration of sublime beauty.

I won’t pretend to know what our gardens communicate to the world about ourselves—I leave that to the professional garden writers—but I will offer two thoughts.

First, it’s all speculation. Interpretation. One might see the impeccably neat and orderly garden and intuit its creator as uptight, anal-retentive, and potentially in need of “loosening up” more often, when in fact the gardener’s desk might be cluttered, and the gardener a disheveled mess of a soul. But here, Graham is right: we assign the garden certain lines in the play that is our life. He doesn’t say the role is one we actually live or depict or inhabit in our everyday existence.

Second, on a more personal level, I offer a self-interpretation. My first place win in the “New Garden” category means I cannot enter that category next year. (Besides, my garden is 3 years old, which was the maximum age for the new garden category.) So I must look to the “landscape garden” category: but all of the winners this year, though we all have “city” properties, garden on much, much larger tracts compared to my inner-city plot.  I just cannot compete with spaces adorned with multiple beds experimenting with various color combinations, or arbors, or pergolas, or multiple rooms (water gardens, patios, private spaces): in other words, drama and suspense and surprise.

And this has instigated two thoughts: (a) buy another house with more land [slightly irrational, I know] or (b) take my garden to the next level by creating more drama [more than slightly irrational, I know].

 Let’s not even consider the first.

The second has unleashed an inner demon: the competitive demon. Or diva. I’m not sure which.

But I hit a wall—thankfully a proverbial one—and realized what I have done. I have pulled a Callas on mygarden’s Norma. (G-d love Maria Callas!)

Two of my de-stress, pleasurable activities—going to the gym and gardening—suddenly became sources of stress.

With regard to the gym, I told M, my friend-cum-my unpaid-de facto-personal-trainer, that I wanted to ratchet up my gym activities and “develop a body.” Gain definition. Never a sculpted body as his (I lack the discipline and the desire) but physical development that reveals my investment. But I have since realized that I now loathe going to the gym—it has become a chore, a source of stress (why aren’t my muscles getting bigger? Why is my waist still X inches? Why do I still feel fat?)—and my waist now protests.

With regard to my garden—well, I lament my behavior and my thoughts. Why?

Well, some, of course, garden to “collect” specimens. Others garden to impress neighbors. Some garden to reflect outwardly their inner beauty. Others garden to fill time. Some garden to expend energy.

I garden because it is about the only thing I can do without assistance of a book. I am an academic. Ergo, I possess no usable skills.

I garden also to stop the incessant chatter in my head. Gardening inhibits a particular incisive, debilitating self-criticism that usually rears its ugly little head no matter what I do. Up to a week or two ago, I had not yet subjected my gardening to grueling criticism. I was able to dig, remove, annihilate, amend, replace, create, stylize, imagine, envision, plan, and scout out new finds—all without fear of self-retribution.

But now? Every decision, every thought, every motivation is met with inner scorn. Gardening could only be worth it if I collect another first prize in the landscape category.

Divas be damned! Demons back to hell!

Here, Graham may be wrong. I have never been “competitive” except in minor ways. I have never been “careerist,” except in minor ways. But “winning” can almost imperceptibly lapse into a competitive game of accumulation if we are not careful. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But if we lose sight of why we actually began to engage in our pleasurable activities, and if we permit pleasure to morph into pain, well, then, we have moved into the abyss.

In that sense, Graham is right: but in a much deeper sense. Instead of the garden parroting who we are or might be, instead of reflecting like the Greek chorus our hidden emotions, gardens instruct us on how to Be. We just need to be open to how they speak.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Twins

This morning's New York Times coverage of the 10th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks opens with numbers:

3,653 days have passed since 8:46 a.m., the day 11 September as we now know it "began" not in the technical sense but emotionally, psychologically, culturally, and politically.

87,672 hours have passed,

which translate into 5,260,320 minutes, or

315,619,200 seconds.

2,749 people died at the World Trade Center site, and another 224 in Washington and in a Pennsylvania field. 343 firefighters died in the line of service.

But one number was not mentioned: 2.

The twins.

I understand why: 6 buildings actually collapsed at the New York City site (WTC 1, 2, 3, and 7; St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church; and half of the Bankers Trust building). The North Bridge over West Street that linked the Tower complex to the World Financial Center was also destroyed as the Twin Towers fell in upon themselves. WTC 4, 5, and 6 partially collapsed. Many more buildings suffered major damage. A section of the Pentagon was also destroyed.

And four planes virtually vanished, relinquishing only a few identifiable tires or seat belts or other small objects from their fiery ends.

So to single out 2 buildings approaches blasphemy.

But the Twin Towers--and the now iconic photographs documenting their final minutes--remain emblazoned in our collective and individual memories. They occupy significant space: but now that is an incorporeal, unfathomable space that mimics the seemingly limitless extension of those towers deep into the sky.

Today, we think of those Twins. Not one of us can escape even a moment of time in which our minds flash back to that day, or conjures images of the sleek steel lines of the buildings' exteriors--parallel vertical runways leading us to a world beyond.

And today I think of other twins--the twin Pieris japonica shrubs in the Buddha Bed that died while I was away this summer. Yesterday, I inadvertently discovered that which I was looking for but did not know it. The Buddha Bed, like the World Trade Center site in New York City, faces redesign. I will not, however, preserve the footprints of my lost twins, for in the gardening world sentimentality must occupy a backseat to the demands of real estate and the dictates of natural processes.

Fortunately with respect to the Ground Zero redesign, sentimentality rightly won and a memorial (belated in my view owing to the abhorrent, unbecoming squabbles that characterized the early reconstruction and redesign process) now finally appears.

The footprints are preserved.

Reflecting pools look downward--and deeply inward--at the improbable abyss that has become our memories of that devastating day.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

And the Winner Is....

...the gardens at 410!!

I was very fortunate and am very thankful to have won FIRST PLACE in the New Garden Category, which the Delaware Center for Horticulture defines as "any type of garden started within the last three years" that has not been previously judged.

Ancestral callings, as I have previously mused...

Of course I called my Aunt Annie (New York master gardener, cultivator of exquisite gardens) to tell her that I now have proof that I inherited her gardening genes, though she was quick to remind me that those were actually my grandparents' (they created extensive gardens and were known for their mass collection of irises). And she regaled me with that story of a six year old me, begging to help her garden, learning how to dig and plant so many years ago.

We talked gardening for a while--listing all those plants that have bloomed early, communicating plans to redesign this or that bed--and then shifted topics to more mundane matters: catching up after several weeks away. She had knee replacement surgery before I left for Paris in July, and there are complications. "Good thing I'm not on the garden tour," she declared.

I know it must pain her not to be able to go out and garden--though she's a tenacious gal and won't let a little thing like immobility slow her down. She always finds a way.

Then, to reassure me, she reported that her gardens are full of color, despite the more than copious amounts of rain that have fallen of late. I'm sure they are. And I'm sure they look spectacular.

Now that my gardening experience has crested with a FIRST PLACE award (surely this must give me bragging rights, no?!), I turn my sights to other matters:

with what do I fill the empty spaces in the Buddha bed to replace the fallen Pieris shrubs;

how best do I repel those nasty leaf eating bugs while I am away next year (if I go away)--bugs that have clearly taken a toll on the Obsidian Heuchera and Orange Marmalade Hosta, though I think they still look smart against a backdrop of Sawtooth Japanese Aucuba and paired with Toad Lily;

what news plants to import into the garden to replace some of the more common specimens;

should I buy a new house with more land to garden;

and on, and on...

Isn't that the joy of gardening?!  It never ends.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Adult Pleasures XIII: The Excitement of Getting Excited

Men of a certain age (sans pharmaceutical assistance) must know exactly to what the title refers.

Yes: the jocularity of self-expression!  The exuberance of that raw, naked sense of being at one with you and yours! The playfulness that comes without restraint!

Ah, yes: the jauntiness of looking down and realizing that, yes, indeed, one is excited at the splendor before you! The excitement of getting excited!

And excited I am: for tonight is the awards ceremony for the Delaware Center for Horticulture's (Wilmington) City Garden Contest!!!!

I've been so busy today that I did not think of it. But suddenly, upon finishing two time sensitive projects, my subconscious brought to the fore the Awards Ceremony.

I looked down at the splendor before me--oh my goodness, you naughty reader, not THAT!  My Garden, silly (my study is on the second floor so I can easily look down upon the shade know...all those "aerial shots" you've seen over the last year and a half?!).

Well, and now I am giddy with excitement!

I know, I know: I may not win. I may not even get an "admirable mention." (But I would lie if I did not admit I would like to win or at least be mentioned, admirably.)

But that really isn't what it's about. Seriously.

While thinking about my excitement, I've come to realize why adults like their "toys" (ahem...naughty reader), whether they come in the form of video games or cars or electronics or gardens or dolls or whatever else one can imagine. These toys are not simply objects of escape. They are simultaneously producers and symbols of pleasure.

Our toys permit us a joviality, a vivacity, a playfulness that we often have to mask in our professional, adult lives. Our varied toys permit us necessary release.

In a few hours I shall find myself in a room with others who like to play in their gardens and dig in the dirt and transplant and design and collect.  

And that is something to get excited about!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Delayed Pleasure

"Late" or its usual variant of "delayed" must be the most hated word in the language of travel.

Some might take issue with that position and think cancellation is the worst. But I maintain that at least with cancellation one knows one must make alternative arrangements. The certainty of the situation mitigates its problematic and inconveniencing aspects.

Tardiness, instead, simply prolongs a misery that is born from expectation, and the frustration born of the sense of "wasted time," and the fear that yes, if you step outside to smoke that cigarette, or sit down at the only airport restaurant that offers waitstaff service, you may miss your flight.

We hardly welcome tardiness in many areas of our lives, which makes me wonder how I ended up with Viet who, well, put diplomatically, enjoys the elasticity of time. I have come to realize over the last 3-weeks-short-of-13-years learned his behavior from his family. Dinner at 8 p.m. means one begins eating oh, perhaps 9:15. In my upbringing, dinner at 8 means you show up, unless otherwise directed to attend a preceding cocktail hour or have hors d'oeuvres, to arrive by 7:50, for dinner will be served at precisely 8. After many years of living in quiet--and sometimes not so quiet--frustration, I've learned to accommodate myself, which, in the realm of dinner, translates as "eat a little something beforehand, because you may be waiting several hours."

Dear Reader must be exasperated, but let me tell you: for someone who eats breakfast before the roosters crow, and who eats a very light lunch if at all (I usually skip lunch), waiting to eat for 15 or 16 hours is quite the ordeal.

Yeah, yeah, I know exactly what dear reader is saying... so let's move on with the story.

Some late arrivals we celebrate:

like this spring blooming Kerria japonica which reared this single astonishing blossom this past weekend,

or this Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus), also spring blooming, which decided to engage in a bit of late summer impishness after my return from Europe in late August.

Both remind (read: mock) me that being obstinately wed to inflexible schedules makes one a frustrated soul, especially since the vast majority of the world seems to be, well, differently scheduled.

But sometimes, as Viet has demonstrated countless times over the years, for the sake of sanity time itself must be arrested and disposed of, for, in Viet's street-savvy wisdom, "if you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute."

I haven't gotten to that point, nor will I ever, but I am learning to appreciate the unexpected pleasures that sometimes come with delays.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


One of the joys of going abroad is the opportunity (if not traveling with others familiar with you) to be someone else. To be an other. Alienation metamorphs into a form of liberation: no longer are we a "this" or a "that," no longer do our local identities supersede our national identity but rather the reverse. Abroad, we become the aggregate: the American.

This is not an identity we assume on our own. No. The identity is ascribed to us. The question, "where are you from?" may elicit the response, "near Philadelphia," but that specificity is greeted with a generality: "Ah, you are American."

And that's where things get interesting. No longer is your identity a product of you. No longer are you on your playing field, able to define your self. No. You are on "away turf" (if that's the sports terminology, I really have no clue) and you play by their rules which often stem from a metaphor or stereotype.

In Asia, I am met by surprise because I am not "huge," or "fat" or "a monster." In Europe, I elicit a modicum of commentary that "I'm not rude" or "loud." (Though I do speak English "with an American accent" and that is code for Europeans to stop your tortured attempt to speak their language and speak on your terms.)

Alienation abounds, on many levels and in many senses, and it is in many senses fun.

Being away from one's garden for 4 weeks at the height of gardening season is another adventure in alienation, and often not a good one.

I returned to my gardens that seemed not my own.

Sure, you ask people to water (or rely on natural rainfall), but no one tends to your garden like you do. (And, in American interest of fairness, why should they? The garden, after all, isn't theirs. Crass? Yes. Rude? Probably. Honest. You betcha.)

Of course there are blooms you missed while away, and some things may pass their prime while others come into their own.

But, if it rained, especially heavily and / or often, then mulch gets displaced, and plants topple, and tree branches fall and splinter garden plants, and possums and raccoons cause damage, and cats dig poop holes (sometimes on top of smaller plants), and, and, and...

And the whole affair looks like a damn mess.

I have come to realize that my career gives me time during the summer to travel (and do all the writing and research that I did not have time to do during the school year), and thus during my prolonged periods of absence I may lose a plant or two--usually small ones, usually ones I recently transplanted, because those are the ones that require that extra care that substitute garden-caregivers do not or cannot give (nor would you expect them, or ask them, to give it, unless you are willing to dish out more money).

But whole shrubs?

I am perplexed why two of the three Pieris japonica bushes in the Buddha bed died. Completely died, their branches dessicated and browned, brittle as dried bones. The one that might have died (its leaves are speckled, which gives me cause to think it may be a bit diseased) is the only one to have survived. The others, save for suffering from a few broken lower branches thanks to possums, seemed otherwise healthy.

My lantana, once enormous, a thriving mass of blooms and greenery, has been reduced to a few thick woody stems and, thankfully, some new growth, after the pruning of all that was dead (which was most of it).

Lemon Drop Hosta?

It now looks like this, thanks to an outbreak of Sclerota rolfsii.

It's all very disconcerting and certainly alienating.

But gardeners pick up the pieces--one cannot lament too long, especially with the possibility of frost descending upon us in 6-8 weeks.

So to overcome the alienation I feel from my own garden, I went to the garden center today to scout potential replacements for the Buddha bed. And this is the only benefit of gardening's inevitable losses: you get to redesign and rethink garden spaces, especially when we face the big losses.

But purchase I could not. Why, despite the fact that I found many plants on which to spend a few hundred dollars?

Well, dear reader, because the mother-in-law is here, and she already thinks I spend too much money on things. If she happens to come across the prices of plants, well now, I would experience a whole new level of alienation.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Early Awakenings

One of my classmates in fifth grade, Mary, developed early.

Suddenly, seemingly overnight, she had boobs.

Big boobs. Well, big for a 10 year old and in a 10 year old's eyes. They were much bigger than my hands could grasp (and yes, in case the reader is interested, she let me place my hands around these curiosities).

And they were firm, which scared me. I thought they should be soft like a pillow, or jiggle like bowls full of jelly. But they didn't. They protruded, perpendicular to her slender frame.

The fact that she was freakishly tall and thin--a tree trunk to my twiggyness--only exacerbated her new bodily feature.

In a world of 10 and 11 year olds, these new features on Mary's landscape aroused considerable attention. Even I, who my dear reader by now must realize these did not nor could not stimulate a prurient interest, found them, well, fascinating. Even the teachers were astounded, and I am certain the teacher's lounge must have been abuzz talking about this physiological development.

And, overnight, Mary became a pariah. The kids laughed at her. No one associated with her. Our male fifth grade teacher asked students not to include her in kickball sessions, for "fear of hurting her" as I recall the announcement, and that must have exponentially heightened what must have been a suffocating sense of isolation.

One day soon thereafter Mary joined me and my very small circle. Of course the pariah kids feared socializing with each other for fear of drawing unwanted attention. So, in what seems in retrospect a vehicle to further isolation, the pariahs splintered into a myriad of mini-groups, none of which spoke to the others in keeping with the cardinal principle of minimizing random acts of "violence" enacted by others.

I was too bookish for many of the kids my age, and the bookish seemed less predisposed to socializing than others, so our groups were always very small: ourselves and our imaginary friends. But in my case the other kids intuited something else that was different, and I am sure the object of my school-boy crush picked up on this.

For some reason, Mary gravitated to me. Mary, lanky, rather boyish (hmmm, maybe Mary also harbored a similar secret!), one day took little me--four feet to her towering 6 feet--by the hands during recess and began dancing. Well, her "dancing" was more akin to spinning around, and my little frame lifted from the ground and I flew through the air. I have to say it was exhilarating: more so because someone spoke to me, I had a friend, and less so because I experienced a sensation (flying) that I had not yet experienced.

Once the other boys saw this...well, Mary became the star of the school, despite her mountainous terrain "up there." And she spun many of us round and round till one day a boy puked--he couldn't stop it seemed, buckets of the brown smelly substance gushed from his body--and the teacher placed Mary in detention.

And so when I saw upon my return from France and Portugal last week my Toad Lilies in bloom--yes, Tricyrtis formosan, which is not supposed to bloom until late September/early October, IN BLOOM--I thought of Mary, and fifth grade, and prematurely developed boobs.

And I smiled.

 And I felt like placing Toad Lily in detention, for developing too early, for ruining what was my summer garden, a time of airy nonchalance.