Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Other Peoples' Gardens: Aunt Annie

I have previously mused on the phenomenon of heroes in our lives. We all have them--and if we don't, we live a bereft life (that's my verdict, anyway). Far from being vestiges of childhood fantasies, heroes provide us senses of purpose and grounding, advice and example. We look to them precisely because of the struggles they endured and overcame, their accomplishments and perhaps even their foibles and flaws which we effortlessly navigate around because as exemplars, our heroes are not necessarily irreproachable but serve as shorthand for standards by which we wish to live our lives.

During these winter weeks--and yes, even during this improbably mild winter when I actually edged some garden beds over the weekend wearing nothing but a lightweight sweater (and pants, of course!) sans the warmth of any of my beloved scarves--I've been consuming garden books written about or by garden experts or heroes: Gertrude Jeckyll; Vita Sackville-West and the other-worldly Sissinghurst to which I made a pilgrimage for my 40th birthday in 2010; the spirited W. Gary Smith; and Christopher (Christo) Lloyd of Great Dixter fame. Gardening continues to provide a refuge during the inclement (or not so inclement) months.

I was terribly remiss yesterday, the birthday of my Aunt Annie, Master Gardener of New York, the transmitter (to a 6 year old me) of family gardening practices, and the inculcator of my love of gardening, for not posting this (alas, we become busy with work and "things to do;" mind you, dear reader, I did call her and we had a splendidly long conversation).

We spoke, of course, about gardening...but also about aging and houses and upkeep (of both houses and the body) and a myriad of other things. But mostly we spoke about gardening: plans, designs, new plants, color combinations. In particular, she inquired about the addition of structure and height to my garden.

Of course, I haven't room to include a Greco-Roman inspired garden structure to which to retreat on warm summer days, flanked as hers is by the muscular Petasites japonica, robust hostas, and luxurious cream-margined hostas perfectly accented by foxgloves.

But still, she entreated, I needed to provide more instances of height--to give the garden variation, visual intrigue. I should import structure not in the sense of more plants, though that I could do, but through large urns or trellises or arbors. Those hard materials provide dramatic interludes, their edges softened by surrounding plants, surrounding plants clarified by the juxtaposition.

Knowing my garden was not of the American country sort or English cottage style, she reported the she clipped a photo from a magazine of something that would suit my aesthetic. I am intrigued. Aunt Annie does not lack in the taste department: de gustibus non est disputandum.

(Though I foresee in the future, with different property, a set of very tall matching urns situated somewhere in a bed, perhaps punctuating an allee of decorative trees...)

I spoke of my desire to buy a new house. "Why," she asked, "when you have done such a lovely job with the one you have?"

"Well, we compromised on the fireplace and off-street parking," I noted, "and I'd like to have a detached house. And we need more space. All of Viet's things are still in Denver."

"Those are good reasons; I can see that. But those aren't necessities, especially if you've been living well without those things, right?"

"Oh yes, of course you are right. But, I really want more space to garden. I need it."

That was the definitive argument. "Naturally," she responded enthusiastically, "Of course you do! So now we need to work on that."

I am sure we had similar visions:

seating areas,

and long gardens (I like that she called this her long garden, which runs half the length of her property--a considerable distance of which I've photographed only a quarter, and not the long border, as I've previously ranted)

areas for large swaths of cheery Evening Primose to greet the wanderer as one bends around the barn,

 and little nooks in which to situate little bits of happy, such as collections of blue-tinted hostas,

or Kirengeshoma (Yellow Waxbells) and ferns, which when paired provide an eye-catching study of foliage juxtaposition,

or places to experiment with color, such as her emerging purple corner which bunny seems to love

and room to create dramatic vignettes of Smoke Bush paired with Hakuro-nishiki Dappled Willow,

 as well as new sun gardens when one darn well feels like it,

or new shade gardens when the urge strikes

so that the kitties and the owls can play (Aunt Annie still possesses a girlish charm and playful spirit),

opposite impeccably arranged beds alongside centuries old outbuildings (in the case the old cookhouse, which served as the 18th and 19th century kitchen to the late-18th century original stone house you see in the background) .

Admittedly my photos are of poor quality as I took them on a bright, sunny day when the sun reached its zenith, and I only photographed small areas of her vast gardening network (other areas were too drenched in sun, the photos horribly over-exposed), but they nevertheless testify to her love of gardening and the great care she bestows upon making her slice of the world beautiful.

Happy (now belated) birthday, Aunt Annie!

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