Sunday Opinion: Until It Hurts

rosemary-topiaries.jpgGarden?  Landscape?  These are single words which describe what I call a big fluid situation.  A landscape and garden design is utterly dependent on a series of conditions that is not always so easy to make sense of.  A design I love may not enchant a client.  A tree, shrub, or perennial may not like my placement-contrary to my best and experienced effort.  The plan I have in mind for a spot in my garden may fail for 100 reasons-all of those reasons may be good reasons. The perennial of my dreams may not like any of 10 different locations in my yard.  A vicious winter can kill marginally hardy plants a gardener has worked so hard to establish.  A tree can succumb to fire blight, girdling roots, or old age.  A planting scheme for pots can peter out the end of July.  What has taken 20 or 200 years to grow can be lost in an instant in a storm.

French-glazed-pots.jpgEvery gardener knows what it means to give to their garden until it hurts. The planning, the buying, the planting, the tending- may be for naught.  My internist told me once that a great doctor needed to be a good scientist.  But really great doctors are gifted diagnosticians.  They review every test, every measurement, every symptom, and make a decision about what is fueling the problem.  Diagnosis is as much an art as a science.  I am a middling gardening diagnostician.  Given that, I have had to learn when it is a good idea to let go.  Or try again.  Or sleep on it.  I do not have a laboratory.  I just have a garden.  But giving to anything until it hurts has very special rewards.  Every gardener knows this.

potted-rosemarys.jpgI agreed some months ago to donate centerpieces for a fundraiser for Mott’s Childrens Hospital in Ann Arbor.  The Event on Main, a fundraiser established to raise money for the CS Mott Children’s and Women’s Hospitals, an affliliate and member of the University of Michigan Hospital system, has raised over 1 million dollars to support building and research in just the past 3 years. This fundraiser targeted the U of M food allergy center.  This is the largest center of its kind which provides both clinical care and research into food allergies that afflict children. Ann Arbor based interior designer Jane Wood, a client of the store, and a member of the design committee, asked if I would donate 26 centerpieces for this event.

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Our primary community event is the garden tour we sponsor to benefit the summer employment programs of the Greening of Detroit.  But I felt that we could lend a hand to Jane’s project.  We potted up 26 gorgeous rosemary topiaries in a variety of sizes of French glazed terra cotta pots.  The invitation was designed and printed in white, gray, and pale yellow.  I knew the tent would be large.  I knew our French glazed pots in pale yellow and green, planted with rosemary topiaries would look good.  A portion of Main Street in Ann Arbor would be closed for the evening for this event.  Angie, Olga and I got all of the pots planted up, the rosemaries staked, and tied up with raffia.

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A van operated by a volunteer driver arrived at noon the day of the event. Scott helped pack all of the pots in boxes with reams of bubble wrap.  We loaded the van, and sent it on its way.  We did not want any accidents in transport. Jane wrote me a day later about the centerpieces.  She was not expecting the level at which we contributed.  I told her that gardeners have an instinct to give to the garden, any garden project, until it hurts.  We committed to helping her, so we did.  Just like we commit all of the energy and experience we have to the garden.  The CS Mott Children’s and Women’s hospital at U of M may not mean much-until you need them.  Should you need them, a lot of private individuals in Ann Arbor gave their all to make them available to you.  We were happy to help-that part felt really good.  Interested in more information about the Event on Main?     http://www.mottchildren.org/

At A Glance: In And Out

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Garden Designers Roundtable: Mistaken

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The topic for the Garden Designers Roundtable-mistakes.  I appreciate the timing of this topic, as blunder season is just about here. I invariably misinterpret nature’s intent with regard to spring.  I am sure that spring has arrived, always weeks in advance of the real thing.  I am anxiously poking around, looking for the crocus and the hellebores.  If I am lucky, that poking will not damage tender shoots just emerging from the ground.    The true meaning of misstep?  Tulip leaves when they first emerge in my zone are the same color as the muddy soil.  Given that I never remember where I have planted them, I am as likely to smash them flat as not.  Every step I make on soil that is soaking wet from the thaw forces the life giving oxygen out of the soil.  Plants thrive in friable soil, and generally dislike compacted soil.  Why am I milling about in the garden when I know better?  The leaves of the hellebores are limp and brown now-and crying for a cleanup.  I am sure the number of emerging flowers I have snipped off thinking they were leaf stalks is appallingly high.  Were I to endure the mess for another week, the difference between leaf stalks and flower stalks would be obvious.  Yet here I am, in error.  Franklin P Jones put it so eloquently:   Experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.

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Once the perennials begin to emerge, the bare spaces that would be perfect for spring bulbs are painfully obvious.  Spots for snowdrops-how is it that I failed to see them 5 months ago, when I could have planted?  The chionodoxa I did plant at the edge of a path as the spot was easy to get to-could I really have forgotten the edge of this path is part of the Corgi path?  Was that outcome not as obvious last fall as it is right now?  It will be months before my small perennial garden will be anything to look at. I could have tulips and daffodils on the way.  Phlox divaricata-every year I long for it.  Every year I do not plant it. A lost opportunity is one thing, but a lost opportunity that repeats itself year after year-a whopper blooper.

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Later I will find those mistakes that simply represent deficient knowledge.  Plants are very specific about what they want.  When they don’t get what they want, they have that listless and unenthusiastic look about them.  Or they die.  Wanting that catmint to thrive in a slightly too shady spot in slightly too heavy soil-that want washes over me all the time.  What would prosper in that spot, I don’t want.  The idea that the nature will suspend disbelief just for me-what is that?  Off sides is off sides.  I would conservatively estimate that my plant reference library has 50 volumes.  And I have a computer that works.  In spite of that, I persist in putting plants in the wrong place. On rare occasions, I get lucky.  I had to have a clematis growing on my garden bench-the romance of tat idea was irresistible. Though the spot had failure written all over it, I planted anyway.  Turns out, there is enough sun 4 feet off the ground to keep that clematis happy.  I know a certain gardener with a gift for making a mistake seem like a brilliant choice.  From Henry James,  She had an unequalled gift… of squeezing big mistakes into small opportunities.

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Gardeners derive satisfaction from many different things.  Some gardeners choose to grow food.  Others like tropical plants in pots.  Others want to grow plants and sell them.  Others swoon over conifers, or rock garden plants.  Others intend to reforest a city.  A relationship with nature is not necessarily a garden-it could be a wild place untouched by designing hands.  Entertaining outdoors, putting up lights at the holidays, and camping.-these are as much an experience of gardening as the parterres at Vaux Le Vicomte.  Given that the sky is the limit, that the opportunity for self expression is always there,  I think it is a mistake-not to garden.  Gardening is good for people.  Your garden should be just that-yours.  From Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”.

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The most grievous error I see gardeners make is to give up a dream of having a garden environment  because they could not have it all at once.  The best part about plants is that they grow.  A bareroot tree planted in the spring and looked after will grow.  Yes, the mighty oak from the little acorn grew.  A slew of boxwood cuttings, placed in and grown on in a nursery bed, can one day become the most gorgeous knot garden imaginable.  Hellebores are gorgeous-but notoriously slow growing.  Large plants are pricey, for just that reason.  But little hellebores are readily available, and will grow into specimen sized beauties before you know it.  Now is a very good time to plant one.  From Edmund Burke:  Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

The other members of the Roundtable no doubt will have their own views on mistakes-please read on!

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

David Cristani:  The Desert Edge:  New Mexico

 

The Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Romance

 

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What makes for a romance?  An attraction that cannot be denied.  An attraction that evolves from the excitement generated by the hope that a relationship might lead to a steadfast commitment.  The romance suggested and generated by the possibility of love-who hasn’t experienced it?  Gardeners romance their gardens-meaning they seek to establish a  relationship with their environment, their love of plants,  and their property to a mutually satisfying end.  I never met a gardener that was not committed to the long term.  However, mutually satisfying outcomes are rare.  Things go wrong.  Plants die.  Taste’s change.  More than rare, garden outcomes that stir the heart are short lived.  Ephemeral.  This makes the possibility of true romance all the more desirable.

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Nature-the object of every gardener’s sincere affection.  On occasion, that love is returned.  Sometimes I am face to face with it in such a way that takes my breath away.  But more often than not, nature has another idea in mind.  I have had my hopes dashed more often than I care to recall.  The weather here last spring was anything but.  All of the efforts made to protect the spring flower buds-spurned.  There are less dramatic challenges to one’s love for the garden.  A lack of rain-or too much.  The neighbor’s kid or the neighborhood rabbit who snaps all the lily buds off.  The specimen evergreen that is not so happy where you have planted it.  The effort it takes to improve the organic content of the soil.  I suppose the spring will eventually come when I think I’ve had enough-but it hasn’t happened yet. 

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Anyone who gardens long enough realizes that a romance has its ups and downs.  There are on occasion those perfect moments. An hour or a day or a season that enchants and utterly satisfies.  They could be very simple, and not so readily apparent to a casual observer.  The sun emerging after a spring rain.  A quiet hour spent weeding.  Watching a hummingbird feed.  How the roses look just before they bloom.   

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That June day several years when the roses were blooming like I had never seen them before-heart stoppingly romantic.  That summer day when all is good enough in the garden such there is time to take time to enjoy it.  There are those perfect moments that come when you least expect them, and are over before you know it.  That fairly accurately describes my relationship with nature.  Never easy, and often times irritating and disappointing.  Despite all that does not work,  a life without a serious relationship with nature has no appeal to me. 

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This cold windy and snowy February moment that Milo and I shared in the garden-satisfying indeed.  I am sure the other members of the Garden Designer’s Roundtable have an equally personal romance with nature-be sure to read on.

 

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.