Sunday Opinion: A Life Span

Everything in the garden has a lifespan.  This is a polite way of saying that every living thing lives their life, and eventually dies.  The redwood trees in California, and the old yews in England, among other ancient plants, are prized by many not only for their size and shape, but their astonishing longevity.  The Wollemi pine trees-of which there are 40 trees in some unknown location in Australia-date back thousands of years.  The National Geographic has made a big issue of protecting first, and secondarily propagating these trees.  Their sales of new starts of Wollemi Pines helps to cover the cost of their protection. They grow no where else on this planet, but for a remote valley in Australia.  Yes, I did buy small starts some 8 years ago-why wouldn’t I?  Both of my Wollemi pines belong to my landscape superintendent-Steve Bernard.  They were a gift.  They are at this moment, thriving.  As is our relationship.  We work together.  But not every plant thrives.  Plants which have lustily grown for years eventually die.  Some plants die just days after they are planted.  Do I have an explanation for this-not really.  The life and death in a landscape is an issue both Steve and I deal with every day.

Landscape clients want me to guarantee that the plant material I put in the ground will live-for at least the warranty period.  For one year, I am asked to stave off death.  I oblige, in spite of the fact that the life of a landscape and garden depends more on nature than me.  I do what I can, but I am rarely in charge. Some plants thrive in spite of my skepticism.  Other robust plants inexplicably die, leaving me with lots of questions and not so much comfort.  Anyone who gardens knows that every plant has a lifespan.  Every gorgeous moment in a garden is just that-a moment.  And that which is treasured is ephemeral.

I have a few plants that are original to my garden from the day I moved in.  A magnolia, some dogwoods, a pair of picea mucrunulatum, some rhododendron, a norway spruce some 40 feet tall,  some azaleas, and some challenged maples in the tree lawn.  But these plants are not centuries old. They are at best 90 years old.  Ninety years old is a blip that one blink will miss, in the history of our planet.  Every gardener needs to realize that their influence is short.  And not necessarily what nature values.  Peonies and asparagus are very long lived.  Trees that have a good siting and thoughtful planting live a long time.  As in my lifetime.  Perennials live but a very short time.  Foxgloves are beautiful, and short lived.

The lifetime of the planet-vastly more years than mine.  I understand that eventually, and sooner rather than later, I will wear out and die.  The numbers of perennials and annuals in my garden that will wear out and die before me-considerable.  Lots.  The trees that will mature and finally die-they will be much older than me on the day of their demise. My gardening is but a brief moment in a scheme that is long, substantial, and just about impossible to predict.

Does the prospect of a limited lifespan to my landscape worry me?  Not really.  A beginning and an end to anything significant in the landscape is beyond my grasp to orchestrate.  I spend an extraordinary amount of time in an effort to keep every plant in my landscape happy and healthy.   Every gardener, just like me, learns, and leans into the natural demands of a life span.  Leaning in-what every gardener knows how to do.

Monday Opinion: Sharing

Gardener/readers write me on and off, astonished about the degree to which I am willing to share my knowledge and process.  Why wouldn’t I?  I was raised to believe that sharing with others was good.  If you are like me, you grew up with a Mom who encouraged sharing.  Share a toy.  Share you seat on the bus.  Loan your sister your prized sweater. Share the letter your teacher sent home with you with your Mom – this would be a Mom talking.  Share your questions, hopes, fears, and aspirations.  That call to share had another call attached to it.  Share, with the idea that you might help.  If you are able to share such that you can help others, help them.  I arrived on this earth endowed with plenty of infantile selfishness-it took a Mom to temper that.  Did I really want to share my prized baloney and mustard sandwich on white bread with a classmate who had no lunch?  Not until I was instructed that sharing was a very special kind of giving.  A kind of giving that was part and parcel of being a decent human being.  My Mom assured me I would feel good about it.  And that what I got out of the giving was in the end,  irrelevant. This also from my Mom.   I may have had no relationship whatsoever with that kid who had no lunch.  I may not even have known her name.  But if I could get by with a half a sandwich, which of course I could, it was incumbent upon me to share the half I could do without with another.  It was the right thing to do.  And it did, incidentally,  feel good.  Now, the sharing seems effortless.  I am by no means the exception.  I believe that people come by the instinct to give and share, naturally-don’t you?

The right thing to do-what is that?  Every gardener, and landscape designer, comes face to face with this question over the course of a project.   I like to share the design process with a client, just like nature reveals herself to me.  In a genuine design relationship, lots of things are shared.  Needs, dreams, concerns, budgets-there are lots of topics to cover.  The client’s issues are invariably more important than mine.  A beautiful design that does not work for a client is not necessarily a beautiful design.  It is a design the heart of which fails to engage a client.  This is a polite way of describing a dust bin.  Just my opinion, this.

In the shop, we try to share the best advice we have available.  A client with whom we do not share our knowledge is a client who has not gotten from us what they should.  No matter my willingness to share, there are those times where we fail. I take that failure personally.  We should be able to give timely and sound advice.  That given, there are those times when what gets said doesn’t get heard-or what was heard bears no resemblance to what was said.  This happens all the time.  Communication is the art of life, is it not?  Some things that go wrong in the garden can be squarely attributed to the nature of the season.  Other things that go wrong might be attributed to a casual share, without any depth, or an insincere communication.

I have this communication problem on occasion with my garden.  I may plant what I want, without listening to what has been shared with me by nature-about my weather, my zone, my seasons, my soil-you get the drift.  I am eminently capable of being insincere with nature, as I don’t really want to answer to her.  What I do not hear can come back to haunt me.  Yes, usual sharing implies another who is engaged, and listening.  Nature does neither.  Nature has no need for a relationship with me. I am a small part of a much bigger scheme.  She has no time for me.  The entire burden of a successful relationship with nature depends on me.  How tiresome is this?  A gardener of the true sort establishes a fluid truce with nature-this is a kind of sharing.  Sharing, with the primary responsibility clear from the start.   Sharing as I usually experience it as a designer is a person to person pursuit.  That sharing works some times-other times, not.   Most people have shared something at one time or another that has not been heard.  Operas have been written and performed for centuries about this.  It is tougher than it appears, sharing in a real and thoughtful way.

The most difficult moment in the landscape design process comes at the beginning.  You have a design to present.  You have a conceptual plan to share.  Taking enough time with this part is essential. The design is a collaboration-there is the sharing of information that goes back and forth across the table.  That sharing may take a lot of time to transform into a final plan.  Once there is agreement on the big issues, there are lots of details to share.  Secondary but so essential to sharing-patience.  Patience is not my long suit, but I try.  Patience can also be overrated.  Knowing how to bring an unfounded worry to a close is a way of sharing that is caring.

The second most difficult moment is that moment when a project is done.  You will no longer be there every day, working on this part, but watering and tending that other part that is finished.  Some clients can see instantly that moment when an installation becomes their garden-they say thank you much, and push off on their own.  Bye Bye.  Other clients are less confident.  You may need to drive by, regularly.  Sometimes it’s important to keep on sharing until there is no more need.  Am I good at this?  Sometimes.  Other times, I call the memories of my Mom in- to give me a hand.

I would share anything I know about horticulture or design with anyone.  What I know is just my experience-nothing more, and nothing less.  Is my knowledge special?  Not particularly.  What works for me is different than what works for lots of other gardeners.  As much as things in the garden fail, lots of things work.  Designers would do well to keep that in mind.  There is no one way.  There are lots of ways.  Do I worry that someone else might duplicate my work from something I shared with them?  No.  My eye is my eye-this part of me is not transferable, nor can it be replicated in every detail.  Lucky, this-for everyone involved.  Anyone who might try to replicate my work will eventually be frustrated and unsatisfied.  Hungry.  Every person with a sincere interest in the landscape needs to rely on their own vision to finish a garden, or a landscape, or a moment.  Every landscape I design and install needs a client to eventually sweep the scene with what is all their own.  Having had good advice and design help, eventually being left on one’s own is a very good place to be.    There is so much satisfaction to be had from one’s own invention.  Some create gardens on their own.  Some create landscapes via a relationship with a designer. All sincere paths to good design are good paths.

Whether you are a landscape designer, or landscape architect, or a passionate gardener,  I will respect you enough to assume that you are a creative person whose job it is to imagine a project, and research anything you need to bring that project to fruition.  I assume you are able. There are no shortcuts.  Take the time, and do the work you need to do.  The work you put to any project will, in the end, reward you.  What someone has shared with you is not necessarily the gardening gospel.  It is a point of view.  And not necessarily your point of view.  Trust your eye.  If you cannot trust your eye,  look outward.  Most importantly, look inward.

I have a big interest in good gardening outcomes.  World wide, there are so many beautiful landscapes and gardens that support that idea.  Your computer is a means by which you can learn.  What is out there being shared?  Garden Design by Carolyn Mullet-I read her facebook page every day.  The time she takes to share-extraordinary.  Her editing, and choices of a topic to share-equally extraordinary.

What comes of your exposure to the work of others is that germ of an idea that might inform your own garden.  Respond honestly and passionately to the work the work of your designer.  In the interest of a better outcome-share what you can.  Listen when you have a mind to.  The aura created by that sharing all around – beautiful.

Sunday Opinion: White Bread

White bread-I am sure you know what I am talking about.  That bread that is made from wheat flour from which the bran and the gram has been removed by milling.   Not Italian peasant bread.  Not French baguettes.  Not 6 grain whole wheat bread.  Not rye or pumpernickel. Not panetta, or flatbread, or pita bread. Not sunflowers seed bread, or molasses bread.  Not banana or apricot/walnut bread. Not focaccia or panetone or hardtack.  Not Challah, tortilla, ciabatta, sourdough bread,  or biscuits.  Not a French boule, or broiche, or zwieback,  or sour dough bread.  Not cornbread, soda bread, potato bread or lavash. Not matzo, not bagels, not sour dough.  Plain white bread.

Buck brought me lunch today.  Tuna salad.  He brought a container of tabouli-a salad with many recipes centering around parsley.  And a Mediterranean lentil/pasta salad.  I mixed the three elements evenly.  I had in mind to have a sandwich.  Lots of good food that tasted great on their own, and even better given the mix.  The mix of flavors and textures made for a really good lunch.  As for the sandwich bread-all this great mix asked for was a friendly vehicle.  A sturdy enclosure that would make the sandwich not only delicious, but easy to eat.  White bread.  Specialty breads-I like to eat them as toast, or with butter.  So I can enjoy what  makes that particular kind of bread an experience all its own.  Ordinary Michigan baked white bread -it is a strong and sturdy food that compliments a salad based sandwich.

 

I think about the contribution to design that white bread makes, routinely.  Not every element in the landscape is the star of the show. Some elements are the glue that stitches a narrative together.  That white bread may be pachysandra, boxwood, grass, or a creeping thyme.  A drift of ornamental grasses.  A path that connects this place to that one.   A hedge whose sole purpose is to feature the garden planted in front of it.

My Sunday noon sandwich was a symphony of flavors and textures, piled high between a pair of slices of plain white bread.  It occurs to me that the most elemental garden might be a field of wheat.

 

Resources

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I envy new gardeners, just starting out.  There is so much information available to new gardeners, via the internet.  Have a question?  Want an opinion?  Want a reference?  Want a list of places that sell clematis?  Want a stone supplier?  Need a landscape designer?  Need a garden center near you that sells trees?  mulch?  potting soil?  Orchids?  Have a question?  Write that question in the search line, and be prepared to have to edit the flood of answers.

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Have a vision?  Search Google images for a face to put to that vision.  Houzz.com has no end of pictures of landscape design projects.  I rather admire how easy and satisfying a resource they are.  Pinterest?  If you are a visual person, there is more there to see than you could ever possibly absorb.  The internet is the equivalent of the Encyclopedia Britannica,  times many millions.  If you have a question, there is probably someone taking a stab at it out there.  If you have a tricky question, you will find opinions galore out there.

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Such was not so, when I was in my twenties.  I had a handful of gardening catalogs that I read over and over again.  I had access to a local  library.  The Dewey decimal system-are you too young to know about that?  Never mind-it was a colossal bore.  I did the best I could without much counsel, and took my lumps.  I learned by doing.  What didn’t work out led me to the next step. I have a distinct memory of moving one clematis 5 times before it was happy.

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The Encyclopedia Britannica was better on the subject of World War II, than the successful cultivation of  Dutchman’s Breeches, or columbines.  How I wanted to grow columbines.  My failure to keep them going-routine and boring.  I killed an embarrassing number of plants before I caught on.  I had a few friends-most of them were close by.  Nurseries and garden centers were one of the best sources of information.  Today I have gardening friends whom I have never met face to face.  Worlds away.  A sympathetic gardener in New Zealand may inform how I approach a problem in my garden. This is extraordinary.

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Today you could with but a few keystrokes learn how to make an omelet,  grow tomatoes from seed, or graft a rose.  Given enough time and work, you could look over every company worldwide that sells doorknobs. You could see pictures and videos of the great gardens of the world.  You could know the temperature today in Florence Italy, or get a list of hotels in Iceland.  Just type whatever comes to mind.  How the internet is engirneered to respond to questions-astonishing.

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I use the internet for research.  Those plants that tolerate black walnuts.  Great stone yards.  Deer repellants.  Great breeders of hellebores.  Contemporary garden furniture.  The cultivation of orchids, daisies and sunflowers.  Good garden benches.  The perfect vase.  How to use string.  The science behind the production of chlorophyll.  The weather-at home, in Paris, or in Madrid.  The history of the garden.  The exhibitors at this year’s Chelsea flower show.  How to select and grow great hydrangeas.   Type in your question, and read on.  French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Belgian, Dutch, Mexican, Scottish, Icelandic, American, Icelandic, British, Polish, German-gardens all around the world.  Though I would never give up my books, I can get help with a question in seconds.

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Why am I writing about this?  An image of a hedge of Limelight hydrangeas I posted on Pinterest has prompted a flood of questions.  As to where one could purchase Limelights in northern Texas-I am not the right person to ask. A local nursery or garden center will have the answer to this. As to whether Limelights will prosper in dry shade, I could only answer for my zone.  But I am willing to bet there is a resource out there with all kinds of information about growing hydrangeas in Texas-and any place else, for that matter.