Garden Designers Roundtable: Mistaken


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.


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.


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.


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”.


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


Monday Opinion: What Time Is It?

Daylight savings time means that Sunday March 10th was a day with only 23 hours.  One would think that anything planned for the day could easily be accomplished in 23 hours instead of 24, but you decide.  Howard showed up bedside at 5am like he always does, but it really was 6 am.  He and Milo usually have breakfast at 6, but 6 had already come and gone. By 7, which was now 8, I was late for work, and the corgis still had not had breakfast.  If you are confused, you know exactly how I felt (or am I still feeling it?).  I usually have lunch at 11:30, which, but the new 11:30 is actually 10:30.  So Sunday brunch.  By this time I had at least remembered to feed the corgis.  I was half way to a landscape appointment until I realized I would be an hour early.  In looking at my watch, I see that the second hand is only moving every 20 seconds or so.  What?  I circle back, and spent 40 minutes sitting in my office trying to figure it out.  Why really do we spring ahead, and then fall back?  I knowing children walking to the bus stop has something to do with it.  The other reasons seem unconvincing and arbitrary.  Now there will be more time after work to stand in the garden and be able to do nothing.  I will have more evening daylight to contemplate the frozen ground.  I still have mountains of snow, even though it was 62 degrees yesterday.  I am a day late expressing the opinion that a day with only 23 hours felt like a day that was out of reach from start to finish.  Today I was late for work, and cranky.

The days are getting longer.  Who knows exactly what day the sun will finally make up that lost hour.  At least it will be months before that 25 hour day arrives in November.  In the meantime, that out of sorts feeling can be diminished by just one thing.  The sure signs of spring.  It was just a few days ago that I heard birds singing when I woke up.  The magnolia stellata, even though it is heavily mulched with snow, looks like the buds are ready to burst.  Yesterday it was 62 degrees.  Today it is pouring rain.  It is muddy and icy, everywhere.  Milo’s footprints all over the shop make it look like we have not mopped for months.  What he doesn’t deposit on the shop floor is now in my office.  These are sure signs of spring.  The watch I have had for years is not running right.  It will take 10 days to send it out for evaluation.  However, I am sure I already know what is wrong. Even my watch can’t figure out what time it is.

Sunday Opinion: March Madness

March madness has a meaning in popular culture that dates back to the 1940′s.  For those of you who do not follow basketball, March madness refers specifically to the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) college basketball championships.  Most of these championship games are played in March, and followed with astonishingly reverential and lively interest.  Steve, my landscape superintendent, does not look kindly on any activity which interferes with a March NCAA game.  He likes his March to himelf.  Gardeners host championships every month of the year-but at least in my zone, not in March.  March is the next to the last of the tail end of winter.  This is a polite way of saying that March 1 does not necessarily mean spring.  My need for spring is always early.  Once March arrives, winter stocism starts giving way in a big way for a longing for spring.

Am I longing for spring?  No doubt.  A high temperature with snow showers today is disheartening at best, and really aggrevating at worst.  Our last heavy wet snow, so gorgeous as it fell,  is now glued into place, and has an annoying and treacherous crust.  This state of affairs-courtesy of recent temperatures significantly below freezing.  Everwhere, the landscape is represented by ice.  Dirty ice.  Gray skies.  Snow showers.  As for a gardener’s version of March madness, I think I might be afflicted.  I don’t want to be out, nor do I want to be in.  That cooped up feeling has intensified like a storm exactly on track.  My winter coat feels like a soft walled version of jail.  I am tired of that chilly and speechless state of affairs.

Henry V Porter was a high school teacher and coach in Athens, Illinois.  In 1942, he wrote this essay in which he coined the phrase-  March Madness.  At that time, basketball was a only a statewide event. His essay, though it is obviously dated, expresses in plain terms what it means to have a sincere passion.

March Madness,  by Henry V Porter
Homo sapiens of the Hardwood Court is a hardy specie. There are millions of him. He exists through summer and fall, shows signs of animation through the winter and lives to the utmost during March when a hundred thousand pairs of rubber soled shoes slap the hardwood in a whirlwind of stops and pivots and dashes on the trail to the state basketball championships. He is a glutton for punishment. When the March madness is on him, midnight jaunts of a hundred miles on successive nights make him even more alert the next day. He will polish his pants on sixteen inches of bleacher seat through two games or three and take offense if asked to leave during the intermission between sessions. He is happy only when the floor shimmers with reflections of fast moving streaks of color, when the players swarm at each end and the air is full of leather. For the duration of the endemic he is a statistical expert who knows the record of each contender, a game strategist who spots the weak points in a given system of offense or defense, a rules technician who instructs the officials without cost or request. Every basketball canine has his day and this is the  month.

He is a doodler who, while conversing, scribbles free throw lanes with a hundred radiating alleys. In May the three symbols of the New York Fair will take on their intended meaning but in March the helicline is a ramp to the balcony, the trylon is the pyramid of hundreds of teams being narrowed down to the one at the state championship pinnacle and the perisphere has the traditional four panel basketball markings.

In everyday life he is a sane and serious individual trying to earn enough to pay his taxes. But he does a Jekyll-Hyde act when the spell is on him. He likes his coffee black and his basketball highly spiced. He despises the stall unless his team is ahead. It is a major crime for the official to call a foul on the dribbler unless the opponent was dribbling. His moods are as changeable as the March wind. He flies into a frenzy at some trivial happening on the court and before his vocal expression of disapproval is half completed he howls in delight at the humorous twist of a comment from a bleacher wit. He is part of the mass mind and is subject to its whims. He berates the center for attempting a long shot and lauds him when it goes in the basket. He is consistent only in his inconsistencies.

The thud of the ball on the floor, the slap of hands on leather, the swish of the net are music in his ears. He is a connoisseur in matters pertaining to team coordination and artistry in action. The shifting zone, the screen and the spot pass are an open book to him. He speaks the language.

He is biased, noisy, fidgety, boastful and unreasonable but we love him for his imperfections. His lack of inhibitions adds a spontaneity that colors the tournaments. Without darkness there would be no light. A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.
The writer’s temperature is rising. The thing is catching. It’s got me! Gimme that playing schedule!

I did edit Henry’s essay, to the tune of two words. Does Henry’s essay not equally describe a passionate gardener? March Madness-I am sure I have contracted it.

Tuesday Opinion: Tolerances

Tolerances in industry refers to the tolerance for error. (please tolerate this overly simplistic and largely uniformed discussion of industrial tolerances)  Parts manufactured for a coast guard cruiser have to be as close to dead to the right size as any manufacturer can make them.  A government contract may demand parts with a tolerance of .0001-one one thousanth of an inch-or better.  Even closer to perfect. Why would they need a product with this level of accuracy? Many companies may contribute to the construction of that boat.  All the parts from all the manufacturers have to fit together, and fit together remarkably well, for the boat to work.  The time to discover that a part was sloppily made and not working, is not when said cruiser is three miles from shore in a storm. Buck makes strap steel spheres at Branch-some of the 5.5 feet in diameter.  If two pieces of steel cross over one another at just slightly the wrong angle when he begins, that error will compound itself on every cross over to come.  This level of error makes for a sphere that will look out-of-round.  Not life threatening, but not pretty either.  There are those times when a lack of tolerance make sense.

The difference between a landscape drawing and the installation of the drawing can be big, and still work out.  Frequently, maybe always, I have to make adjustments from the ideal-so easily drawn on a piece of paper-to the reality, which is an existing piece of ground.  This and that and more can be shifted and interpreted such that the spirit of the design is intact once it is planted.  The process of landscape design and installation is a big fluid situation, quite unlike getting a space ship into orbit.  Many years ago on a spring melt down day, Rob reacted fiercely.  “Deborah, we are not performing brain surgery on a human being who has a life and family. We plant gardens and landscapes that delight the eye.  We make people happy.  We plant flowers.”  Who could argue with that?

Designers whose tolerance for variation from their design that approaches .0001 inch-whoa.  I wonder how they get through the day.  I am sure there are those whose cache makes that possible-but who would want such a life?  I do not tolerate change from my design with clients-I welcome it.  I adjust, and rethink.  Every person’s experience of nature is not only different than mine, I owe them the respect I tender to any other living thing.  I don’t always need to understand.  I only need to tolerate those ideas which are different than mine.  I want to get through the day.  I want to see the project realized.  I don’t want to live obsessed about a point of view that varies from my own.  An obsessed life works fine for me.  I apply my obsessions to my own life, and my own garden.

Gardeners are a very passionate and opinionated lot.  Of course this includes me.  We like some plants much better than others.  There are those of us for whom the sun rises and sets on a well grown stand of shasta daisies.  There are others whose idea of a decent leaf is measured solely by its square footage.  There are those gardeners who would not think of planting any annual plants.  Some gardeners revere what readily reseeds more than any other plant.  There are those gardeners that grow everything that strikes their fancy.  Some like but three plants-and they grow these three plants in profusion, and in every possible configuration..  There are those who devote the lion’s share of their ground to tomatoes, brussel spouts, and herbs.  Farmer gardeners-very passionate!   There are those who have a plant they intend to explore in depth.  Thus the life of the Camellia Society, and the Peony Society.

There are those who favor wild and native plants.  The wild gardeners love the beauty of the little and ephemeral plants.  The native plants only people garden and mission at the same time. Though I have never felt the urge to convince another gardener to see the natural world how I see it, I respect the sincere feeling that motivates a sense of mission.  There are those who exhibit competitively the dahlias they have grown-a great dahlia show is a pleasure to attend.  There are groups who meet over orchids, and roses.  Gardeners who belong to groups-sociable gardeners.  Some gardeners are only in it for the dash to the finish-an event or wedding or graduation at home that asks for a gardener’s touch.  Some are in it for the long haul-growing gingko trees from seed.  Others value the solitude, and their individual experience of nature.

There are those of us for whom well rotted and garden ready compost is a crowning accomplishment.  Other gardeners are not so hands on.  They may love the beauty of a garden-from afar. They might be so moved as to hire me to design for them.  Another gardener might spring for a master plan, and do the work themselves.  There are those who like orderly, and those who are happiest when the garden is wildly exuberant. There are grower/farmers who intend to feed the planet.  I respect that intent.   There are those growers who serve that small gardening group whose interests are focused on organically grown produce.  Organic milk, specialty vines, heirloom daffodils and apples.  There is room for everyone. A beautiful landscape and garden-there are so many paths to that end.  So many interpretations.

Anyone with a big love for the garden and the landscape gets to be seated under a very big tent.  A seat under this tent is just that-one seat.  Of course your seat can be by itself, or near other people with a similar seat.  Those gardeners around you that love the lawnless look, the wild flowers, the hybrid peonies, house plants, foraged greens, the mowed lawns, heritage tomatoes, perennial borders, hellebore hybrids, espaliered fruit trees, outdoor kitchens, grasses of note, pruned boxwood, pressed flowers, ponds-everyone gets a seat.