Sunday Opinion: The World Series of Gardening

Every year I try my best to wrap up my spring season by the 4th of July, so I can enjoy my holiday. This sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it?  I came close enough this year to feel like I could spend a little time at home.  This sounds reasonable as well, doesn’t it?   But there I was, prowling my garden, making mental notes of all the things that need to be done, and wincing about all the things that are not  right. This critique part borders on nuts and I rarely make any decisions under this kind of duress.   It’s a miracle I have a garden at all.  Too big a block of time at home can spell trouble on what should be a relaxing day. 

 For me to have six uninterrupted hours of time in my garden over two days is the equivalent of no small amount of rocket fuel igniting under my obsession with gardening.  As I am expounding to Buck about how one section of taxus densiformis needs to be flat on one side, and concave on the other, he interrupts with a withering and sardonic look and announces he is going in to read a little before he takes a nap.  So all afternoon I am out there fretting, sweating and scheming like I have ten minutes to live.   Trying to decide if I prune one lower leaf off a single Princeton Gold maple, will the overall effect of the mass of them be better.  No kidding.  That’s what I was doing.  I finally got worn out with all this milling around,  laid down in the grass, and laughed my fool head off.  I design for clients with equanimity all the time; when I go home, I get so out of hand.

The British would have you believe there is a World Series of Gardening.  Thank God I don’t live there, or I would apply for a spot at Chelsea every year. I might need medication, were my proposal turned down.  The Chelsea Garden Show is a vetted extravaganza every year at the end of May. Gardeners all over this country talk about it.   Designs are approved, and built. A huge effort is made by lots of people.  The Queen attends;  gold and silver and whatever medals are passed out, and the place is mobbed for the duration of the show.  I say “show”, as they are not really gardens.  They are not even reasonable facsimiles of a garden, as they don’t exist long enough for nature to administer her exams.  The show is however great garden theatre;  people seem to enjoy it thoroughly-especially the competition part.

When I am of sane mind, I know there is no World Series except in baseball.  There did come a day when I realized the world did not revolve around me, and that there would be no list in horticulture heaven listing the top ten gardens of all time,  which would hopefully have one of my gardens near the top of the list. Some time later I realized I would never make a garden which would be perfect in every regard.   (Incidentally, I had no plan for what I would do with myself after that garden was finished. Nor did I understand there is no such thing in a garden as “finished”)  I did finally figure out that aesthetic evolution is not a bus ride from A to B.  Great work could be found everywhere and anywhere, and nothing is better than good company.  Shocking.  In other words, I finally grew up.

It takes next to nothing for me to get out of hand when a garden hangs in the balance, but I do have some grace as an adult.  I am truly garden-obsessed, but thankfully not persistently self-obsessed.  There may be those who think otherwise, but they have not seen me rolling in the grass in my garden, laughing at the funniest self I have ever seen.

Sunday Opinion: Good Design

Good design is about a whole host of things-but money isn’t one of them.  Martha Stewart has built an empire teaching how to take an idea, strip away all the Chanel materials that the cool given idea is all dressed up in, and explain the idea for what it is.   Once there is understanding of a concept,  it can be rebuilt with a different kind of dress-a recycled dress, a dress from JCPenny, or a dress from a thrift shop. Or from materials in the back of your garage;  wonder of wonders, a homemade dress.  I greatly admire her for this-it is no mean accomplishment. She teaches-this is my idea of an extremely important job.  She has made a life making good design accessible to lots of people in all kinds of neighborhoods, states, regions,  and countries.  She is able to take an idea, and break it down such that it makes sense to a very broad range of people.  This is a rare gift. 

Any gardener can understand the fancy dress idea.   We have all seen landscapes installed in our neighborhoods in airless, gooey, and certainly not improved clay soil- topdressed with some good looking black earth that makes everything look like it is planted in the most fabulously plant friendly soil on the planet.  We’ve all seen new plants dropped into pots for a special event the day before.  We’ve also seen the urban property with an allee of trees as if it were a 80 acre estate expecting a visit from Louis the Fourteenth.  Topdressing is a concept every gardener understands-for good, or for ill.

A case in point;  for years Rob would build his bamboo stake/galvanized wire tomato cages for clients.  He would position the 4 bamboo stakes outward from the rootball of the tomato, and wrap from stake to adjoining stake hoops of galvanized wire from the Depot.  His hoops had no kinks.  The hoop-swoops were wide at the top, and tight at the bottom-perfect for that indeterminate tomato growing taller, and wider at the top,  by the day.  At some point, he was despairing of the long lineup of his hand-fashioned hoops for which he had requests.  So we designed an acid washed steel tomato cage-in a perfectly widening sequence 0f hoops, and had them built.  They cost two hundred and umpteen dollars-but anyone can come in, buy one, and load it in their trunk.  For the person who does not have the idea to spend the umpteen dollars for our formal version of his hand worked tomato cage, I apologize that we are not a teacher the caliber of Martha Stewart. But we can try to teach how to create the bamboo stake-wire cage-just ask.

Understand that I had my own Martha Stewart moment-like countless other people.  I built a croquembouche exactly to her specifications-but my attempt to create the ultra thin sugar hair that was due to go over that tower of  profiteroles like a cloud, only coated my entire kitchen-top to bottom- with a congealed sugar mess.  I thought for two days afterwards I would just have to move-then I cleaned for another two days.  The lesson here-don’t be deterred by an unsuccessful first attempt.  Make another.

A garden I truly admire has a formal, and short grass  path to a very handsome and overscaled gate.  This path is edged on each side with a very long, very thin rectangle of steel edger strip, infilled with fine gravel.  It is a detail which is incredibly beautiful.  It marks the path so elegantly. This detail says, this way to the rose garden-welcome.   But that steel rectangle some 9 feet long by 6 inches wide-who knows what that dress cost- could be reproduced with a single length of 4″ by 6″ pressure treated lumber, set on its wide edge.  This would be a dress of a different sort, but you would still catch your breath, seeing it.   Another gardener would interpret these long spare path edges with hens and chicks contained with aluminum edger.  Yet another gardener would dig a dirt ditch 6 inches wide, and call it a day. 

If you need design help, figure out who can teach you.

Sunday Opinion: The No Idea Day

Everyone has days where nothing comes. I have plenty of them.  My tactic-the stall. If I don’t have an interesting idea, if the hair is not standing up on the back of my neck,  if things don’t seem to be working-I say so.  To my clients, that is. It’s tough to say “I have no idea (yet) what to do here”.  Much tougher for me, than for a client. I am better able to cope with a not-much-cooking day in others, than in myself.  Hedging helps out.  Its easier to say “I don’t know” if you tack on the end, “but I will find out for you”. 

My scientist Mom went back to work after raising her 3 kids-not in science, as she said too much had happened in the scientific world between 1950 and 1968 to catch up.  So she got a Master’s in Education, and taught high school biology until she retired.  Late in her career,  budget cuts dealt her 3 classes in chemistry.  She took to her bed, certain that these 17 year olds would figure out she she was no expert in chemistry.  I mean, she really took to her bed.  I had to go over to her house every day for 3 months, make her get up and dress, fix her coffee, and escort her to her car when it was time to go.  I made a point of being there at the end of the day too-why wouldn’t I?  Had she not done the same for me countless more days?  It was a good day when she finally understood that no 17 year old would ever come close to challenging her understanding of chemistry, much less her ability to teach it.  And that if she were ever asked something she didn’t know the answer to, she was eminently capable of any research required.  Not that this ever happened-it was her fear that threatened to knock her down.

I also subscribe to the notion that if a design is important, it’s not an emergency. If it is an emergency, then the design is just not that important. As a designer, I have to sort this out both for clients, and for myself. Some people truly do not need or want design, they want something else entirely. If I am lucky, I can figure out what that is. 

Being a designer is not that easy; it takes fortitude to relate to clients regularly, in a fresh way.  I have seen designers  ignore fresh, and berate their clients with their history, reputation and the like. This is lazy, and commerce oriented, although I do understand what it is to be swamped with work. Sometimes its good to just take a day; its an easy thing to recommend, and a very tough thing for me to do.  Yesterday I took 45 minutes to go and get a haircut-it was good fun.

Some clients ask the wrong questions, and reduce the impact of their issues, as they have trouble sorting out what truly means a lot to them. They have all kinds of pressures too, and sometimes their mind’s just not focused on it.  Some design exchanges that work can be attributed solely to timing.  We all are ready for things when we are ready-not before, or after. The evidence of an active imagination and a sure hand is not ephemeral-its just on holiday sometimes.  It can be such a relief to just take the day.

The Transmission of Knowledge


Dr. Waring, a professor I had in English literature in college, once said he thought the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next was the most important organizing metaphor for a life properly lived.  I have no memory of what this was in reference to-nor do I know why I do have a strong enough memory of him having said this such that I still remember it 38 years later.  For my 25th birthday, my Mom took me to the National Peony Show at the Kingwood Center in Mansfield, Ohio.  My strongest memory of that trip were how many people-probably then the age I am now-were so pleased that a person as young as myself was interested in peonies.  At my age, I sometimes worry that not enough young people will become interested and active gardeners; what a shame if the beautiful peonies bred over the last 100 years were to no longer be grown.  This is very similar to the numbers of gardeners who are interested in preserving  heirloom varieties of tomatoes, or antique roses, or heirloom apples.  It is a very natural and right thing to transmit the knowledge of the plants, and how they are grown, to the next generation.

I will be the first to admit that I see very few young people interested in what I do and cherish.  I don’t pretend to understand what they are interested in, although I do remember being a completely self absorbed pain to my Mom, when I was that young.   Nonetheless, she managed to get me interested in plants at a very early age-before I got to that “age of attitude”. I had my own private garden at 6, which I kept-and she stayed out of-until I got to be 16, and sociable;  gardening is a fairly solitary pursuit.  No more garden for me until I was out of college.  When I got to be an older young person, something clicked in.  I became obsessed with growing tall bearded iris and peonies.  So every young person I meet, I try encourage them to make something grow-you never know when that might surface in them, long after your effort.