You Really Can’t

In my heart, I knew better than to do this-but today, I went back anyway.  My first garden, and the 5 acres of property that came with it was my home and passion for 15 years.  I sold it, and left it, in good order.  Even the house was eminently liveable.  The people who bought the property-I knew they had plans to build a new house.  My offer at the closing to provide photographs of the gardens-they were not interested.  My interests are my interests-I have no real need to convince other people to treasure what I do-they do, or they don’t. But I went back today, as I have written posts about my first garden-I thought I would end that series with good news. But as I drove up my street, I had a clear view of my cedar clad ranch, and the building going on behind it-not so swell, this first view.  Today’s visit was not my first.  I have been back maybe 5 times over the past 15 years.  What I saw today was not so much different than I saw 15 years ago.  I was expecting a home in place, and a beautiful landscape to go with.  Not so.  But anyone who gardens has a big dose of hope lodged firmly in their DNA.  I am no different.     

A good bit of the property was covered in dirt piles, piles of concrete, dumpsters, trucks and erosion fencing.  This comes with building a new house-but this new house has been under construction for most of the 15 years since I sold it.  I see trees struggling to survive, given the years that piles of excavated soil have been heaped over their roots.  Like those trees, I am struggling to understand what the big idea is here.  

Mountains of excavated soil sit in the orchard meadow.  This is not a good look.  The ancient junipers that lined the drive-they were never so gorgeous.  But they were old, and sculptural-they had green, in the round. They have not been treated kindly.  Limbed up and one-sided as they are now, I feel guilty that I ever left their care to someone else.  

The view down the drive-none of the gardens around the house appear to have survived.  My little existing house is dwarfed by a giant, yet unfinished house sitting behind it.  My prized peony collection was rooted out and cast off to make way for that house.  How this property has been treated-I do not admire what I saw today. The wild garden-maybe it survives, as many of the plants are native.  The ancient almost record breaking ash is intact, and dead.  I vastly prefer my pictures, and my memories of the time when I happily gardened all over this piece of land.  I learned so much, stewarding this big piece of land.  What I saw today-I am at a loss to put that into words.  The truth of the matter-you really can’t go home.

The Brush Fence


You would laugh if you could see all of the boxes of 35mm pictures that are littering my drawing studio right now.  No matter whatever possessed me to get them down off the shelf, and go through them, I am in that sore tooth phase-I cannot leave them alone.  Thus the posts about my first garden.  Apparently more is to come from those pictures; some projects I still like.  I have a little time to write about them-this March is shaping up to be a winter month, not a transition from winter to spring month. This picture of a brush fence I built many years ago strikes a current chord.  I have had a container of English terra cotta and antiques stuck in England for 6 weeks-over a round of chestnut fencing that US customs does not like.  Chestnut fencing is very common in England-chestnut slats and wire make for a rough and cottage ready, simple fencing that comes in  rolls.  There are panels, and gates, to go with. Chestnut fencing may be a fixture in England, but customs is not happy that I wish to import it to the US.  Why is this?  Standard fumigation techniques have been outlawed, with no substitute put in place.  Suffice it to say that this has been very difficult.  They are worried the fencing has bugs and I want to make available gardening materials from England.  We finally got the fencing heat treated; the container should be in my hands by April 4.   
This client lived on a corner. Corner properties have no back yard.  This means no clearly defined front and public space, and back, or private space.  This 1920′s tudor style house made its own architectural demands. My idea-a rough brush fence would define the front landscape, separate from the side and rear.  I still love this fence, though it is long gone.  Thick maple branch posts set at intervals capture good size and very long branches-laid in between; all of the branches were courtesy of Westside Forestry.  The big idea here-a fence can be built from what is due to be discarded.  The bottom branches were laid in between parallel sets of maple poles.  The poles were then wired together with concrete wire to keep them parallel, and the next layer of brush would be laid.  Very low tech.    

 Once the fence was in place, of course I planted sweet autumn clematis.  What better plant to grow over, and soften this structure.  The front gardens got laid out and planted.  Yews trimmed in oval shapes were set square in generous swoops of Japanese painted ferns marked the arbor entrance to the side garden.   

Large flowered clematis hybrids were planted at the base of the brush fence, which eventually was frosted with a single plant of sweet autumn clematis. Trained to grow sideways on the top of the fence, it added considerable height to the fence.   One late winter night, a straight line wind took the fence down.  Looking at this picture today, I remember my shock.   The maple posts snapped.  They were not one bit rotted-that same wind took half of the roof off my building and deposited it in the street.    

Always in a garden-there is trouble.  Plants that do not survive the winter.  Plants that do not survive terrible storms.  Too much water; not enough water.  Plants that do not survive with no reasonable explanation.   Trouble-every garden sees plenty of this. This trouble-terrible.  The timing could not have been better though-it was very early spring.  Nothing else in the garden was damaged.         

 The broken brush fence exposed what I had thought to keep private for my clients.  This turn of events-not much to my liking.  As it turned out, it was a fairly simple matter to repair.    

In the side yard, off the sun porch,  a formal herb garden had been under construction.  We were able to go ahead and plant, once spring came.   

A very small formal garden sited off a side porch-this is how it looked, only seconds after it was first planted.  The brush fence that made this space private-we put that fence back up, better than ever.  This sheltered garden was devoted primarily to herbs. The tall hedge you see on the right of this picture-Cornus Kousa.  It was planted in a curve opposite to the curve of brush fence. These features made the side garden very private.  

The herbs, notably basil, had good company.  Heliotrope.  Perovskia.  Marguerite daisies. Granite cobbles, and decomposed granite.  The entrance from the street-a recently rebuilt brush fence.  This garden exists only in these pictures now-the client went on to reconfigure the entire landscape.  Every garden I work in is different than it was 20 years ago-nothing in a garden stands still.

Sunday Opinion: Collecting Plants

Buck and I were out to dinner the other night with friends.  The rather spirited and hotly debated topic of discussion-collecting.  From the dictionary, a collection is a group of objects to be seen, studied, or kept together.  That group could be as little as 2; anyone who owns more than one sports car, garbage disposal or vintage fountain pen is a collector in my book.  Could one not get by with just one of each of these things? If you own one or none of something, you aren’t collecting, you’re just living.  Some collections are entirely utilitarian.  Dress shirts and sports coats, juice glasses, socks, garden books and steak knives-these objects in numbers serve a purpose. A clothes closet, a cutlery drawer, a bookshelf-these are means by which a collection is kept together for ease of use.  Seeds harvested by a grower ia a collection that will be studied; the tomato seeds will be kept with other tomato seeds-maybe they will be tested for viability.  Once the seeds of a given variety are packaged for sale, they may be displayed in a garden center next to packages of other varieties of tomato seeds.  This kind of collection gets studied by the individual gardener.  The gardener that buys seed for twenty different types of tomatoes-that person we might call an afficianado, or connoisseur, chef de cuisine, farmer, or a gardener that particularly values fresh and homegrown food.

Buck is a collector.  He has a collection of vintage accordions-maybe 38, maybe 52.  Many of them he has taken apart, cleaned, and restored.  I am not sure how many he has, as all but 2 are packed away, stored in their cases.  This is a group of objects meant to be seen.  What about displaying 4 of them in every room of the house?  This does not sound good.  They should be kept together-but how?  Displaying a collection is an art in itself. He also collects vintage movie projectors, slide wire potentiometers and other antique instruments used to precisely measure voltage.  Every square inch of the walls of his den are lined with them.  A pair of movie projectors from the 1940′s taller than I, sit on the floor face to face, and occupy one entire wall.  Though not the usual room decor, this loosely related series of machines all from a particular period make a very strong visual statement.  My interests could not be further from this, but I like collections created by an individual, rather than by committee or consensus.

A few years ago, I got him going collecting vintage composition dolls, doll heads, and doll parts.  I always bring a little something back to him if I am travelling-a trip shopping to the Roundtop Antique show in Texas would be no different.  Booth after booth stocked with every imaginable collectible object were set up in giant fields.  An elderly lady had a booth that was entirely devoted to vintage dolls.  She had countless glass jars full of doll parts. Many of these dolls had seen what Buck would call 1000 miles of bad road-dragged through the dirt, left outdoors, an arm missing.   One doll head-a composition head with bleached straw like hair, half of which was gone,  and alarmingly blue and fixed glass eyes – this would be perfect for Buck.  Compelling, and a little scary-he likes this.  But I walked away, thinking I might find something better.  Of course I didn’t-nor could I find my way back to her booth.  I thought about that head on and off all the way home; all I could do was tell him about it. A month or so later, a box of doll heads arrived.  Soon they were arriving every day. He did an installation of quite a few of his collection on a wall-they look great.

Our dinner companions-they are good friends, and avid plant collectors.  He was interested to know what Buck had to say about displaying collections.  He waded right in where I would be reluctant to tread.  When I go out to dinner with friends, I act like a friend.  But Buck doesn’t design gardens-his involvement is strictly on the looking end.  His take- a collection gains visual strength when it is arranged, grouped in a way that makes visual sense. As he is not a horticulturist, he sees overall shapes, colors and arrangements, not rare cultivars, or unusual specimens.  It is one thing to garden with such ability that all of your plants perform and thrive.  It is another thing all together to make them read visually.  I have few clients who garden with such a range of plants even close to theirs.  Conifers of all kinds, rare shrubs and trees,  wildflowers, perennials of every description, tropical plants, roses, bulbs, dahlias-you get the idea .  Their passion is for plants.  I have no problem spotting a small start of a rare jack in the pulpit, or an unusually variegated Japanese maple-but Buck can’t see that.

Making sense of a collection visually means that you enjoy it just as much from a distance as you do up close.  Once my collection of peonies got to 25 cultivars, I knew I had to arrange them in some way.  I could have spread them out, planting a few in each of many perennial areas.  I instead chose to line them out in rows, like crops.  From a distance, the green rows were orderly, and made a big statement.  This arrangement made caring for them easier.  When they were in bloom, the mass of flowers was beautiful.  When I collect one type of plant in depth, I like to keep them together.  I like hedges of peonies, better than individual bursts of peonies.  In my little south side rose garden, I did not plant one climbing rose.  I planted the entire wall with a collection of climbing roses.  I planted a collection of roses of only 3 varieties, that I thought would make a pleasing mass and interesting color contrast.

 When I collect plants that are related by some organizing characteristic-such as dwarf conifers, meadow perennials, rock garden plants, bog plants-a collection such as this is broad, rather than deep.  I would tend to arrange these related plants together, such that the overall shape of the collection makes as big an impact as a mass of one plant.  Naming gardens and spaces helps to make clear what goes in that broadly concieved garden, and what would be lost, or just doesn’t belong there.  I like plant collections that are arranged such that I see what made the garden maker collect them to begin with.  If you are unable to edit your collecting, I am sympathetic. I do not do a very good job of this either.  But I have a very small garden-my limits are clearly defined.  A large piece of property-I would be out of control.   One of the reasons I enjoy gardening for a living is the access I have to garden and plant collections other than my own.

At A Glance: The Peony Garden

A trip to the American Peony Society yearly meeting and exhibition in Mansfield Ohio in the 1980′s-I cam home knowing I had to grow peonies.  I also knew I would have a very tough time choosing which of a few I would grow.  So I grew them like crops, in long grass-infested rows.  I have no idea where this grass came from, nor do I know what grass it is.  Do you?  They did amazingly well with this less than ideal care.  Peonies are very persistent and long lived.  By the time I sold that first garden property, the patch probably had 400 peonies in it.   

paeonia lactiflora hybrids

peony Raspberry Sundae

Japanese peony Do Tell, and double cerise pink peony Kansas

Japanese peony Whitecap

peony patch

peony Festiva Maxima

peony Pink Dawn

peony Princess Margaret

peony Kansas

peony Coral Charm