Dreaming About the Baskets

I had to have woken up 5 times last night.  Every time I came to, I tuned into a streaming stream of consciousness.  All of this unconscious activity-about hanging baskets, for heavens sakes.   Given my Sunday Opinion post, I have a personal pop quiz coming up in just a few days.  I am waking up at night, studying.  Oh yes, I dream about everything and anything related to gardening.  Regularly.

This morning a sheet of ice on a Birmingham sidewalk that put me flat on my back proved to be my Monday undoing.  A trucker parked at the curb who answered my cry for help dialed 911.  The violent shock of my landing made it impossible for me to move my arms.  This scared me plenty; I thought I had broken my neck.  This was my first 911 experience.  The ensuing 6 EMS paramedics summoned via 911 scooped me up, checked me out, and sent me home with this advice.  Take 3 Advil every four hours.  If the pain persists, see your internist.  The Birmingham  EMS-wow.  They were incredible.   My embarrassment about calling 911 was worse than the pain, but every one of them made me feel like I had made the right decision to call them.  I actually did not make the decision-a truck driver who saw me took charge as if he called 911 every day.  I do not know his name, but he got on his phone, and stayed with me until the paramedics arrived.   

I have used the term 911 on occasion.  A deadline, an event for a client, a landscape in need.  I see now that this is foolishness. There are troubles and problems yes-but an emergency is an entirely different landscape.  The EMS people checked me out thoroughly.  Oh yes, my blood pressure was stratospheric.  But no broken bones, no head trauma-they sent me on, with clear instructions.         

I am home now. All I would ever want for my life is to be home at the end of the day.  My home, my garden, my family (this means Buck) -this is what I need.  I have a new and unusually clear understanding of certain priorities.  Today I feel worse, but lucky.    

Nature-I do not fault her for the ice.  Why would I?  Winter weather implies ice, does it not?  I walked onto the ice, and went down.  The most trying upshot of my unexpected fall-very sore hands.  The biggest insult, thumbs that are too sore to use.  Every pair of hands, working the soil, growing vegetables, typing essays, planting starts -hands are essential.  I am sure mine will be fine in no time, but I am especially aware of what an important tool they are today.

Sunday Opinion: Plants In The Air

I have never been a fan of plants in the air.  By this I mean hanging baskets of plants.  God knows plenty of people like them- the glass airspace of all of my local nurseries are awash in them come spring.  Some baskets go home and get transplanted into a container, or in the ground.  Fine.  But not all get a thoughful or beautiful placement.  In my own neighborhood, I see the occasional 10″ diameter hanging basket plopped without further ado into 8″ diameter pots.  Picture this-a pot, with a glaringly white plastic hat and purple petunias on top.  Some of the baskets are not set level-picture a white plastic hat, askew, atop a container. Some white plastic baskets are hung from their hangers so close to a porch overhang I cannot imagine how they will get light, much less be watered.  In my opinion, none of these options are a good look.

I understand the economics of a 10″ white plastic basket.  They do not occupy precious greenhouse floor space.   Small trailing plants have the luxury to grow vigorously in a generous airborne soil space-a bigger plant fetches a better price.  People anxious to get a leg up on a short northern season will pay more for a plant with a growing history; pregrown, as it were. Greenhouse growers, they like the plastic, and the white color-as well they should.  Plastic is lightweight, and readily handled.  By this I mean filled with soil, planted, and hung up.  Any growing operation involves lots of steps, lots of care, lots of time and lots of hands.  As efficiently as a growing operation can be handled matters much to the bottom line.  My line of work has put me in contact with countless growers and nurseries.  It matters little whether you are growing 1 gallon perennials, 5 gallon shrubs, hanging baskets of annuals, vegetables or trees-growing professionally is a staggeringly labor intensive and risky vocation.  What if the weather does not cooperate?  What if the drought kills your rhododendron seedlings?  What if the buying public passes by every basket of million bells you have grown?  That white plastic hanging basket of annuals in the spring greenhouse airspace is engineered to provide a grower with optimum conditions to grow a large crop. White plastic reflects light.  This means any given basket will need water on a manageable schedule.  The basket can be easily gotten down for a customer.  The plants get the best light available.  Every greenhouse grower deals with all of the issues of any restaurant chef, times 10.  A chef gets to pitch what is out of date.  A grower furthermore spends lots of time dealing with aging material.  I only regret the baskets do not come with an explanatory note.  The container in which this plant has been grown was selected in the interest of efficient growing only.

  The hundred of white plastic planted bowls that we know as hanging baskets are held aloft via an adaptation of the coathanger; this utilitarian part pains me.  A coathanger belongs in a closet, does it not?  This is just the beginning of my discontent.  Plants root in the earth, and the earth is at grade-right?  Containers have a point of connection to the ground plane. Hanging baskets-what is the good idea behind plants in the air?  I have a tough time answering this question reasonably-but that is based on many years of instinctive prejudice against them.  Plants in airborn dirt-something seems wrong about this to me. 

Any instinctive prejudice-I have time in late February to reflect.  The snow is still piled miles high in Michigan; I have time to review my assumptions about gardening. Those weather people are predicting our two days of thaw will be followed by 2 inches of snow.  This prediction makes me want to weep.  It is almost the 1st of March-can the winter not make a move to let go?   In a calmer moment, I would suggest there are those activities that can make the winter prison time go faster.  In a perfect world, every gardener would examine their prejudices, and move off of them.  In the interest of bringing a little fresh thought to some of my own cold and stale toast, and in the interest of amusing myself, I am rethinking my ideas about hanging baskets.  Why so, this February 26th?

My grower has called my hand.  He is planting his hanging baskets for spring this week.  He has invited me to come over, and get my hands dirty.  He has made it clear.  “So Deborah, if the hanging baskets available in my greenhouse in the spring are not to your taste, what would you plant?  What is your idea?  If you had to have some hanging baskets in your garden this year, what would be planted in them?  Consider this a formal invitation.”  It would be very unsporting of me to refuse, would it not?   

This coming Friday I will be designing and planting hanging baskets.  I am rather looking forward to it.

At A Glance: Sweating It Out

Flambeau Finials

 In one of their garden ornament auction catalogues published nearly a decade ago, Sotheby’s offered a pair of early twentieth century stoneware lidded urns.  The cataolgue description was as follows: “each lobed body with boldly modelled ram’s heads beneath egg and dart moulded everted rim, and flaming lids on rising circular foot and square base, stamped A Brault File, Choisy-le-Boi.”  Flaming lids?  This alone was enough to make fall for them.  More formally speaking, a flambeau is a torch, or flame.  As a decoration, a flambeau is a flame shape; one sometimes sees these flames springing from an urn, or finial.

The flame was often used as a decorative element in antique urns and finials.  This Coadestone lidded urn has the date 1795 stamped into the base.  The word finial comes from the latin-finis, or finish.  A garden finial is a sculpted ornament that terminates or finishes some architectural element, such as gate piers, or fence piers.        

This quartet of cast iron finials auctioned at about the same time are late nineteenth century.  Voluptuous in shape with fluid and gracefully rendered drapery, the flaming lids look more to my eye like some fabulous hairdo.  At 49 inches high, they are not for the faint of heart.  Even the color is spectacular-for all the world they look like they had been painted with aluminum or silver paint.  It would take a garden of considerable size and self assurance to take take them on.  Though I cannot imagine placing them, I would have them in a heartbeat.  They are rowdy, and outrageous.  Gorgeous and elegant.

Happily, a pair of antique English sandstone flambeau lidded urns arrived on this container.  They were of a size and age that made careful crating necessary.  A good bit of the cost of any garden ornament is the expense associated with the shipping.  In this case, a piece of furniture needed to be built to get the pieces here safely. 

My flaming lids are carved in a similar fashion to the aforementioned French finials, but in a less refined style.  This pair of antique English sandstone flambeau finial urns came originally from a Victorian manor house in Derbyshire, England, in Chatsworth House county.  Afficianados of anything English are familiar with Chatsworth; it is a  much celebrated and admired garden.   

The handles are very large, and simply carved from a single piece of sandstone.  Small chips on the sharp edges of the stone consistent with its age reveal the original ochre color of the stone.  The shape of this finial, the handles and long narrow neck bring to mind the shape of an amphora.  From the Greek, “amphi”, meaning on both sides, and “phoreus”, referring to the handles by which the vessel would be carried.  This is strictly my imagination at work here.   
The body of the finial is unexpectedly, and beautifully fluted.  All five foot 6 inches of the stone rests on a waisted socle and circular foot.  The stepped square base at the bottom is generously proportioned and thick.

Statuesque comes to mind.  I find the simple shapes and proportions very pleasing to the eye.  Though massive and heavy, I could see these finials fitting into a landscape quite gracefully.  I could not be more pleased to have them. 

 I did not post this picture of a capodimonte porcelain lidded urn solely from worry that this essay might be making you sleepy.  If you look at the picture, and squint your eyes enough so the cherubs and surface decoration fades, you will see the flame finial and this urn share certain common elements.  They could not be more different in material, surface, effect, size, color, texture and purpose-but they do share a certain something.      

I have given them a special place at the front door.  I think the 1920′s stained glass doors set off my flaming lids quite well, don’t you?