Today I was planning to write about daffodils. Then the Northeast shut down in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy, and suddenly the topic seemed a little frivolous. I'm lucky - the monster storm will skip Central North Carolina. That's why I have the luxury of thinking about my garden instead of power outages or flooding.
Self-absorption in the face of Other People's Problems is not new. W.H. Auden's best known poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, is about just this phenomenon:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.
Or while someone is thinking about planting daffodils.
I'll skip ruminating on daffodils for now. Instead, I'll comment on another particularly human phenomenon evoked by Hurricane Sandy: overconfidence in the face of Nature - the idea that, in a battle between Man and Nature, Man will win. The feeling is understandable enough. We have vaccines. We have air conditioning. We have decaffeinated coffee. Really, when you think about all the ways in which we have tricked Nature and gotten around her (think plastic surgery and Prozac), is it any wonder we feel invincible?
Which brings me to gardening. Gardening is about many things - the love of beauty, the thrill of creation, the joy of accomplishment - but at its core, it is about control. It's about subjecting nature to your personal vision - not that there's anything wrong with that. We prune. We stake. We fertilize. We plant agaves in North Carolina clay. Gardening is about trying to influence nature, albeit in a benign way.
I have a neighbor who never waters her plants. She is not much of a gardener, but she enjoys having flowers around her. She buys what she likes, and then, she tells me, she "gives them to God." Obviously she and I have different philosophies - I like to garden, so I put up a fight - but fundamentally, she is on to something. When it comes to Nature, we might win a battle or two, but we'll never win the war, so a little humility is in order. Today, Hurricane Sandy shut down the New York Stock Exchange. I rest my case.
Last week Plant Delights' fall sale began, so if you are a cash-flush Epimedium enthusiast, hurry: their $150 Epimedium is now $120.
Epimediums are the latest cult plants, with the prices to prove it. At Plant Delights, most range from $24 to $35, and since Epimedium has yet to make it to Home Depot, you can expect to pay a lot no matter where you purchase them. They are sturdy plants and are great for dry shade, but they are not particularly showy and are unlikely to attract the attention of botanical neophytes.
Obviously "The Giant," Plant Delights' $150 specimen, is a collector's plant. It's a perennial for the gardener who has everything, including a very healthy bank account. Although I personally do not find "The Giant" tempting, I can understand why somebody might. It's what happens when you've been gardening for a while. Rudbeckia "Goldstrum" and Phlox "David" just aren't a challenge anymore. They come back year after year no matter what you do to them. They're pretty, but all your neighbors have them. What's the fun of that?
It’s getting cool outside, and the bugs want in. For the past week, they’ve been clinging to the screen door, hoping to sneak in when I’m not looking. Yesterday I was face to face with one such clinger, a gray-black fellow with a pointy head. I had seen him a hundred times in my garden, but could not for the life of me tell you what he was. I am a disaster at entomology.
All gardeners know that there are good bugs and bad bugs. The problem is that I still have trouble telling which is which. Science was never my subject. I barely remember high school biology. Geology 101, which I took only to fulfill my college science requirement, was perhaps the most humbling experience of my academic career. It’s a mystery how I wound up gardening.
What is even stranger is that I am not half bad at plants. I can identify scads of them by their leaves alone. Nuances in size, shape, shade, and serration are no problem. But ask me if it’s a soldier beetle (good) or a cucumber beetle (bad), and I have no idea.
What should I say when somebody tells me my dog is cute? "Thank you" is probably the right response, but why? I had absolutely nothing to do with my dog's cuteness.
I feel the same way about swamp sunflower, which right now is getting all the attention in my garden. It is, bar none, the most spectacular plant in town right now. But I take no credit for it whatsoever.
For those of us in the Southeast, swamp sunflower (zones 6-9) may just be the perfect plant. It's beautiful, it's low maintenance, and it's pretty much disease-free. Plant it in full sun, give it decent soil, and make sure it gets some water during dry spells, and you'll look like a pro. Put it in a soggy spot, and you'll look like a genius.
Does your garden look like this?
No? How about this?
No? What a relief.
Very few of us could ever aspire to anything like the lush and elaborate gardens of L.A.'s Getty Center and London's Hyde Park. I loved visiting both, but as beautiful as they may be, they are, like most public gardens, of limited utility to a galloping horse gardener like me. All I ever seem to learn from public gardens is that mine would look a lot better if I had a grounds crew.
The same goes for those picture-perfect private gardens featured in newspapers and magazines. Fine Gardening and Horticulture are fun to read, but they need to go easy on the stories about how some homeowner transformed a miserable, barren swath of land into a showplace. Inevitably, the enterprising homeowner turns out to be a Wall Street baron or a celebrity designer with a historic home on five acres. What on earth am I supposed to take away from this, except that having $100,000 to spend on landscape design would do wonders for my yard?
The truth is, the experiences of real-life gardeners are far more relevant. They help you see what is possible back here on the planet Earth, where gardeners have jobs, small children, and needy dogs, not to mention poor soil, money issues, and bad knees.
In that spirit, this month I am introducing Guest Gardens, which highlights the real-life gardens of Galloping Horse Garden readers. The debut feature is a look at my mother's garden in White Plains, New York - the standard by which I judge my own garden (and find it wanting). In her garden, I discovered my favorite flowers. In mine, I killed them. It seems that Cary is a bit hotter than White Plains.
Please share your pictures, and your tales of triumph or tragedy. Both would be instructive, I'm sure.
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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