The North Carolina Museum of Art's current exhibition, Still Life Masterpieces: A Visual Feast from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, got me thinking about the myriad connections between art and gardening. Of course no gardens were on view; the show is about still life, so only inanimate (or once-but-no-longer-animate) objects make an appearance. It's beautiful to look at and just plain fun, especially the sidebar display by members of the North Carolina Garden Club. And it was surprisingly full of wisdom for the garden.
Lesson One: Composition is king. Cézanne meticulously arranged his still life compositions in a quest for perfect balance and harmony. If he was dissatisfied with one arrangement of peaches and lemons, he would try another until he got it just right.
A little of Cezanne's discipline would do me a world of good. The sad truth is, my garden has no governing principle. It began haphazardly and expanded opportunistically. Eight years later, my design philosophy is, "Where does this fit?" Time to grab a shovel and rearrange those peaches.
It's official: my back yard looks like hell. The trees and shrubs are bare, the berries have been eaten, the perennials have died back. All that is left is pennywort. Acres and acres of pennywort.
Okay, I exaggerate. I don't have acres and acres. But if I did, they would be covered with pennywort.
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, pennywort (aka dollarweed or Hydrocotyle in Latin) is an invasive, low-growing riparian or aquatic plant that spreads by seeds and runners. In other words, it's a weed that takes over wet areas.
Have you ever noticed that every adage has an opposite? Look before you leap; he who hesitates is lost. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; better safe than sorry. Absence makes the heart grow fonder; out of sight, out of mind. Et cetera.
Garden advice is the same - a bundle of contradictions. You could go this way. It's pleasant down this way, too. Of course, some people do go both ways.
With gardening, the more I read the less I know what to do. Take fall cleanup. Should I rake out the debris (leaves and dead plant matter) or leave it in place? A. says rake it out, since it can provide hiding places for insects and harbor disease. B. says leave it: it will provide insulation and improve the soil as it decays. I usually go with B., but this brings up another question. Is it necessary to chop the fallen leaves? I shredded a slew of them weeks ago, but more have fallen and I'm feeling kind of lazy. Will it be fatal to leave them in place? Isn't that what happens in nature? And while we're at it, how do I know that what's stewing under the debris is a bad thing? Might it not possibly be a good thing? I thought that's how you got compost.
I'm always looking for tips on planting in solid clay. A. says dig a hole and backfill it with amended soil, a mix of the original clay, some shredded pine bark, and some compost. B. says that this is the worst thing you can do; all you are doing is creating a soggy bowl that will eventually drown your plants. Never dig down. Instead, build the soil up. That will give your plants something decent to sink their roots into. Of course, that won't work if your garden scheme involves planting on a steep hill. Back to A.
Speaking of clay, tilling is a hot topic these days. A. says go for it - it will loosen and aerate the soil, help mix in nutrients, and all in all create a more hospitable environment for planting. Back in the day, my mother was Queen of the Rototiller, and she had a gorgeous garden. But now I understand that tilling is an ecological no-no. B. tells me that it depletes soil nutrients, disturbs beneficial insects and organisms, and encourages weeds to germinate. Apparently my weeds are very smart, because they germinate just fine with no encouragement in my untilled back yard.
All of which raises an important question: is sauce for the goose really sauce for the gander, or is there more than one way to skin a cat? I have no idea, but I'm getting a headache worrying about it. Oh well. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and since my garden seems to be sputtering along, I can't be doing everything wrong.
So put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Sky Pencil holly with stem dieback.
A little plant drama has been unfolding in my neighborhood over the past year, a battle of wills between a hapless homeowner and the ubiquitous Sky Pencil holly. So far, the holly is winning.
I don't know the homeowner in question, but from my seat in the peanut gallery, I think I have grasped the basic plot outline. The homeowner has no interest in gardening. Nevertheless, he has some pride and, in any case, property values must be maintained and neighbors appeased. So off he goes to Home Depot or Lowes in search of an easy-care evergreen. He returns with five Sky Pencil hollies and, as Act I ends, plants them in the front yard.
In Act II, all five hollies are showing signs of stem dieback, which gets progressively worse as the weeks wear on. Act III: the five hollies are now thoroughly dead. The homeowner removes them but vows to persevere. In Act IV, four fresh Sky Pencil hollies are installed in the front yard. How will Act V end? Alas, poor homeowner.
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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