Friday, September 19, 2008
To Each His Own... My Own Personal "Garden Rant"
I'm entering a liberating stage as a gardener, thanks to the examples set by friends. There is a time when one feels the need to grow every plant, and to believe every claim made by the gardening industry about the latest developments in horticulture. The last couple of years, Echinaceas and Heucheras have been the darlings of the nursery business, and I'm sure the hype is deserved, at least in some areas of the country. The fact that my garden is full (to say the least) makes it easier to keep from rushing out and purchasing the latest plant superstars (the prospect of some expensive dental work looming this summer is a pretty good deterrent, as well), but the best reason not to buy EVERY plant is that there are some things I just don't like. I guess this means that I'm that much closer to having the summer night smile on me for the third time (yeah, it's an obscure reference to "A Little Night Music" - if I'm coming out as an opinionated gardener, I may as well also admit to being a musical theater afficianado), but if that's the case, so be it.
At one time I wouldn't have been comfortable saying that, but at my age, I realize that one only has so much time, energy, and real estate, so he might as well concentrate on growing things he enjoys and appreciates. One friend, on visiting my garden for the first time, was asked by another visitor if she had ever tried growing any of the hardy palms in her garden. Much of the structure in my front garden is provided by a collection of Trachycarpus species, which I happen to really love. Her response was that she hadn't, mainly because she didn't really like them. I was not offended at all, partly because of the kindness in her tone, but mainly because her comment seemed so supportive of my contention that our gardens belong to us, not to the horticultural industry, the gardening cognoscenti, or (worst of all) the neighborhood associations. When I offer plants to people (sometimes it's either give them away or compost 'em), I get lots of different responses, but only once has anyone ever said, "No thanks - I really don't care for those." Interestingly, in the intervening years I've decided I don't care for them, either (Althea "Bluebird") - they're weedy shrubs which reseed everywhere - which is why I was trying to give them away!
The recent glut of Echinacea varieties is a case in point - it's just not my favorite plant, and I don't use up a lot of garden space on it. I felt bad about this for years, until I read an interview with Dan Hinkley in which he was asked if there were any plants he disliked - bingo! (Now if someone could just make me feel okay about being a Democrat in public... )I keep one, seed grown plant of E. purpurea (if you look very closely at the photo below, you might just spot it), and that's mainly to appease Ron - he's still hoping the plant really has the curative properties for which it became famous in past decades, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. We've never once ingested any part of the Echinaceas we've grown, so it's mostly a mental thing. I think looking at it counteracts all of his misgivings about venturing outside during allergy season (or, for that matter, during ANY season). Anyway, they just don't grow very well for me (mostly a consequence of poor drainage), so I can't justify the expense of building and maintaining a collection of all of the latest cultivars.
As I mentioned in another recent post, I have an aversion to Hemerocallis 'Stella d'Oro'; I got one many years ago when it was the only rebloomer available. Since it multiplied so rapidly, I used lots of it to cover ground and edge beds when we first moved here. It had gotten so much media hype that I figured I had to like its chunky, mustardy blooms, no matter what. Part of the problem may be visual; I've decided that this particular hue is not pleasing to my eyes, since I feel pretty much the same way about Kerria, Coreopsis 'Zagreb' (don't tell Ron this cultivar exists - his Croatian heritage would demand that we install one immediately!) and Forsythia (I don't grow this, but I don't mind seeing it, either, since it functions as a powerful harbinger of spring.) My feelings may also stem from growing up with grandparents who survived the depression- if a plant is going to produce blooms that mimic those of summer squash, it might as well earn its keep and actually produce something I can stuff, slice, or grill!
I know my next revelation runs counter to a mantra intoned by everyone I know who wears the mantle of "Master Gardener" (another subject with which I have a few issues; let's not go there right now...), but here it is anyway. I'm pretty much over the ornamental grass thing. I do enjoy the way some of them look for part of the year, but they take up way too much room as they mature, work me to death (I'll spend most of my time tomorrow chopping them back for the third time this year to regain the ability to walk even one abreast on the path between the island bed and the back fence), and reseed with abandon, despite what most references will tell you. Maybe those folks who live in climates which are colder and less amenable to Miscanthus species don't have to work so hard, but I spend loads of time and tear my fingers to shreds pulling out volunteers all over the garden. Worst still are the seedlings that I don't catch in time - they form massive clumps (a couple are just plain green, without the attractive variegation of their progenitors) for which the only removal technique may well be the ignition of dynamite at their crowns; even that might not work. I would love to eliminate several clumps which have engulfed entire rosebushes, shaded out perennials, and provided years of symbiotic safe haven to the dreaded Japanese honeysuckle, rendering both the vine and the host impenetrable to spades, shovels, axes, post-hole diggers, and even my grandfather's infamous "grubbing hoe" (his name for it - I've seen them listed by the much more genteel name "grape hoe.") Yes, they're graceful, they provide winter interest (especially to people with way too much time and spray paint on their hands), and they contrast beautifully in form to plants with leaves of different design; I can't look at my ten or so clumps any more without feeling totally defeated as a gardener.
Here's some more blashphemy: I don't really cotton (pun intended) to things with airy, delicate, wispy little flowers in big, puffy clouds. So Deutzias, Abelias, Exochordas, and a lot of the Spiraeas are not high on my list of favorites. One of the recent media darlings that I really don't get is Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost' - why not just plant ragweed, or the wild Artemesia which, no matter how much I pull out all summer, still manages a panicle or two of blooms to produce the next generation of weeds? I love some Salvias as much as the next guy, but all species seem to be sacred to the garden writers of America. That's fine, but a lot of them look like weeds to me, at least as they interact here. I tossed out S. uliginosa (someone with mild dyslexia could probably transform that species name into an appropriate adjective to describe my impression of this wispy, wimpy weed) a couple of years ago, along with several clones of S. microphylla. "Microphylla" pretty much describes my problem with that one - as Miss Hannigan sings about "little girls", "Everything about them is...LLLLLLLLittle!".
One issue here may be that familiarity breeds contempt. Hellebores have long been among my favorites, and I've been growing, breeding, and collecting them for nearly 20 years. When I started, they were nearly impossible to obtain, and nobody else had them. Now they're at Lowe's every spring for $5.99, and I find my interest beginning to wane, especially as tissue culture makes the really spectacular clones available to just anybody. Another phenomenon, to continue with the obnoxious musical theater references, is what I like to call (with a nod to Stephen Sondheim, one of the true geniuses of our time), the "God, why don't you love me? Oh, you do? I'll see ya later!" blues... I'm fascinated by plants which defy my cultivation and will squander any amount of money on them, knowing full well that they are destined to become very expensive compost. Once I "crack the code", my level of enthusiasm is greatly reduced. We were just lousy with Cattleya hybrids once upon a time, but growing them got tedious once I figured out how to water them. Maybe, on the other hand, I tell myself this to lessen the tragedy of losing them all to scale infestations, which continue to this day. The truth often hurts as I analyze the psychology that motivates me to garden (or to do just about anything, for that matter!).
I guess it all boils down to this: I have less than 1/4 acre, and, if I'm lucky, another 30 odd years in which to cultivate it actively, and I don't want to waste a square inch or a single minute of either. Life's just too short. It's similar to a stance (somewhat unpopular among many of my friends) that I've adopted regarding community theater. No matter how much I love someone, I adamantly refuse to endure another amateur production of Mame, Hello Dolly! or Nunsense (in any of its incarnations). I admit to being motivated on some level by bitterness - how many similar showcase roles are there for tenors who have reached "a certain age" (at least for those of us who are disinclined to appear in drag)? So go ahead; knock yourself out. Plant that Boltonia, Aruncus, or Clematis tangutica and belt out your unique rendition of "Rose's Turn". Just don't be angry with me when I'm not enthused about adopting your rooted cuttings or staying awake for your inevitable standing ovation (everybody always gets one now, no matter what, courtesy of Oprah) at the Podunk Little Theatre.