10 May 2010

"Gardens are not made by singing 'O how beautiful!' and sitting in the shade"

I wait with some amusement for this week's broadside from the WaPo's garden writers, who have, in the last two weeks, railed against azaleas and sung the praises of coneflowers. What's next? An ode to the orange daylilies? A suggestion that we should all grub out our campanulas?

It is true that our beautiful capital and its hinterlands are a wild riot of azaleas for about two weeks, and it is true that sometimes the combinations of colours in any given planting were not chosen as felicitously as one might have wished. I don't like the red azaleas very much at all, and it would please me greatly if more people planted the lovely native azaleas instead of the Asian hybrids.

Nevertheless, raving against the shrub for the poor uses made of it seems unfair, and the exuberance lasts only two weeks. Then the azaleas fade back into being mere greenery, easily ignored.

Coneflowers, on the other hand, are equally ubiquitous, but do not have the virtue of knowing when to stop. The great garden flowers -- irises, for example, or peonies, or even azaleas -- bloom for their allotted time and then they are done. You must stop what you are doing, right now, and look at them because next week they will be finished and you will have missed them. Coneflowers bloom until you are tired of looking at them.

As an example of how selecting for mere length of bloom time ruins things, consider the rose. I was at the nursery this weekend and was subjected to a wasteland of drifting-landscape-carpet roses, which are ugly shrubs bearing shapeless, scentless, dull red or candy floss-pink blooms. The most charitable thing I could think was that perhaps, if I had a seaside cliff to garden, they might look all right planted at the top of it, if you stood far enough away.

I suspect even that charity might have been misplaced. Once, riding a bus across the Howe of Fife, I saw a wild eglantine scrambling over a fence. It was rose pink (not candy floss) and white and gold, with a sheep pasture falling away below it, the glowing blue sky and sea behind it (for nowhere in Fife are you very far from the sea), and even over the bus exhaust I could smell the blossoms and apple-scented foliage on the salt breeze.

Had the gods chosen, at that moment, to strike me down, I would still have died happy, having seen that wild rose. And, having seen that wild rose, should I settle for a 'landscape rose' or, for that matter, a coneflower that will bloom until it is shabby, and I am sick of it?

No. I shall not. I want my garden to look like a garden, which is to say, like someone has put thought and care and effort into selecting what has gone into it, and loves those things accordingly. It may take years for me to coax CĂ©line Forestier into bloom, and she may not bloom for very long when she does, but I'd rather have her for a day than 6 weeks of coneflowers.

While I wait, I shall get down on my hands and knees and yank up the yellow sorrel and Virginia mercury that insist on infesting the campanulas and foxgloves. I am very excited that some yellow foxgloves I started from seed a few years back are finally going to bloom.

Rudyard Kipling


  1. You know, your blog erupts into the most delicious prose when you write about your gardens. ;-)

    Though I suppose our gardening styles are quite different, really. I started going for more of a xeriscape, and so there is a spot for coneflowers -- though earlier blooms pop up in the same spot, too (right now, it is allium bulgaricum -- what The Boy calls "the little bells").

    Just started some fruit & vegetable plants in the back garden. We'll never be titans of agriculture, of course, but we can hope for some lovely fresh strawberries, and perhaps a melon or two. :-)

  2. Aw, thanks. :)

    I understand the xeric thing, but something that has really astonished me is how little watering my garden needs, once each new thing has gotten established. The exception is tomatoes -- they need lots of water if they're going to produce.

    The Viking is starting on a project to rebuild all the raised beds in back. Titans of agriculture indeed.


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