Saturday, July 5, 2008

A New Travel Destination....Your Garden

With gas over $4 a gallon, we search for creative ways of satisfying our wanderlust without breaking the bank. One possibility—to revisit our gardens, not as “gardeners” but as incidental tourists in pursuit of precious spiritual healing.

At first light, the grass is deliciously cool under my bare feet as I stroll along the beds. The dark night is behind me. Delicate teardrops glisten on the leaves and blossoms that turn their faces to the rising sun. All is hushed and still, expectant—welcoming the new day. The perfume of unfolding buds drifts on the faint hint of a breeze.

Next to the stands of astilbe with its red-tinged stems and lacy foliage, a lone obedient plant is poking out of the dark earth where it hadn’t been the day before. Anything but obedient, I chuckle to myself. It is a moment of high comedy to encounter spontaneity in the midst of all that deliberate cultivation. I have stumbled on adventure, right here in my own backyard.

High noon I retrace my steps, caught up short by the shimmering waves of heat swirling around the daisies. The air is heavy with green, the scent of the tropics in our northern clime. I relish the exercise amid a sea of crimsons and whites and raucous yellows.

In my leisurely stroll, I find nature hard at work all around me. Ponderous in flight, bees move to a droning cadence from flower to flower under the glare of the midday sun. Velvety orange against the hot pink of the peonies, butterflies swoop and soar, all grace and restless energy. In the pine branches overhead, the shadow of a hawk contemplates lunch scurrying about, foraging down below. I curl up in the shade with a good book, half-listening to the frenzied stirrings of life in the garden going on around me.

Night falls slowly, in a distant blaze of oranges and purples across the water of Little Traverse Bay. Twilight spreads over the garden like a blanket pulled tight around me. Weary petals curl in upon themselves, holding in the warmth of the sun. Like the foothills of some storied mountain range, monochrome as the night itself, the plantings stretch out into the moonlight, all grays and blues and dark shadows.

The garden sleeps. With a full day behind me, I too am ready to rest.

My travels have taken me from Eden to the equator to the Appalachians in a single day. No travel agency could have plotted an itinerary as intimate or refreshing.

The Creator walked the garden, the ancient text reminds me, and found it good. And at the end of the day, the Creator rested.

Garden Railroads

Something new is blooming in my garden. For years my long-suffering spouse, John, has been helping me dig, weed, transplant—that, despite the fact he is allergic to most flowers and has a back even worse than mine. Given his druthers, he would plant all hostas or ground cover. Still, he concedes around a foot of sod a season to turn our front yard into a cottage garden. If that isn’t loyalty, I don’t know what is.

His “gardening” of choice up until now has been water gardening that took the form of two ponds. One is the size of a large picnic table, the other a washtub. Still, he has some interesting flora going out there, one very tough goldfish (a former 10-cent feeder fish saved from the pet store) that even survived a baby osprey hunting from the vantage point of our neighbor’s eaves. It took 7 years, but a family of frogs has moved in for several seasons now. I love the sound of running water thanks to his modest waterfall.

All that is changing, big time. After I spent last summer in Bay View building an HO-gauge railroad in our cottage dining room with my grandson, I couldn’t help spot the wistful looks from John as he helped us turn a commercial tin can into a very believable tunnel.

I got the hint. For Christmas, Valentine’s and every celebrate-able date in between, I gifted him with a G-scale garden railroad. And before I could say, where’s the shovel, he had carved out a 15 by 10-foot network of tracks for engines, passenger and freight cars and a trolley happily toodling back and forth on a track of its own, along with a growing village of structures made from birdhouses.

It’s an amazing engineering feat, not quite the Brooklyn Bridge but close. Part of the magic are the plants that make the layout come alive, greenery that resembles full-size bushes and trees.

The project demands looking at plant growth tags literally from a whole new perspective. Essential are small leaves and flowers, as well as slow growth and low heights when mature. When it comes to rocky hillsides and lawns for garden-rail structures, moss and lichens are perfect. Other favorites are dwarf phlox, Creeping Jenny, Partridge Feather, miniature succulents like sedums and Hens and Chicks, and varieties of tiny ground covers.

I am not advocating we all dig up our perennials and start laying track. When it comes to gardening, though, I have learned a valuable lesson. One guy’s chore is another guy’s can’t-wait-to-get-at-it moment. Sometimes those plants we take for granted are a lot more diverse and versatile than we think.

Garden as a Spiritual Place

For our anniversary, my husband gave me a wonderful book and CD, “The Rose, the Lily & the Whortleberry” [Harmonia mundi], a breath of spring as we head into the planting season. They celebrate the story of the medieval garden with the help of music performed by the Orlando Consort and art prints from illuminated manuscripts of the period.

Gardens in medieval times were small and intimate, the book explains. The earliest were enclosed gardens [hortus conclusus], so-named because they were surrounded by a protective wall. Inspired by poetry in the biblical “Song of Songs”, these gardens were meant to reflect an innocent Eden-like harmony between human beings and the natural world. Eventually a second style developed, the secular pleasure garden [jardin d’amour] in which courtly lovers enjoyed the good life.

The European Renaissance changed all that. No simple Eden here. Object was to display human skill in taming nature, with elaborate formal paths, geometric beds, cascades and terraces. Even individual plants were sculpted into exotic shapes [topiaries]. Later on historically , the English garden represented a deliberate return to the wild, “natural” gardening style.

Other cultures also have cultivated the ideal of the “garden” as a spiritual place or a “romantic” haven. In the Muslim tradition, the garden represents paradise and rulers in those ancient lands created elaborate pleasure gardens. The seemingly fanciful landscape scrolls of the Orient are actually faithful reproductions of mountainous parklands in which rocks, water and plants are carefully manipulated to create a sense of mystery, peace and awe.

These “idealized” gardens appeal to all the senses. Plants with colorful blossoms or exotic foliage become a feast for the eyes. Some plant choices create a sense of healing with their herb-like smells and still others are prized for their romantic fragrance. Others are selected for their fruit or because they produce spices that stimulate the taste buds.

Even without strolling minstrels, the connection between gardening and music is magical. From the medieval fountains to the murmuring sounds of modern water gardens, to the random bird calls and scurrying of insects, the garden comes alive with a music all its own.

No wonder so many centuries ago, troubadours like Jacques Arcadelt [1505-1568] were singing “woe is me, whose life is not restored by flower, branch, grass, air, grotto, wave. . .shade or breeze”. I invite you to celebrate spring this year by sharing your favorite “garden” song, poem, painting or photograph, even recipe with a gardening buddy—or even better, readers of this column. For starters, it will put all the weeding and digging to come in perspective.

Spring is in the Air

I was threading my way through the snow and black ice last week when a greenhouse sign caught my eye. “Tired of winter. . .just come on in,” it said. They didn’t have to ask twice.

As it turns out, nothing major was in bloom at the moment under all those glass-enclosed aisles full of plants. It didn’t matter. Like the smell of printers’ ink to a writer, the rich smell of potted things growing is something guaranteed to get a gardener’s pulse racing. Moreover, I have come to appreciate, as a gardener, that foliage has a subtle appeal all its own—indoors and out.

Cool and lush, a classic shade garden can turn out to be a subtle island of calm and restraint in otherwise tough to cultivate nooks and crannies in a yard. Those delicate and muted shades of green, creams, whites and yellows are restful, quietly inviting us to look deeper for our definitions of beauty than the gaudier displays possible in sunnier beds.

Hostas and varieties of ferns flaunt their distinctive and showy greenery, elbowing one another for space in the shady ground. The incorrigible vinca minor or lesser periwinkle sends tenacious runners into corners where more showy flowering plants would balk at trying to establish themselves. Shady rock gardens can flourish like exquisite landscapes in miniature with their tiny red and crimson forests of shoots rising above the pillow-like hillocks of moss.

In the early morning when the ground is still wet or in the hours after a spring or summer shower, a walk through a shade garden is like a stroll through a tropical Eden. Life is flourishing on all sides, not to flower or pragmatically to fruit, but simply and joyously to be.

In a human world that values “bigger and bolder”, shade gardens are life lessons in simplicity and discernment. The aesthetics of a shade garden is grounded in the bare shape and structure of things. Its palette depends on an appreciation for subtlety as much as variety.

Shade gardens celebrate the long haul, the steady and the persistent. Long after species after species of perennials in the full-sun have flowered and faded, the plants of the shade garden go quietly on with their business of growing.

I left that greenhouse with a tiny fern for my terrarium. The wind was biting, the ground uncertain under my feet. Still, I told myself, somehow it didn’t matter so much whether March was coming in or going out like or a lion. Spring is coming. I smiled.

Color and Meaning in a Garden

As an avid community gardener, I don’t usually give too much thought to what perennials are my favorites. My job on the garden crew is to nurture the choice of plants of our garden planner. Since I work in a memorial garden, definite rules apply about what to include and what is considered inappropriate.

A major design principle in a memorial garden is use of color. Yellows and reds are considered too passionate and showy. Instead, the palette includes cool purples and blues, mauves and pinks which tend toward the blue, as well as pristine whites.

Such links between plants and the emotions are nothing new. One of the most famous lists of flowers and their significance occurs in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” when the doomed heroine Ophelia gifts the courtiers with freshly picked blossoms, in the process reciting the poignant emotional significance of each of them. In Victorian times, especially, people were obsessed with the “meaning” of different plants and flowers.

To this day, roses are seen as classic symbols of romantic love. Pink varieties supposedly convey admiration and appreciation. Red expresses passion or congratulations at achievement. White conveys innocence and humble grace. Yellow roses can express “welcome home” or friendship, but beware—also can symbolize jealousy.

Even “ordinary” garden plants have assigned meanings, such as daisies (innocence and loyalty) and irises (faith, courage). A whole emotional lexicon has sprung up around carnations. Pink, the official flower of Mother’s Day, tells the recipient, “I will never forget you”, while red says, “my heart aches for you”. White symbolizes pure affection. Yellow and striped carnations can mean disappointment or rejection. Chrysanthemums express friendship, except yellow which again has a negative connotation.

If I had to assign personal “meanings” my Top 10 floral garden favorites, they would be: 1) Iris—elegance. 2) Daffodils—gregarious, unpretentious. 3) Prairie Asters—persistence (the latest bloomers in my garden). 5) Astilbes—gracefulness. 6) Coneflowers and Brown-eyed Susans—joyous simplicity. 7) Helibores—hopeful (blooming even in the snow). 8) Day lilies—exuberance. 9) Foxglove—air of mystery (partly for their over-the-top snapdragon-like flower stalks and partly for popping up all over the garden season after season). 10) Lupine—frustrating (I have a dickens of a time growing them, but even their bloomed out seed pods are fascinating).

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we have a perfect chance to tell the gardener in our lives how we feel. While cut flowers can be wonderful for doing that, so can gifts of perennials that in just a matter of months can go out there in the beds, hopefully to flower for years to come.