This Land is My Land, All Mine!

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about what it means, as a gardener, to actually own my own piece of property.  Sometimes when I am taking my vegetable scraps out to the compost heap, following a route that spans the full expanse of my backyard, I marvel at the fact that the entire vast swath is mine to do with as I wish. The soil, the trees, the rocks, the grass (weeds), every dip and sweep of this somewhat pie-shaped, .49 acre lot is all mine!  For a single human, a half an acre is a king’s riches.  It is more than enough to keep a solitary gardener busy and fretting with planting schemes and projects for a lifetime.

A quarter acre would be enough.  An eighth.  A 10′ x 15′ rectangle.  It’s mine, I own it, I am content.  I would rather own a sunny balcony with an array of pots than merely occupy a 50-acre estate.  Mary Lennox, recall, pleaded only for “a bit of earth.”  A bit.  But she wanted it for herself.

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The whole idea of private land ownership is fundamental in American culture, obviously, but I think it’s in our genes as well.  Even hunter-gatherer societies who couldn’t conceive of private property clashed with one another over hunting grounds and resources.

But of course, they were just being practical.

We gardeners like to covet and control.  There is no sugar-coating it.  We see our gardens as a means of self-expression, whether we are decorating them as fussily as we would our living rooms or attempting to create native plant wilderness.  We tend, shape, manipulate.  What’s less obvious is that the rose garden and the bird habitat are shaped with equal passion.

I know that there is a certain class of gardener — protégés of Sara Stein, for example — who seeks to return their property to a Rousseauian state of nature, whereby they need no longer prune, nor weed, nor remove leaves, etc.  Even these good folk, I suspect, would dash out the back door with a giant machete at the first sight of Japanese honeysuckle overtaking their sassafras grove.  And who would blame them?  They spent 10 years getting those sassafras established!

I know I’m not the first gardener who developed the passion only after purchasing my own property, because the same thing happened to the famous garden writer Beverley Nichols.  In this passage from Down the Garden Path Nichols describes the joy he felt in performing even onerous tasks in his very first garden:

Until you actually own a garden, you cannot know this joy.  You may say, ‘oh yes, I love a garden.’ But what do you really mean by that?  You mean that you like to wander through rows of hollyhocks, swathed in tulle…and that you like to drink lemonade under a tree….You do not like bending down for hours to pull up hateful little weeds that break off above the root…you do not like these things, for one reason and only one reason…because you do not own the garden.  All gardeners will know what I mean.  Ownership makes all the difference in the world.  I suppose it is like the difference between one’s own baby and somebody else’s.  If it is your own baby you probably quite enjoy wiping its nose.  If it is somebody else’s you would have to use a long pole with a handkerchief on the end.  That was why I loved all this early work, because the garden was the first thing I had ever really owned.

What about community gardens?  Well, the community vegetable garden near me is sliced up like a pan of brownies at a kids’ party, with each gardener carefully guarding his portion.  Most community gardens appear to be set up this way, with fences making it very clear whose plot is whose.  The gardeners may share hoses and wheelbarrows, but they don’t often share the earth itself.

This is all kind of a paradox, because gardeners are also known to be very generous.  We are all quick to share our extra vegetables, divisions, seed packs, and of course, unsolicited advice.  And I know there are many gardeners out there who donate their time at public gardens, which is generous indeed.

For most of us, though, ownership is fundamental to the experience of being a gardener.  We are happy to yank up hateful little weeds — whether they’re sprouting in a pot, a city garden, or a 50-acre estate — because they are our hateful little weeds.

No Longer Winter

Is there anything more miraculous than taking a walk on a late January afternoon in zone 7a and encountering masses of flowers?  Not “winter interest”, no, but full-on, voluptuous, lipstick-colored blossoms?

img_5071This is Camellia ‘Autumn Pink Icicle’ — thriving at Green Spring Gardens — which is a hybrid of the already cold hardy ‘Pink Icicle’, an Ackerman hybrid.

Anyway, as I walked along with the sun shining overhead and these hot pink blooms reaching out to say hello, well for a minute it was no longer winter.

It will one day be clear to all

lotusOne more tidbit from Henry Mitchell before I have to return the book to the library:

When I peer about my little garden, which is sometimes so beautiful, I never admire this plant or that plant without a certain awe that beneath the surface and structural beauty that even the coarsest human eye can see lies a creative dynamic truth at the heart of all life that is still hidden from simple men like me but that will one day be clear to all.

from On Gardening

(the photo was taken at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on an exceptionally hot day in 2012.)

Today: a Surprise in the Carex

Look what I found sunbathing out in my Carex pensylvanica today:

foxcloseupHe seemed to realize that he would be well camouflaged among the dried out Carex rather than among the autumn ferns or sarcococca further up the slope.

He also matches my wall almost EXACTLY.

p.s. it really bothers me that pensylvanica only has one n.  What happened?

Lunchtime Reading

henrymitchell“People like gardening because it differs from the “efficiency” of modern life.  People like to dig, and they like to dig with the same spade or fork that their predecessors used a thousand years before them.

They like to tie up grapevines.  They like to prune great climbing roses.  They like to stake lilies.  I once had 2,500 bloom stalks of irises in May and 250 stakes that I moved about as needed.  I quite enjoyed staking the irises, because the idea was not to save time but to gaze at each stalk one by one, and of the perhaps 20,000 iris flowers that year, not one opened and not one faded but I noticed it and, while it was in bloom, gazed at it.”

— Henry Mitchell, from Henry Mitchell On Gardening

 

In Praise of the Boxwood

The boxwood gods have always smiled upon me.  Despite what I’ve read about gardeners having difficulties with Buxus, every single boxwood I’ve planted in my garden has performed admirably while asking almost nothing in return.  (I only wish I could find such favor with whatever wrathful deities oversee Camellia and Viburnum.)

I have eight varieties of boxwood growing in my garden.  I know because I just went outside and counted them.  I have Buxus microphylla ‘Franklin’s Gem’, B. microphylla ‘Winter Gem’, B. x ‘Green Velvet’ as well as the five featured below.

One of my favorites is B. microphylla ‘John Baldwin’…what a jolly chubby fellow!  I have this guy planted in a teeny patch of soil between a brick patio and a screened-in porch and right now he is the only thing keeping that space from being a little wasteland of dead leaves and empty pots:

buxusjohnbaldwin

I have another ‘John Baldwin’ planted in rather heavy shade, under a black walnut tree, where he gets regularly peed on by a large Labrador retriever, and he just carries on without complaint.  What a star!

I notice that on a major growers’ website it says you can substitute ‘Dee Runk’ for ‘John Baldwin’ but I am going to have to raise a SERIOUS objection to that recommendation.  I also have a B. sempervirens ‘Dee Runk’ growing in my sideyard:

buxusdeerunk

and I would say, yeah, go ahead and substitute her for ‘John Baldwin’ if you are also okay with substituting, say, Grace Kelly for Richard Dreyfus.  (Tip: not all pyramids are alike! Some are slim and lithe, some are dense and compact!)

I love all my boxwoods.  They are not flashy but they are stalwart.  They are like your friend who doesn’t throw a glamorous dinner party but who can always be counted on to give you a ride to your colonoscopy.  Stalwart & true.  They have color at the time you need it most.  In winter, when everything goes brown and gray, they retain rich shades of green, sometimes tinged with bronze and amber and orange, like this B. microphylla ‘Golden Dream’:

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My ‘Golden Dream’ is planted under a cherry tree right by the sidewalk out front; it NEVER gets supplemental water, and it gets peed on by any number of neighborhood dogs.  Last winter a branch broke off under the 30 inches of snow we got in January; I simply tied it back on with twine and it soldiered on as though it hadn’t been brutalized by the one of the heaviest snowfalls in decades.

I tend to buy my boxwoods in small sizes.  They are said to grow very slowly but I have found that they usually grow a couple to as much as several inches a year. That’s good enough for me.  I’m only 45 and won’t be retiring to my villa in Provence until I’m at least 60, so I have time to watch them grow.

When you go to the garden center you can go to the boxwood aisle and, if you are the Queen of Sheba, pick up a fully grown boxwood for $249.99.

Or you can go to the one-gallon section and get the same thing in a diminutive version for $16.99.  I bought this teeny little B. sempervirens ‘Variegata’ last spring and planted it in a place where it will cheer me up on dreary, gray winter days.  It is only bringing me about 8″ worth of cheer right now, but in five years I am hoping it increases to 24-36″ of cheer in lovely shades of cream and green.

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Here is another boxwood in my yard:

buxushomedepot

Notice anything different?  I bought this one at Home Depot.  It was relatively cheap for its size, and its label mentioned no specific cultivar — just generic B. sempervirens.  And although I still appreciate it for the splash (blob?) of green it provides in the winter garden, it is certainly inferior to the plants I bought at quality nurseries.  I think the difference is that it lacks any definite shape; in fact, Buxus ‘Amorphous Blob’ is probably an apt name for it.

Supposedly, boxwoods need evenly moist, well-drained loam” but they DEFINITELY aren’t getting that in my yard.  Besides maybe Prince Charles and Martha Stewart, who actually has well-drained loam?  No, even though boxwoods are favored by royals and aristocrats, they will perform just as loyally for all of us peasants.

 

 

Winter Red, Green Panda, Blue Trout

Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’

winterberry

Garden Trout

gardentrout

Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’

bloodgrass

Fargesia rufa ‘Green Panda’; Aspidistra elatior ‘Alahi’; Danae racemosa

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Confused forsythia bloom

forsythiabloom

 

Gah!

I’m all for celebrating insect life in the garden, except when it’s something like this:

hive

My son enjoys jumping past these azalea bushes in our front yard on the way to the front door.  Luckily he spotted this behemoth before he brushed past it and angered its occupants.

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Removing the hive was a scary process, but the denizens (which we surmised were Bald-faced Hornets) weren’t overly aggressive and luckily I didn’t get a single sting.

Later, my son opened it up to investigate, and we discovered the architecture of the hive: layers upon layers of thin walls protecting the eggs in the middle.  We felt a bit guilty at having laid waste to this tiny society.

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But sometimes the humans come first.

(Photos by Charlie Gray)

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