Let’s say for the sake of argument, that gardeners are the pinnacle of human evolution, as this t-shirt says.
But what about degrees of evolution within gardeners? I know I have certainly changed.
The parade of seeing the garden’s moods change minute-to-minute is one of the reasons I garden now, and the better I get at seeing it, the more I get out of it.
Some plants are a dance unto themselves, beautifully morphing from leaf to flower and back again. Japanese maples and Physocarpus come to mind – they may be deciduous, but mesmerizing in the shifting colors of bark and leaf.
I didn’t always see that parade. When I first started gardening (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) I was all about the flowers, which is kind of like saying, when I get dressed, I’m all about bling. My goal is to blind everyone who sees me with non-stop spangle.
What’s the horticultural answer to that? One would be a bed of annuals that flower non-stop until frost, like impatiens or geranium. But in the 80s, that was considered cheating by the “serious” gardening world.
Annuals Need Not Apply
Perennial borders were the rage at that time, so botanical symphonies like Great Dixter in England were my inspiration. I consumed books by Gertrude Jekyll and made confetti out of the White Flower Farm and Bluestone Perennials catalogs.
Perennials need to save energy to grow roots that can live through winter, so they typically bloom three to six weeks. So to win at perennial gardening you need to plot successive blooms as surgically as if you are composing music for a live orchestra.
Except it turns out the plants dance to their own music, or more accurately, the music of timing and quality of light, weather and nutrients. (Not to mention regular assault by animals, and insects, and microbes.)
One summer day my father, a lawyer with the heart of a stage manager, was watching me go through reams of paper sketching potential combinations, suggested we build a rotating shelf system that would roll budding plants into view and passing plants out of sight. Thinking of all the time spent planning, deadheading, replanting failed plants, and dividing in those first years, his plan would have been a lot easier.
When I studied landscape design, I came to appreciate a bigger picture of a garden. Perennials are a) a lot of work, and b) offer little to no structure, especially when they leave the garden flat as a pancake in winter. I learned the value of supporting perennials with shrubs and trees, long-lasting foliage, and hardscape – and the nearly effortless flower power of those formerly frowned-upon annuals.
As the seasons taught me more patience (read: Nature smacked me around), I began to take time to notice small changes in the landscape, like beautiful seedheads.
In addition to teaching you with tough love, Nature can turn your definition of beauty on its head. Take one of my favorite perennials: Echinacea (coneflower) which flower in neon sunset shades. I’m “trialing” a collection of Echinacea in my parking strip to see if they can withstand pollution, Moon-dust soil and being watered every other month.
In fall, Echinacea becomes a blackened husk with spiky cones and shriveled flower skirts – a skeleton. Newer gardeners, unless they have a Goth streak, run for their pruners. But leaving those ugly bones protects the drainage-loving plant from our soggy Northwest winters and the seed cones give sustenance to hungry birds. I don’t see the ugly anymore. I’m sure many passersby see a Day of the Dead diorama.
(As a compromise, I plan to corral the wildness with an edging of evergreen dwarf Ilex or Euonymous, which will be neat and glossy year round. One of these days.)
Taking this long view has other benefits. Knowing what they can do for your soil can make you if not love, at least welcome, the smells of compost and liquid kelp fertilizer.
So I’m a little better at being a Meta-gardener these days. I imagine garden design enlightenment is a garden that speaks in pure shapes, using no color but green, with the possible addition of gravel as an accent. But I’m not there yet. I still need my gaudy echinacea. What does your garden evolution timeline look like?