Interview with Myself as Gardener

Tuesday, June 05, 2012


Many visitors come to see our gardens and when they do it’s always an honor and a pleasure to stroll with them and  talk about the gardens. Usually, when I do this, I tend to notice the flaws, a plant that needs staking or cutting back, weeds  that escaped my notice earlier, an embarrassingly unsuccessful color combination, that sort of thing. Now, tonight, at dusk, in the muted, soft light that filmakers call “the magic hour”, the gardens are at their poetic, romantic, best  and I am able to enjoy what characterizes our gardens; the effusiveness of the plantings, the ebulliance of the colors, and their impressionistic quality.  My thoughts turn to other gardeners and their gardens. I imagine myself walking through them in the company of their authors; a thousand questions come to mind. I want to understand the garden through the mind and the mind’s eye of the gardener. Perhaps visitors to our gardens are too polite, or, maybe, the gardens are so unusual, because in our ‘neck of the woods’ (literally) gardens with full sun or so rare, that questions about intent or design don’t seem to surface.The questions I would ask of any gardener, are, the questions I now ask myself. This will, of course, bring me full circle to observing flaws. But that’s okay. (I also intend to interview Andrew and ask him the very same questions. I’ll do it and post it here and on his blog. Heave and Hoe.) So, here’s my interview with myself:

Q: Of all the numerous garden areas here at Stonewell, do you have any favorites?

A: Yes, but these change with, well, I won’t say the seasons, because our gardens are not designed for fall and winter interest, but maybe with the months. At the moment, I’m fond of the herb garden. The roses; the beautiful, striped Honorine de Brabant, the exquisite Pierre de Ronsard, and the climbing Iceberg are all flowering in shades of pink and white, and the salvia officinalis and chives, flowering at their feet, as they ought,  in moody shades of blue and lavender, and the thyme in a whitish froth, make for a poetic  garden moment. The giant rhubarb leaves and the grapes, climbing up the hen pen fence add an earthy, utilitarian charm and a gratifying sense of abundance.

At the moment, the driveway border is  a source of refreshing entertainment, because I sow hundreds of poppy seeds there each year and there’s no telling what will crop up, and now is the time that the poppies are emerging. I think there’s a lot of cross pollination going on. We’re seeing a tremendous variety of blooms colors and many striated bicolors. Great fun! (Harvesting the seed pods in July and August, resulting in quart containers full of seeds…somewhat less fun, untill you remind yourself of the fun to come)!

Q: If you had an unlimited budget what would  you change in your gardens?

A: How ‘unlimited’? Unlimited like buying an island, rounding up all the deer in the state and shipping them to that island?  Probably not. ‘Unlimited’, like, I can wrap my head around the multiple zeroes and decimal points?  OK. First, I would fence the property from deer. Next, I would hire Andrew Pighills to create some beautiful stonework and hardscaping; particularly a stone patio at the back of the house, easily accessible from the kitchen, defined by an 18” high stone wall with smooth capstones for comfortable seating. Next I would commission a sculpture from Dan Snow for the Memorial Garden. Then, I would commission Michael Fogg  to create a series of garden benches,  that would be made in  three or four sections, to encircle the magnolia tree.  Next, I would create a better driveway and a suitable parking area. (I’m fond of crushed oyster shells, but pea gravel would do). Next on the list, define the grassy, or what others might call ‘lawn’ areas and plant groundcovers that would require no mowing, and reduce our carbon footprint.  I would expand the orchard and steal the idea that I saw at Levens Hall in Cumbria, England, namely, plant a wildflower meadow amidst the fruit trees, and then mow clean, clear , rectilinear paths between them.  The result was lovely: square ‘foundations’ of wildflowers at the base of each fruit tree and crisp, fresh paths that invited one to engage with the landscape.(Those gardeners at Levin’s Hall  were no slackers  in the ornamental kitchen garden, either, ..but that’s a subject unto itself).

Q: What aspect of your gardens do you feel are the least successful?

A: Aesthetically or horticulturally?  The gardens  at Stonewell are a work in progress. We have killed many plants, things that ought to have done well in certain locations but simply did not. (We have trouble with Mountain Laurel, for example). The Fruit Garden is a recent transformation from a flower cutting garden/ vegetable garden annex  to a garden that serves only to create either dessert or jams and jellies, with the exception of the asparagus, which, after a  long  winter, are practically dessert,  if blanched, and tossed with homemade, egg  fettuccine with   cream and parmesan (I digress).  To my mind, the least successful gardens  are those in which we’ve been a bit too permissive with the self-sowers, that is, the self-sowers that I don’t love.( FYI, these gardens have two gardeners with different opinions). We need to edit out much of the anthemis, and the agastache and the bog standard daylilies, which seem to crop up when we’re not looking.  There’s a preponderance of the wild rudbeckias, weeds to me, but endearing creatures to the other gardener. On the subject of structure, I would prefer more. On the subject of color, I continue to aim for greater control of the structural plants, and their flowering sequences and yet, encourage the mindful ‘haphazard’, chaotic quality that self-sowers contribute to making the garden seem new and different every year.

The ‘potager’, or, Kitchen Garden would be a more pleasurable work area destination for me if it were level. I long for raised beds, and the organizing, structural quality that they provide, but our soil is so sandy that we will have to continue to add vast quantities of manure and compost and till it in with our tractor for a long time coming before we have the quality of soil to establish raised beds.

Privacy. This falls within the ‘unlimited budget’ category. At between $5000. and $10,000. per tree we could create a $ 100,000. privacy buffer that would enable me to drink my tea and write on the aforementioned, non-existant patio, at 7:00 am in my pajamas, without any sense of obligation to wave  a cheery ‘Hello’ at all and sundry. Bliss.

Q: What aspects of your gardens do you feel are the most successful?

A: Garden areas that have a backdrop of shrubs and trees, in other words,  mixed borders; garden areas where we’ve incorporated greater structure possess a more established quality. We propagate many of the plants in our gardens in our greenhouse and so there is repetition in the gardens. This is desireable.  On the other hand, when we do purchase plants or shrubs we do it mindfully. Cotinus coggygria, both the purple leafed and the golden leafed, and the physocarpus, both golden and purple leafed ‘Ninebarks’, play leading roles in setting a theme for the color palettes in the gardens.

A penny for your thoughts.

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