Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Lengths We Are Willing to Go

When I ordered twin-flower (Linnaea borealis) in 2007 from Arrowhead Alpines for my new rock garden I was skeptical of its potential for success. I have tried many boreal plants in various hot Midwestern gardens and have had many failures. These boreal plants are native to the acidic soils and cool summers of the far north and suffer from our hot humid summers, and heavy clay soils. With the rock garden I can address the soils issue, but there isn't much I can do about hot weather. To my pleasant surprise the three plants I bought all took off and continue to do well as they begin their third growing season with me.

The "bad" part of this success is that it encourages me to continue to try plants that my experience tells me will not do well. I am sure that most will, in fact, not do well, but it is that chance that is going to cost me time and money. (Ah, but the thrill of success!) And then there is the question of how do I advise others. I answer horticultural questions all day long at work and, if asked, by a caller I would say, "No, twin-flower is not likely to grow well here in north central Ohio. I recommend you not buy it." It is the sort of "don't try this at home" warning. I think hard core gardeners are conditioned to accept the many failures of gardening and understand the specialized needs of some plants. I worry that my callers, who are usually tentative gardeners, will quit if they don't have success. They don't want to go to great lengths to make something grow, and even when they say they will I suspect they don't really understand the lengths we hard core gardeners actually go to make some, "lowly, insignificant, disregarded, flowering for a brief time..." plant like twin-flower survive.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Are Gardens Beautiful?

Is the above garden beautiful? While not the work of a designer it emulates something we admire in nature for its beauty, doesn't it?

Is this cowslip (Primula veris) a design element? Probably not, but I get great satisfaction out of its vigor and successful colonization of my rockery. It is beautiful.

Can you imagine a landscape architect ever specifying a Jack-in-the-pulpit like this Arisaema sikokianum? But it still offers beauty doesn't it?

I read a blog (Garden Rant) today that asked the question, are ornamental gardens really about beauty? They said that if beauty were the primary ambition there would be careful restraint unlike the exuberant excess of most keen gardener's gardens. She said, "My feeling is that beauty is a side product of gardening, but not the ultimate goal, which is vigorous exercise and pagan nature worship." I agree with the idea that beauty is a side product of gardening, but the rest of that sentence is a bit airy for me. Instead of vigorous exercise (occasionally) and pagan nature worship it is more about a sense of achieving understanding of natural systems through model making. I think we all love to build things and what better challenge is there than to build something out of living, growing, plants. It is a life-long pursuit of mine to learn about plants and their associated life forms. My favorite vehicle for learning is gardening. The garden also offers living space (comfort, as sense of place), and yes it offers beauty. Gardeners find their beauty in more than the quick scan of a carefully groomed minimalist landscape. There is also beauty in a tiny nook, an individual plant, a sense of enclosure, or any of a multiplicity of levels of scale. That's why we like the weird jack-in-the-pulpit or the fine details of the rock garden or the great sweep of a meadow-like planting. They are beautiful in their way and they are fascinating as well for anyone who wants to look beyond the superficial.