Letting Go - An Old Garden Revisted

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Again this last week I found myself about to drive past my former house and garden. Though I knew what I was approaching, I was not prepared. The sight of it, even in the dark, startled me. The curtain of illusion was thrown back. I was free-falling in mortality. My old garden was gone!

Gardening, like so many things, is a performance art. We think we have created something permanent - stone, soil, seed. But the world is built around flux. If not this year...decade..century...millennium, then in the next, all is certain to recycle. When the Mayflower landed, the New England countryside was primeval forest. By the 1800's one could ride the stagecoach from Boston to New York without seeing a tree. Now in the 21st century, the trees once again clothe the local landscape. Change is inevitable. So one might as well accept at the start that it is in the doing of a thing that our human lives are fulfilled. That is not to say that I don't enjoy a restoration project as much as the next person. But I will die happy if I can remain part of the performance, even if all there is left is the breath.

My former house and garden were in an old part of an established New England town. Originally Victorian in color and theme, it moldered away under layers of years and paint to the point of rot. Shrubs, hedges and trees overgrew, as they were originally planted to close to the buildings. After years of labor, terraced rock gardens were installed, the Victorian house colors restored, and shrubs and small trees lined the street side for privacy. There were collections of exquisite wildflowers, from double trilliums to Streptopus roseus on the side of the house. Now there is a decorator yellow house with green grass manicured all the way to the street. A passerby can look directly into the living room from the road. A little outdoor grill sits off the front steps. I am sure the new owners are very satisfied to have the additional mowing chores.

One thing they did leave was a rather nice Magnolia stellata. And of course the performance of the garden still remembered lingers in my mind. It was very satisfying. To give you a peek, I have reprinted a glimpse of my life and the gardens there:

A Perfect Summer Morning

After a summer night of rain, the sun peeks through the mist of the morning. It is hard to tell how the day will blossom as the light slinks up the bedroom wall. You almost feel the mist upon your face as you gaze out over the garden.

Eager to meet with the day, you take your cereal bowl to sit on the stone steps at the side of the rock bedecked slope. Color is the first thing to greet you. The blues of summer gentians, lagodechiana and septemfida, are full blown now. Their royalty sparkles in the steamy light. Underneath your legs, Erinus alpinus olivieri, unlike its plain muddied sister, clears your brain's palate like some refreshing fruit sorbet. In another garden, on another day, this has been called E. a. 'Dr. Hanele'. New to the garden, it was an early spring division from a friend. The leaf and habit looked very usual. The clear pink color has moved it to a class ahead.

Out of the corner of your eye, the rose-purple of a diminutive platycodon cultivar disturbs the scene like a piece of trash left on the floor.  The plant demands to be moved out from under the arms of Androsace sarmentosa 'Chumbyi', which crowds it almost unknowingly.  You soothe it, "Wait until the next overcast day. I promise."  Of course the only way to remember is to grab a post-it and paste it on the telephone wall.  Unfortunately, the post-it manufacturer does not consider this an  essential function of its product.  Last time the back of the radiator was cleaned, there were many errant "move-me slips" with lists of plants who had waited no longer - they had left town .

The ants are already out at work cleaning up the neighborhood.  A velvet ant is marching through the red caps that have formed on the wall of the step. He stops now and then and inspects the little soldiers.  As you start to look closer, the weeds lose their camouflage.  How is it that oxalis appears only with seed capsules ready to burst?  As you too start to clean up, the wrath of a two month drought becomes apparent in the fern spread.  Fronds form hummocks of brown foliage, instead of their usual more graceful upright stance.  How was Cystopteris fragilens given its name?  More than fleeting or weak, it seems phoenix-like. Invariably it will die down in the heat of summer, only to jump back out at the first of August's rains.  Much more tolerant of summers passion is Athyrium felix-femina  'Minutissima', the dwarf lady fern.  Maxing out at about six inches in height, it travels along (never speedily enough) the run between the rocks, well above the fuzzy rosettes of the ramondas.  A stone away, a new planting of Campanula portenschlagiana has taken hold.  Starry purple bells promise to drape down and enliven the young foliage display of Gentiana scabra, which is yet to come into bloom in September.

Earlier on Campanula barbata, a favorite of that clan, was towering above.  Perhaps the overhead pine is a bit of a menace, shading the area too much.  This year the barbata seemed almost lanky.  But who will not but be overwhelmed by the delicate lavender-satin texture of its bells, no matter how long the stems.  The fringe on the ends of each bell has the delicacy of spider's webs.

There are others of the Campanulaceae who, while gross in comparison, serve an important niche.  Dry shade is always a bit of a problem.  But here under the pine, a stand of  Symphyandra hoffmanii rolls down the bank.  The nodding white bells turn your mind to the foaming breakers on an ocean beach.  Why is this plant maligned in most circles?  Maybe it's the biennial nature.  But it does reliably set copious amounts of seed, which bloom every year.  While it would not be a good trough tenant like its tiny sister, Symphyandra wanneri, who holds court with a regal purple face, this plant massed on a dry bank is nothing less than spectacular.  Another reason for wariness might be the horde of bumblebees that it attracts.  You must weed before they awake, and they are early risers.  But any plant that blooms for July and August should be welcome in the garden.

Another family that does well, a little further out from the grasp of the pine, is the crucifer family.  On the steps where you sit, Thlaspi stylosum has slowly spread into the crevices, mixing with Silene acaulis and Pinellia cordata.  A native of the Apennines, this thlaspi blooms very early in the spring (one of the first) with deliciously scented purple racemes.  Of course, it is always a bit of a feat to savor the scent as this cushion is not more than a few centimeters high.  But at that time of the year its well worth the effort . Now, in the heat of summer, the dark green leathery rosettes refresh you and trigger that remembrance of spring.

Nearby, a later blooming Thlaspi montanum is a little taller. While the leaves are more reminiscent of a diminutive arabis, its flowers stand like an imperial iberis. In the European mountains it will often take a shady rocky slope. The two thlaspis are very much like children without any family resemblance.

After breakfast, a quick round of weeding is order. It is easy to pass up a good linger by the raised beds on the way, but when you come to the end of the wall and the micromeria, your feet wont budge. This sub-shrub a product of an exotic seedling sale and consequently nothing ever more than a "sp", was planted in an east facing crevice of the wall retainer, about 4 years prior. Thyme-like, it billows out about 10 inches down the slope. Minute white flowers cover the loose ball in such profusion that your eyes see stripes. And the noise is incredible! There are no fewer than 9 different types of bees and wasps, from hunters to borers to bumblebees, as well as a hover fly. They buzz round it like conquering space invaders. The wind has mercy and gently sweeps them away for you to pass.

The water garden pot beckons.  Originally this was just a large holding area for water plants. Or should I say, first it was one child's frog pot. With a 2' outside diameter, about 2' high, its tough dark plastic walls penned in many a spring peeper for closer observation. Eventually the frog was able to make it over the top, so the nearby marsh had a chance to repopulate. In disuse, it was resurrected to hold pieces of water hyacinth as well as a water lily, scored at the local rock garden club sale. Maybe that's why these clubs are so successful. You can find just about everything on the sales tables, and usually do. From 60' trees to a priceless specimen just introduced into cultivation, you always find something new and exotic to empty your pocketbook.

Since you already had a spot, picking up a variegated rush at the local nursery, seemed quite in order. Tall and reedy, it will not only survive in the ground if the water garden fails, but add an attractive element to the garden. Add to the pot, arrowhead plants from a local canoe trip. These are so easy to transplant. Just a hint of root will foot itself into whatever soil you put underneath. This one shows a nice red variegation. Disguise the pot with bamboo mat tied around the outside. And voila, you have a show-stopper water feature. Now the only thing to watch for are mosquito breeders. Luckily, the used-to-be-a-kid still brings over the occasional little frog.  So far the tank only had to be cleaned out once during the season. 


Not out of harm's way yet, the next halt is by Angelica gigas in full bloom.  Bald-faced hornets loom like Darth Vadors, all eyes on you.  They guard the nectar while they sip.  But they are as scrappy as chickadees. Apparently two different tribes are vying for this magnificent honeypot, and rolly-polly wars ensue, resulting in contestants fleeing every few minutes.  From the looks of retreat paths, the South Camp is top bug. Most other insects dare not come near, but a tiny ant winds his way up the oozing sticky liquid path on the angelica's trunk. A history of exclusiveness has followed this plant.  Introduced to us from Korea in the '80s, it took many years to become established within rock gardening circles.  Surprising were the reports of extreme sums paid at plant auctions; surprising, because of the ease of propagation.  As you weed it yearly from the area you moved it from three years ago, you wonder how long these seeds will continue to be viable and sprout.

A stately biennial plant for the moist border, it ultimately reaches from 4 to 6 feet.  When in flower, corymbs of elderberry purple heads dot the plant up and down, zig-zag fashion.  The large compound-shaped leaves shudder and curl from the long drought, so common in our July.  A stand of these would be a very commanding presence.  You make another post-it note: "maybe interplant with white chelone, bronze fennel and acidanthera bulbs."  Other years a variety of less warlike insects courted this queen. Maybe there is a way to contaminate the hornets?

Finally you reach your destination--the new raised sand beds . These were constructed from 2x8's this spring to plunge seedling pots into next winter.  In the meantime, they hold a varied array.  Primarily annuals, from marjoram and carrots to arctotis and poppies, they will all be swept clean in the fall.  Of course, several biennials of the salvia clan as well as the border of lavender will stay the winter.  Ahh, and look, a little gray gem: Salvia pachystachys.  There are so many salvias that all start out the same size, it's hard to know where to place what. Clearly this little one will have to be moved to a place of worship.  A native of Turkey and Iran, this tufted little subshrub would like it better in the bunnery-yet-to-come.  For now, the larger salvias must be torn out of the way.

In late Fall, the acidanthera bulbs, too, will exit, to dry storage, as will the stilted birdbath, now girdled with cardinal creeper vine.  When all is tidied, in will run all the little seedling pots, nestling down in the deep sand for the long winter.  To ensure a tad more comfort, you must cover the 4x8' beds with heavy mill plastic draped over bent pvc pipe. Two of these beds should hold all the seedlings plus the ceramic planted containers.


Weeding.  Weeding is repetitive. Weeding is the gardener's mantra. The good news: you get to move around while you clean your mind.  Weeding this bed is a snap.  The errant grass rips out easily as it does in all sand and gravel beds.  The only problem is recognizing it, lurking under the leaves of the salvias and poppies.  Speaking of which, Papaver laciniatum has finally bloomed.  In this 6" layer of pure sand, it has grown to the majestic stature of a P. somniferum.  The color of the fringed dome is not done justice by the name scarlet.  After three years of setting it out in every imaginable place, it has finally found a nook.  You were worried, as this was the last of the seed.

By 9:00 am it is too hot to weed.  The cicadas are booming: Time to stop!  You run to the shade near an old sand/plunge cold frame . Sipping a tall glass of cool water, you check on cuttings.  That's another off-season use for a coldframe, if it has high shade.  Daphnes, saxes and even furry Marrubium rotundifolium revive quite effortlessly when plunged into the moist sand on the bottom of the bed.  You share a bit of your water with them.  Unwanted oxalis, that likes to run about the bed, tears out effortlessly.  Sand gets in your glass of water--a little dirt is good for the system.

Moving round to the back of the frame you check the seed pots for germination.  This year there were so many pots to set out that you opted for the quick fix: loose boards up on cement blocks.  As an experiment, Reemay was laid under topping screens, in hopes of raising the moisture levels for germination.  The best success rates come from laying glass sheets over trays of pots, but who can go through them every day to stop damping off when they sprout?  This half attempt does seem to help a little.  The turface that shows through on some of the planting mixes seems to look pretty moist.  Oh, well, it did just rain last night.  But look at all the seedlings, and this is August: fat swertia, Lathyrus japonicus, rodgersia, aconitum sp (from the Himalayas!), clematis sp. from Korea.  You are vicariously transported to the icy heights of the mountains.  Who needs to go away?  And then you ask yourself the proverbial questions: why did you plant 3 pots of Androsace sericea; does Draba dubia really look so weedy; when will you find the time to transplant all these pots?

After sprouting, plants are all massed on stilted tables in half shade behind the garage.  This has been the only way to control slug damage. And it is quite successful, however ugly in appearance.  You try to group the androsaces together, as well as the drabas, but now this means huge shifting, like playing some giant's version of the Rubix cube . One of the tables has been placed in a little more shade, to the liking of primulas, aroids, and other woods lovers.  This year the sunnier table just didn't get as many sprouters--there is a paucity of astragalus and oxytropis.  One lone chesneya has endured, but curiously, seems not enamored of the hot sun.  Great hopes are pinned on this little survivor.

A product of an exotic trek to the Himalayas, this little pea should look like a castilleja orange version of a small astragalus.  Right now, wands with glossy pea-like leaves are emerging to about 10 cm in length.  Billed as a mat forming shrub, it was found at the Summit Pass, Big Snow Mt., in rhododenron and berberis moorland.  Unfortunately, not much seed of this prize was collected.

Well, this year the shady table is overflowing by about half. Necessity must mother invention anew.  So, maybe the primulas, also treasured from that special expedition, would like to be on a styrofoam stand with capillary matting for an endless supply of moisture.  This vegetable starting system is easy to adapt.  The meconopsis also look eager for non-stop drinks.  Shifting back and forth, you finally fit in the last Arisaema bocki.  Now it's time for a little potting on . As you moved the seedlings, a group with roots coming out the bottom was ever-present. But before you may care for them, soil must be made up.  Jiffy-mix is a good soil-less mix that is sold commercially around here.Unfortunately, it comes dry and hard.  A large size rubber trash can make a good mixer. Recipe for a more amenable potting mix: to half the can filled with jiffy-mix, add by volume, a quarter as much sandy grit (New Jersey #3), a coffee can full of turface, and four coffee cans of composted leaf mulch.  Mix by a hoe or shovel with water until just moist.

The noon bells begin to chime in the distance.  Lunch is the break you need to let the soil rest, just as in baking bread.  By afternoon, the soil will be dry to the touch, but still clump when squeezed, just right for potting.  The morning of this perfect summer day has ended.  But it will stay with you, especially in winter, when remembering it warms you better than a seat on a hot radiator.


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