So what about extreme gardening? What might that look like?
- Gardening on someone else’s land or public land, e.g. in a park or on a boulevard. The last is known as “guerrilla gardening.”
- Stealing plants for your garden.
- Growing dangerous plants, such as giant hogweed, poison ivy, or poison hemlock.
- Growing a garden of weeds (bindweed, thistles, stinging nettle, Japanese knotweed).
- Not deadheading plants like purple toadflax or rose campion, i.e., letting them seed freely.
- Growing tropical plants in non-tropical places; or, for that matter, alpine plants in lowlands, desert plants in rainforests, etc.
- Growing plants on a vertical surface.
- Growing trees in your house.
- Growing Himalayan blue poppies.
- Engaging in marathon pruning, weeding, or digging sessions.
- Gardening in the nude.
I’ve actually done some of these things. Guess which ones…
The consequences and dangers of the above list include: getting arrested, skin irritation, poisoning, illness, hospitalization, lawsuits, infected wounds, sore muscles, back injuries, disappointment, frustration, weariness, and death. Notably missing is the adrenaline rush which is the main point of most extreme sports. (Well, OK, there might be a small thrill in digging up a plant from a garden that isn’t yours and vanishing into the night. But see the list of consequences.)
Unfortunately for the extremist, gardening is not a sport that produces adrenaline rushes. For one thing, results are usually slow to appear. The gardener’s main reward is occasional fits of quiet awe, in which he or she stands gazing at a plant or group of plants with a happy, vacant smile on their mug.
I intended to beaver up a writing-related post this week, but couldn’t marshal my thoughts. So the trumpet lily “Golden Splendour” must stand in for me. It is well-named — huge flowers on five-foot stems. I only wish the photos could convey the luxurious perfume as well.
Confession: the photos are from 2010 and 2012. The lilies are blooming right now and look just like this, but I have them netted against deer. Our current gang of urban deer eat all sorts of things — fennel and pelargoniums (geraniums) as well as the usual daylilies and asters. I didn’t want to take a chance with “Golden Splendour.” The black plastic netting and the clothespins holding it to the stakes look a bit weird and detract from the beauty of the flowers.
A giant blue glazed pot, a big green and blue one from Vietnam, two ochre pots with brown Chinese dragons, curvaceous plastic urns from the Canadian Tire store, dozens of repurposed black nursery pots, terracotta pots in a vast range of sizes and states. Collectively, they are homes to mature hostas, standardized privets, auricula primulas, hearty tomato plants, perennials in waiting, small seedlings, and newly rooted cuttings.
Earlier this year, I did an inventory of the plants in my garden that are growing in pots. The total came to sixty-two. That was before I added nine tomato plants and a dozen or so young perennials grown from seed or cuttings. The current total must be around seventy pots.
The pots vary in size from four inches in diameter to two feet. Most of the smaller ones are plastic — reused nursery pots. The biggest ones are wooden half-barrels and a couple of Chinese “egg jars.” At one time, these big clay jars were made to ship preserved eggs from China. Chinatown grocery stores sold the empties quite cheaply to gardeners and others as impressive large containers. I don’t think they’re as readily available now, so I’m grateful to have two of them. One is positioned near the pond and occupied by a Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum). The other anchors a group of clay and ceramic pots near the front steps. It’s rather wasted on a plant of Dusty Miller. I really should think of a more worthy use for it.
In addition, I have a few other glazed ceramic pots, ranging from large to medium size. Then there is a gang of the common unglazed terracotta pots from Italy. I like them, but they can’t be relied upon to withstand freezing temperatures. Eventually they crack and break, which is why I also have a shocking number of half-pots, quarter-pots, and a bucketful of potsherds. Plastic is practical but can look cheap and ugly, especially the nursery pots. They eventually get brittle too. I have a couple of good quality plastic pots that look like terracotta from a distance.
Seven Truths About Pots
- Pots provide plants with ideal little environments — the perfect soil and no competition from other plants, unless the gardener doesn’t bother to remove volunteers and weeds. I know this from experience, having lost a couple of potted lilies to hearty invaders.
- Potted plants can be moved indoors or under some sort of cover for the winter months. This makes it possible to grow things like lemon trees in places with cold winters — as long as the gardener has the strength to move the pots, that is. I have a jade plant and a variegated weeping fig that summer outside. A special set of straps makes it
easyless difficult to lug them in and out. The operation does take two, however.
- Pots can be moved around to ensure optimal light exposure. They can be positioned strategically to enhance a planting when in bloom and whisked offstage when finished. But see above re lugging.
- Pots need to be watered, sometimes as frequently as once or even twice a day, depending on weather and the size of the occupant. At its peak, a tomato plant’s roots totally fill the pot and pump through a lot of water, maintaining itself and plumping up the tomatoes. Forgetting to water, even for a few days, means rapid decline and death. Unlike plants in the ground, potted plants can’t put forth roots to seek moisture. They’re like caged animals that need to be fed.
- Some woody plants (shrubs and trees) confined to pots stage breakouts by growing roots through the drain holes in the bottom of the pot. If the soil below suits them, they take off and grow. Forget being a potted subject. I’m a tree! The gardener must keep an eye on these sneaky individuals, and do some judicious root pruning now and then.
- All gardeners acquire a shoal of plants in small pots — gifts from fellow gardeners, impulse buys, divisions, and “spares” of rooted cuttings or seed sowings. Very few plants will prosper indefinitely in a four-inch plastic pot. The gardener should have a plan for every one of these temporary pot denizens — a date by when it should be planted permanently, given away, or otherwise disposed of.
- Permanently potted plants need annual maintenance. Fertilizer of some sort, up-potting or re-potting, trimming, etc. Some plants withstand being root-bound better than others. Delphiniums, for instance, need to be turned out of their pots annually, and then returned to them with fresh soil. Otherwise, the soil becomes compacted and the roots rot over the winter. Goodbye, delphiniums. But I can’t grow them well in the ground because they can’t deal with the maple tree roots. This year’s star specimen is five feet tall and has bloomed well. With the black pot hidden by other plants, it looks like part of the bed it’s in. (Just in case, I rooted a couple of its new shoots this spring. They are now potted up. Add two more to the inventory.)
Despite the above, pots (or, more broadly, containers) are an important feature of most gardens. They add life to hardscapes like decks and patios, and they make it possible to grow things not suited to one’s native ground. All gardeners want to grow stuff they can’t.
We’re still in the throes of painting the living room, after living with ugliness for nearly 27 years. (More than a quarter century!) The project has finally reached the actual painting stage, after weeks of surface prep. (Painting Secret #1: Surface prep takes way longer than painting, especially in old houses). So I’m still mining old posts. This one is from October 2013.
While cleaning up the debris from a recent windstorm [in October 2013], I thought, “This is sort of like editing — removing elements that obscure the beauties of the garden, analogous to deleting superfluous prose that obscures the niceties of plot and character.”
So are there other similarities [between gardening and writing]?
Scads of them: both are acts of creation, both involve a certain artistry, faith, hope, hard work and luck. Different types of gardens (herb, vegetable, rose, and rock gardens, for example) are analogous to fiction genres such as mystery, fantasy, and romance. Planning and planting a garden is very like starting to write a novel. There is an intention, but the conclusion is by no means guaranteed. Bad weather and the gardener’s lack of skill can prevent a happy outcome; in writing, the same results from the writer’s lack of skill and consequent lapse in enthusiasm. The metaphors of pruning and weeding as editing are obvious.
The difference is that a garden consists of living things. A failed garden is not a barren one; it’s just taken over by opportunistic plants, a.k.a. weeds. A failed novel is just a static text file or unvisited pile of paper. (The paper may eventually turn into a kind of compost heap, but that’s another issue).
That’s the most important difference between the two, I think. A gardener works in the whirl of the natural world. Weather, bugs, birds, deer, squirrels and raccoons leave their marks. Plants grow with incredible vigor or die unexpectedly. The garden changes in ways unintended by the gardener. Out there, I know I am not working alone.
In the writing room, there’s just me and my imagination. If I don’t spin something up from the black well, there is no progress. Yes, sometimes my characters have wills of their own. Sometimes dialogue writes itself. Sometimes the plot goes off in an unexpected direction. Writing in the white heat of obsession is an amazing experience. But I have to be present and willing to work, or nothing happens.
Gardening is real. There is nothing more real than dirt under the fingernails and the scent of lilies on a July evening. Virtual gardening is an impossibility; you have to get away from the screen. And writing, I’m coming to realize, is the same, for me anyway. In order to create original, long-form prose, I need hours of off-screen time, but achieving it is a lot harder than stepping out the door and picking up a spade, rake or set of clippers. I don’t know how to kindle the spark of obsession that makes writing the first priority.
Then there’s the question of success. Can a writer claim to be successful if no one reads or appreciates their work? I don’t think so. But I don’t care what anyone thinks of my garden. People do say nice things about it, and I like that, but if no one saw it or commented on it, I wouldn’t care. As long as I see beauty there at regular intervals, and healthy plants going through their annual cycles, I know I have success as a gardener. But in the absence of positive signals from others about my writing, it’s really hard to convince myself that I’m a good writer. And there is no simple way to elicit those positive signals. If you give someone a basket of vine-ripened, homegrown tomatoes, they are apt to thank you and praise your generosity. A 500 page novel, on the other hand, is a gift that demands [the receiver’s time and attention], and [it] does not always result in squeals of delight.
I was a gardener before I became a writer, and I will be a gardener as long as I am physically able, but I’m not sure I’ll always be a writer. The garden wins in the end.
Now, in 2019, I no longer believe that a piece of writing is nothing more than marks on paper or electronic blips on a screen. Writing is spun out of the writer’s brain, heart, and spirit, just as plants come from soil, water, and sunlight. Until the words are written down they are intangible, but no less organic for that. The marks and blips are only the medium.
And in 2013 I forgot to mention how well the physical aspect of gardening complements writing. It gets me away from the desk and computer, outside into Nature, and makes me pay attention to flowers, scents, and creatures. The exercise I get from gardening isn’t like a gym workout or going for a run. It’s incidental to the main activity, which may be raking leaves, shovelling compost, hefting the 20 kg sack of magic dust, holding a balanced position while tying a string to a stake, or bending and straightening in order to weed, plant, or just check on what’s going on.
While I’m in the garden, the writing part of my brain enters an inactive but receptive state in which new ideas can emerge without any pressure to crank out words. The trick, of course, is to remember them, but that’s easily done by means of a grubby little notebook and pencil stub in the pocket.
For me, gardening and writing are the perfect combination. Summer is prime time for gardening, and winter is ideal for writing. Dormant ideas can mature while I weed and deadhead, to grow and bloom in the dark time of the year.
This post from February 2012 (with highlighting and strikethroughs added) gets another outing while I strip old paint, sand freshly exposed old wood, and brood over paint colour chips. (“Window Pane” or “Rainwashed” for the walls? “Morning Fog” for the trim?) The garden has received 40 mm (1.58 inches) of rain in the past two weeks, something for which I am thankful.
When I was young and brilliant, it occurred to me that agriculture was the original Original Sin. I was studying archaeology at the time, specifically the origins of agriculture in the Middle East 10,000 years ago. Some of the earliest sites with evidence of early crop domestication are in the Zagros Mountains, which are in the
same region where the Garden of Eden may have been. Aha! Two plus two equals… whatever you like, if you have enough imagination. At the time (the ’70s) I was also an environmental idealist aflame on the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. (Better to be an inhumanist than a misanthrope, perhaps. But that’s another topic altogether).
When human beings began to manipulate their environment in order to favour the growth of particular plants, I reasoned, they broke a contract with the earth. They no longer simply took what was given to them, but thought they knew better and wanted to make things for themselves. Once begun, that process had its own logic. The initial improvements to species of grain-producing grasses and the environments in which they grew demanded further improvements and changes — permanent structures for storage, water diversion for irrigation of crops, roads and vehicles for transportation — civilization, in effect, which led to the internal combustion engine and
the consumer society. Onward and upward, and look where we are now!
Human beings managed to exist as hunter-gatherers for many millennia, their tools made by bashing stones with other stones, and with fire a fickle servant, sometimes an enemy. Stones, fire and a way of life that changed very slowly. A mere ten thousand years of agriculture-based civilization has had a profound effect on the earth. And it all began (my youthful self reasoned) with the first gardens.
Why were the first ornamental gardens made, I wonder? I’ll bet it was when someone thought to arrange the plants grown for food in a visually pleasing way, or to include among them plants whose only purpose was to be beautiful. The grape vine in the mud-brick courtyard, with the perfume of roses and the sweetness of ripe figs — we who garden now can still appreciate that ancient image.
The present-day ornamental garden, some will argue, can hardly be blamed for environmental destruction. Suburbs were not built so
that people could make gardens around their three bedroom bungalows. Many gardeners are keen to be green, especially if they also produce some of their own food. True, but what about all the chemicals and fertilizers dumped on that suburban feature, the perfect lawn? Not to mention all the drinking-quality water used to water it, and the gasoline-consuming, pollution-generating lawn mowers used to maintain it. Then there is the issue of invasive plants growing rampantly in ecosystems where they don’t belong — purple loosestrife, for example, which was brought to North America as an ornamental. We gardeners cannot consider ourselves collectively blameless, especially since most of us are also consumers and involuntary participants in the civilization that resulted from those first gardens in Eden.
Now that I’m older, things seem less
neatly black and white than they once did. Original sin may indeed be a metaphor for agriculture, and by extension for gardening, but working the earth (as distinct from exploiting it) is a human activity with nuances of the sacred. The first farmers wove into their cultures ceremonies and sacrifices to appease the divine powers offended by their presumption. Our religions retain traces of these practices, and if cultivation of plants once set us on a path that distanced us from the earth, real farming and gardening may be ways to return.
May is over, but here is a bouquet of sights from my garden gathered during that month. It was a great year for irises. Two managed to bloom that had not for years, probably due to shade and dry conditions. And I have blue poppies once more. I can’t take any credit for them as yet; if they survive the next winter to bloom again, I’ll have something to brag about. The mass of yellow bloom on the right side of the featured photo is a giant kale plant, almost a tree.
Here are four photos of the two blue poppy plants I bought a few months ago. Their labels call them Meconopsis sheldonii “Lingholm” (grandis).
I’m looking forward to June, but sorry to see the end of iris time.
I took these photos over several weeks in April and early May. Of course, gardens never stay the same. By now, tulip time is over and we’re into iris time.
Out in the garden after a nice spring rain, I found a mixture of small delights.
First, a group of tulips I have no memory of planting. I doubt if I would have picked this variety. The petals are white with pink edges. They look as though most of the colour has been bleached or faded away. Did they come from self-planted seeds? Tulips do produce seeds, but I don’t think I ever let mine do that. Or maybe stray bulblets? But in that case, where are the originals? Anyway, there they are, and quite picturesque too. I’m certainly not going to remove them. More about these tulips at the end of the post!
These bergenias grow really close to the trunks of those two big Norway maples I complain about all the time. For some reason, they’re blooming really well this year.
Epimedium x perralchicum “Frohnleiten” is one of the most dependable plants in the garden. I cut the old foliage down a few weeks ago, and now it’s in full bloom with fresh, bronze-tinted foliage emerging. The leaves will expand and grow green and leathery as the season progresses.
At risk of being boring, I’ll just mention that hellebore flowers are almost past their best, with seed structures expanding and colours morphing into the subfusc. (Actually, I added this bit about the hellebores just so I could use that word. While normally it’s applied to British academic dress, garden writer Ann Lovejoy uses it to describe plant colours. So I can do that too.)
Finally, another look at one of the surprise tulip flowers. Close up this time.
The really strange thing about these tulips is how they look just one day later.
Even after decades of gardening, plants can still surprise me.