This past Tuesday, June 9, my garden was on tour. Over 300 visitors came, admired, and went on their way. For any of you who have had your garden on a tour, you know how much work it is! However, all the hard work and anxiety before the tour was repaid manifold by how much people enjoyed my garden, and were inspired by it. People asked a lot of questions – the most often asked question was “what is that plant that looks like a firecracker?” Answer: “Star of Persia allium” – not only about what things were but how to do things. The beauty of my garden, the scale of it, and what I have achieved with my own two hands inspired hundreds of people to go home and try something new in their garden. I often say in this blog that I believe in the healing power of gardens. On Tuesday, I witnessed the inspirational power of beauty. I wish you all could have been there.
I’ve been away for many weeks, traveling on 3 continents. I am looking forward to sharing with you all the wonderful gardens I have seen.
Of course I had to come home sometime. Upon my arrival back in the USA I went through Customs at Logan International Airport in Boston, my hometown. When it was my turn the Custom Official listed the required questions to incoming residents “Where have you been? How long have you been away? What was the purpose of your visit?” Usually I give simple short answers but this time, still on a high from all the fabulous gardens I had seen and the fun I had had seeing them I answered with enthusiasm, “I was on a Garden Tour in Italy. We saw 20 gardens in 2 weeks!”
Upon hearing this, the placid, somewhat bored features of the Customs Official turned quizzical, then incredulous before he asked skeptically, “How do they pick the gardens, by whoever has the best backyard?”
I was rendered speechless, stunned that the gardens I had seen were being called “back yards”. I had indeed been out of the country for a long time. How could I give an answer to this question and educate this person who thought of gardens as “back yards” on the achievements of Italian Gardens from the Renaissance up to the 21st Century in the nano second I had to answer before the line behind me erupted? My mind swirled, but my subconscious came up with an answer, “By historical significance”, I replied.
Now it was his turn to be shocked and speechless. We looked at each other as if we were both from other planets, not the same city, and parted each other’s company without another word, but with a certain amount of disbelief and suspicion on each other’s part.
Sometimes reentry can be challenging.
In preparation for my upcoming trip to Marrakesh, I have just read Gardens of Marrakesh by Angelica Gray. I’m glad I did. Until reading Gardens of Marrakesh, I thought the only garden worth visiting in Marrakesh was Le Jardin Marjorelle. It turns out that there are, according to Gray, at least 20 gardens of note to visit. I know I will visit Le Jardin Marjorelle, after all it has been on my gardens to visit wish list for many years. But now, thanks to Angelica, I know to visit 19 other gardens. I don’t think I will get to them all, but I will certainly try. If you’re planning a visit to Marrakesh and are interested in Moroccan gardens, do read Gardens of Marrakesh. The photos by Alessio Mei are transportive. As author, Gray does a decent job of organizing the gardens one by one and describing their strengths and weaknesses. She clearly loves Marrakesh and her enthusiasm is evident in her garden descriptions. Most importantly, she has gathered gardens worth visiting in one volume, which makes it very useful to the traveling garden visitor.
Has any one been to Marrakesh and visited gardens? Has anyone read Gray’s book? How do your experiences measure up to the written description of Marrakeshi gardens? I’d like to know.
I am often asked how I came to name my blog Of Gardens. The simple story is I borrowed the name from the title of Francis Bacon’s famous essay Of Gardens. I chose to name my blog after his essay as an homage to his ode to the pleasures and importance of gardens. I believe, as Francis did, that a garden “is the purest of human pleasures. It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man; without which, buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks; and a man shall ever see, that when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely; as if gardening were the greater perfection.”
It is always a pleasure to hear an expert speak on his/her subject. It’s especially pleasurable when the expert is someone I have been pseudo-stalking for a few years now. Ed Bowen, of the wonderful Opus Plants in Rhode Island, spoke this past Sunday at Tower Hill Botanical Garden on Practicing the Dark Arts: Tips and Plants for the Shade Garden (and not one Hosta!)
I first discovered Opus Plants at a Garden Conservancy Open Days event at Sakonnet Garden several years ago now (OK, maybe four years ago or so). Opus Plants were selling some plants and I was beside myself with joy at the interesting variety of plants they had. I scored my first Sanguisorbia Red Thunder from them, which I had been looking for everywhere, and my favorite salvia, Dear Anja (which I have never been able to source since) as well as some other plants that performed so well and were so beautiful I immediately wanted to visit the nursery and purchase everything.
My plan to monopolize Opus Plants purchases was foiled because they are a nursery that is 1) only open by appointment 2) is in Rhode Island and I am not 3) at the time they did not have a website 4) at the time, they did not have a plant list available. Every so often I would email the nursery and inquire if they had this or that plant, but they were always sold out. They were so elusive to me that I began to imagine I had dreamed up their existence. When I learned that Ed Bowen, founder of Opus Plants, was speaking at Tower Hill, I dropped everything and went.
Ed gave an amusing, self-deprecating, honest talk on some very interesting plants for shade. He apologized at the start by saying he was not going to just give a list of shade plants, and good to his word, his talk was as much as about the process of gardening as it was about mentioning some of his current favorite shade plants. It’s always re-affirming to hear a professional, an expert in his field, talk about how much he still has to learn, how gardening is about the process, how all good garden lessons are learned in retrospect, and how he doesn’t “ever expect mastery”. The last bit of advice is good to be reminded of, but hard on the ego. On the other hand, it’s a wonderful reason why the perfectly complete garden can not exist.
And the plants he mentioned? I’ll give you a – partial – list:
Anemonopsis macrophylla ‘White Swan’
Hydrangea involucrata ‘Blue Bunny’
Podophyllum Spotty Dick
Where can you find all these treasures? At Opus Plants, of course. Who now have a website, a plant list, a blog and mail order. They are, however, still in Rhode Island.
Credit Susan Stava for The New York Times
Eight deer of various sizes are grazing the winter azaleas and fringe of monkey grass just outside the front window. Several young ruminants are right up next to the house, tugging at a tattered rhododendron, occasionally bumping the window screen. Although the dog is flipping out in the hallway below, barking sharply, indignantly, the herd is unfazed.
I’ve taken the dog out on her leash and rushed toward them, though her lunges and cries, like mine, only seem to amuse the deer before they reluctantly, elegantly and temporarily, move off.
Occasionally a doe looks up and gazes at me through the plate glass before blinking placidly and lowering her head to resume feeding. Behind this posse of four-legged bodies is a blinding stretch of snowy yard, where the car of one of my daughter’s friends is wedged into a gritty drift. On the back fender, splattered with road salt and slush, is a familiar bumper sticker: COEXIST.
Not long ago, it would have been rare to see one deer, let alone a whole drove of them, in the yard, especially in broad daylight. The road I live on in Albemarle County, Va., used to be an old dairy byway lined with large working farms and long stretches of woods. Several of the older houses still stand, one of them ours, built well over 100 years ago. At a curve in our road, just before the two-lane thoroughfare enters the city of Charlottesville, there is what I call a “Connecticut moment” — an 18th-century mill and creek on one side, an auto-body shop on the other.
Those former expanses of scrub and woodland meant that although we shared turf with the usual “suburban” fauna — squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs, raccoons, an array of feeder birds — the larger wildlife creatures (bears, foxes, bobcats, deer) had their own, natural habitat. A neighbor down the road, a longtime resident, wryly recalls how he and his wife used to try to lure the shy deer out of the woods with salt licks in the winter months. Now, due in large part to the uprooting of long-established trees and the razing of farms and underbrush over the past decade to make way for ubiquitous townhouse developments with ironic names like Treesdale and Dunlora Forest, those of us who attempt to grow things in our yards spend a lot of time trying to keep the deer at bay.
As a poet and professor who spends much of her waking and dream life engaged in and obsessing over written and spoken acts of language, I have for decades found sanctuary in what a colleague of mine calls the necessary “other art.” For me, the “other art” is gardening. I’m not a particularly gifted or ambitious grower of plants, but as the descendant of generations of farmers, I find the nonverbal pleasures of digging, sowing, transplanting and helping things grow to be a meditative counterpoint to the other exigencies of my life.
Anyone who gardens knows that flexibility, patience and the willingness to fail — and, as Samuel Beckett said, “fail better” — are part of the deal. Vicissitudes of weather, seed and plant stock, funguses, distractions and, yes, insects and varmints of all shapes and sizes remind us, as Theodore Roethke put it in his famous villanelle “The Waking,” that “Great Nature has another thing to do / To you and me.”
Still, the “invasion” of the deer herd took me by surprise one morning about five years ago. Sure, I’d seen occasional deer scats on the margins of the yard, but imagine my dismay when I went out that May dawn to check on the “Iceberg” rose bushes — which just the day before were full of buds poised to open, each a perfect white-chocolate promise — and found every bud neatly chopped off and eaten. A few pearly shreds littered the mulch, trampled with deer tracks.
That was the spring the deer had already mowed down all of the tulips; later, they would lop off every single day- and peace-lily before moving on to the late summer climbing roses. In subsequent seasons, I tried just about everything I could think of, short of fencing, which wasn’t feasible, to keep the deer from decimating my garden beds: bobcat urine (how do they harvest this, I wonder?) and another granulated product that my son said smelled disturbingly like ramen noodle mix; Liquid Fence (why grow those roses anyway, only to have them smell like a mix of rotten eggs and vomit?); human hair swept up from a local salon; peeled off shavings of Irish Spring soap; burlap tents (easily knocked aside or bitten through, it turns out); and even pinned-on squares of clothes dryer sheets. I’ve run at flocks, waving my arms, shaking grocery sacks, throwing beechnuts, banging pans. I’ve taken the dog out on her leash and rushed toward them, though her lunges and cries, like mine, only seem to amuse the deer before they reluctantly, elegantly and temporarily, move off.
Last summer, I dug up all of my lilies and roses and gave them to friends. I put in aromatics and other “deer-resistant” plants — cleome, muhly grass, catmint, butterfly weed, woolly yarrow. But what I’ve learned, finally, is that there really isn’t anything hungry deer won’t eat, including a precious fig tree (a Mother’s Day gift from my son), bark as well as fruit, and last year’s Halloween pumpkins, butted off the front porch and devoured in the driveway.
Will I give up gardening altogether? Probably not. It occurs to me that as I age as a poet,hoping to refresh my practice over these several decades — to risk new things, to fail better — I’m also learning to revise, in tandem, my “other art.”
My experiences with these now familiar, cloven-hoofed denizens of my yard (and I have gotten a few poems out of my bouts with them) make me think that “surrender” may be my new “other art” — and I don’t mean “surrender” in a forsaken or defeated sense, but instead as an almost relieved acceptance of what I can’t, or won’t, control — a lesson I hope I’ll remember, as a poet and a person, as the years pass.
A few weeks ago, after an overnight snowfall, I looked out the kitchen window and saw about 10 deer chasing one another, young and old, some leaping in place butting heads in the light powder that was still falling. I realized that they were playing. I wouldn’t have stopped them for the world.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. Her most recent books are “Vanitas, Rough: Poems” and “The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry,” a collection of essays