Is it only Digging in the Dirt?

IMG_3381IT’S been a busy week in the garden. For the past 5 days I’ve worked in the garden every day, all day. By all day I mean  about 8 hour days 9 – 6 with about an hour “off” for lunch and a rest. I’ve planted over 100 perennials:

55 Geranium macrorrhizum Bevan’s Variety –  because they spread and are tough,  10  Geranium Sanguineum Striatum – I like how the pink flowers dance, 8 Anemone sylvestris “Madonna” –  we’ll see if they need as much room as the description says they do, 3 Anemone hybrida “Pamina” because I love anemones!, 5 Gaura  “Whirling Butterflies”  – I’m trying again with these, one year I will hit on the truly perennial Gaura because when I do it will be fabulous because they are fabulous, 3 Lychnis coronaia which are from a lady at  the New England Herb Society who told me they  are a pale pink that she gathered from a friend’s garden and if I kept them away from the white and magenta rose campions I would continue to have pale pink , which is fine with me, one Rue  Thalictrum Rochebrunianum because I”m curious to see just how tall it will get, 5 Achillea “Cerise Queen” because I’ve had a change of heart about yarrow and now think its OK and so regret pulling out  what I did have growing happily, 4 Oriental poppies of unknown color because one can never have too many poppies of any color, one Gentia ‘True Blue’ because only one was left from the nice lady who was selling them at The Massachusetts Horticultural Society Plant Sale , 20 Astrantia “Roma” which I preordered sometime this winter from Avant Gardens Nursery because in the past I’ve had difficulty sourcing “Roma” and I needed to add 20 to my existing bed of Astrantia “Roma”, 8 various Aquilegia the more the merrier of these beauties, one small sedum “Cherry Tart”, two sedum ‘Thundcloud’,  one (hopefully) perennial Sage, 3 Coreopsis of some variety from the Big Bang series, 3 Daphne “Pink Fragrance” because I am perennially (get it?!?) optimistic that one day I will have gorgeous full grown daphnes scenting my garden although so far  my optimism has not kept alive the 8 daphne I have “lost”  to mother nature,  3 Heuchera “Mahogany” because I finally found some more of these at White Flower Farm this year and this cultivar has been difficult for me to find and I have looked a number of times since I first saw it at the London Chelsea Flower Show about 5 years ago and I fell in love with how it’s particular red color grows nicely against the brick edging of my walkway, an unusual Nepeta  which for years was thought to be a Veronica from Avant Gardens, 7 – count them 7! – Gaura ‘So White’ all in a row in relatively poor, well drained soil because I want them and I keep believing the tag that says they are hardy in a protected spot in Zone 6, even though my experience has been otherwise, and 6 or 7 lily of the valley : yes I KNOW they are aggressive, but they will do very well where I planted them, 5 Epimedium ‘Pink Elf’  which I am spraying furiously so the bunnies will not eat these as they have all the other epimediums and probably some other things I can’t think of right now.

I divided and replanted dozens of other perennials:  Filipendula  rubra ‘Venusta’ because it was taking over the whole bed it was in; I know people love this plant but it flops for me and crushes whatever is around it and I didn’t like it where it was, Sedum “Matrona” which should have been thriving where it was but wasn’t  so hopefully it will thrive in its new location, Thalictrum ‘Elin’ second time these have been moved and divided,  Veronicastrum  virginicum ‘Lavender Towers’ because they were so happy where they where I wanted them somewhere else, but that somewhere else was in full sun and they were not happy, so back they go to where they were happy and to where the Filipendula is now no longer, Salvia nemorsa ‘Snow Hill’ because it is too short to be as far back in the bed as I have had it for too many years, a dozen or so astilbe seedlings which have generously reseeded themselves, but in the wrong places, lots of  Geranium nodosum, a terrific plant of which I have not yet had too much of a good thing,  too much  Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’  which I have had too much of ; I can not bring myself to love this plant, despite it’s adorable name and sunny personality, so I have been digging it up and giving it away,   Anemones which I planted in the wrong place to begin with 2 years ago because I mistook them for Astantia, and it’s hurting me to have to move them since they are so very happy where they were mistakenly planted , and because they hate to be moved, but they are edging out my Astrantia bed and I have been attempting to create a large bed of Astrantia in this spot for some years,  Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Wilmot’s Ghost’ which I am almost regretting planting as seedlings are cropping up many feet from the actual plant and I fear as the years go on I will be pulling out more seedlings then I let bloom, sigh,  dug up Comptonia peregrina Sweetfern because it is so successful where it is it is popping up all over the place and since originally I paid a lot of money for a tiny plant 9 years ago because it is supposedly difficult to propagate I am going to give away these newly generated plants to people who will appreciate them,   and Aster ‘October Sky’ –  a lovely spreading aster, but it does get big and billowy so it needed to be moved to where it can enjoy more space and not crowd it’s neighbors. 

I’ve raked, weeded, pruned, hauled debris to my and the town compost heap, done a number of runs to collect bags of compost when what I make myself   ran out, watered seemingly endlessly, given away countless bundles of Shasta daisy, treated scores of iris for iris borer – dug them ALL up, divided them, cut  them back, soaked  them in a combination of  bleach and water (1 part bleach to 9 parts water) for two hours, dried them out for two days, doused them with Sevin which I hated using but I hate not having iris in the garden more and then replanted them,  cut back all the stalks I had left up for the birds over the winter, and hauled  them away, redesigned the two largest perennial beds (still a work in progress) raked away thatch and reseeded that area in the lawn, turned on the outside irrigation and dealt with holes and eruptions where needed, planted  2 flats of petunias in containers, made a root cutting of my Harry Lauder Walking stick for a friend, put mothballs down the latest chipmunk holes to hopefully deter them from those locations, sprayed quarts of Plantskydd to stop the rabbits from eating all the tender new growth on all the newly planted and newly emerging perennials, dug up and transplanted a mature azalea, lifted and carried  1/2 dozen 40 and 50 lb bags of compost and much – and put them down where needed. And whatever else needed doing.

Are you still with me on this? It’s a laundry list of activities, but I’m getting to the point. Yesterday,  afternoon  as I was finishing the last task of the day (before I went to get dinner ready for friends who were coming over)  which was planting the third Ilex “Blue Princess” in a row when a woman walked past with her dogs. My dog ran out to greet her dogs (grrr…..I wish my dog wouldn’t do that!) and so the woman and I exchanged pleasantries on what a nice day it was to be outside and then she added “digging in the dirt”. I nodded numbly.  Digging in the dirt? IS that how the world views my effort to create art with nature? I loved making mud pies as a kid – now that is digging in the dirt! but garden making is not making mud pies. Garden making is –  at the very least  – a combination of design, plant knowledge, a multitude of skills, decision making, triage at times, color theory, pest control, sweat, mental labor, physical labor, physical discomfort,  a considerable financial investment, a huge time commitment, hopefully some inspiration,  surely some divine intervention,  please ! some luck, and the age old battle of woman trying to mold nature to her vision. Garden making is so much more than digging in the dirt!!!  Since that conversation I can not get the term “digging in the dirt” out of my mind, nor the connotation that all the effort I expand on my garden is viewed by some as a pleasant, or perhaps even frivolous past time, like making mud pies.  If  this perception is true it would explain why there are so many terrible “gardens” out in the world. If the effort needed to create a garden is viewed not as the near herculean effort it so often is but as something as simple as digging in the dirt then it is no wonder people don’t have good gardens.  If buying a plant, bringing it home, digging a hole  in the dirt and putting the plant in the hole is considered gardening  – then it is no wonder the world is strewn with sad, uninspired collections of plants thrown together. Most jobs are under appreciated by those who don’t do them, so garden making isn’t unique  in this regard but it is perhaps unusual to have it disdained to your face, even if it were meant as friendly talk on a beautiful day in the neighborhood. 

I am often asked to have my garden be on tour. It is nice to be asked, it is flattering to be asked. It is not hard to say no. I create and maintain my garden for myself. I love my garden. I know what goes into it. I alone can appreciate the thrill that this year 4 of the 5 Porteranthus trifoliatus planted two years ago not only survived but are stronger and bigger than last year. Only I will mourn the loss of the Chinese tree peony that succumbed to the 50 year cold spell of February. No one else will notice, certainly not anyone who visits only on a day when the garden is in full bloom and at its pristine best because of the weeks of work that went into making it pristine.  When I look out across the whole of the garden, or at an individual plant, I know what I did to create that scene, and what I need to do to maintain it. It is a labor of love, it is, for me at times, a herculean task. It is, after all, garden making. I love it. I don’t try to convert  unbelievers into garden makers. I go it alone, except on the rare occasion when a kindred soul wanders in and then oh! how exciting to share the garden. In the meantime, among the labors, and inspiration, and financials and discomforts and decisions and luck there is occasionally some digging in the dirt, but that is the least of it, if not the least fun of it. 

Artists’ Gardens


I’m researching a new project. The  general subject is gardens, of course, but the specifics are amorphous and swirling in my mind trying to identify themselves. Still, until they do, I am researching gardens. This has lead me further a field than the internet,  and back to the library. I am always happy to be reminded of what a wonderful resource a library is. I am particularly lucky to live in the Boston metropolitan area where I have access to not just the connected suburban library system, but the world renowned Boston Public Library and a number of university libraries.

Today I spent part of a rainy Sunday afternoon reading Bill Laws’ Artists’ Gardens (Trafalgar Square Publishing 1999).  The book  features the gardens of 20 artists. Most of the artists in the book may be familiar to readers’ of ofgardens : there is Renoir, and Monet, of course, and Gertrude Jekyll and William Morris, Paul Cezanne and Frida Kahlo. More men than women, sadly predictable, but also slightly incorrectly because the gardens of these artists were mostly designed and kept by the wives of the artists. By the act of painting the gardens, the ownership of the garden reverted to the artist and his wife, the true gardener, became, once again, anonymous.

There are some bright exceptions in the book. Isamu Noguchi’s garden is all his, although there isn’t any plant life in the garden. The plot twist, for me, is that the women artists featured:  Kim Ondaatje, Frida Kahlo, Gertrude Jekyll, Barbara Hepworth and Jennifer Bartlett  are both the artist and the gardener. As in gardens as in life. Women do it all.


Art in Bloom

IMG_3312 2.JPG                     I’ve ventured into new territory this week, that of floral arranging. With a partner,  I am participating in The Museum of Fine Arts  annual floral show Art in Bloom. Each spring over 5o garden clubs are invited to interpret a work of art. Our assigned piece was Mrs Billington as St Cecilia by George Romney. Above, you can see both the painting and our arrangement.

Before this past Friday, neither my partner nor I had ever participated in Art in Bloom. While my partner has floral arranging experience, I am a complete novice. We were excited and nervous, and happy to rise to the challenge. The whole experience has been a fun adventure. The Associates at the MFA run a very well organized event. It’s a lot of work for everyone, but it draws the crowds, every year thousands of visitors come to see Art in Bloom and for good reason. The number, diversity and creative interpretations of the arrangements are fun, and impressive,  to see. If you’re in Boston, I hope you’ll go see for yourself.

Art in Bloom



THE BIG ISLAND: Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden



Tucked away on the East side of the Big Island of Hawaii in Onomea Bay, just outside Hilo, hugging a bend on one of the most picturesque roads on the Big Island, is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.


The garden is a unique tropical nature preserve and sanctuary. But more than that, it is a testament to the vision and efforts of its founders, Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse, who purchased 17 acres of land in 1978 and then proceeded to make a garden, literally inch by inch. When they brought the land it was covered in a dense, seemingly impenetrable jungle under which lay all kinds of junk: abandoned cars, machinery, appliances and trash as well as some treasures: amazing views of the Pacific, hidden waterfalls and the graves of an anonymous family of four.

The Lutkenhouses began chopping down jungle by hand with machetes because the jungle was so thick it was the only way to make space. Within six years they had reduced chaos and began the introduction of order with winding paths and groves of garden dedicated to different genus. There is a Bromeliad Hill, an Anthurium Corner, a Fern Circle and a Ginger Trail, among others.

The Lutkenhouses meant the garden to be a sanctuary for people as well as plants and on the January day I visited it lived up to their intention. It is a steep descent from the road and Visitor’s Center down into the garden. Almost immediately after getting on the boardwalk that takes you up and down into the garden you are engulfed in vegetation. The light is lovely, and intermittent. The hot Hawaiian sun so unforgiving on the beaches is in the garden is no more than a hidden guest playing hide and seek amid the foliage, making grand gestures when highlighting a hidden waterfall or spotlighting a bit of foliage. The foliage and flowers are accompanied by sounds of waterfalls, parrots and the crashing of the Pacific against the rocks. Even in January there was a lot in bloom to these North American eyes. I found myself thinking that even without blooms, the foliage, the light, the waterfalls, the ocean views and the opportunity to walk in this creation which was hewn out of neglect is well worth a visit.


But don’t let the name deceive you! Yes, the garden is in Hawaii, yes it is tropical, yes it is botanical and yes it is a garden but it is not an Hawaiian Botanical Garden. The garden houses species from all over the tropical world. I became interested in counting the number of different pine trees, until I lost count. And I couldn’t get enough of the ginger or birds of paradise, which are so exotic to my Zone 5 sensibility.


As I do whenever I travel, before I left I researched gardens to visit. There were several on the Big Island. I only had ½ a day to visit gardens because the reason I was on the Big Island was to go on a bicycle trip with my daughter. I flew over a few days ahead of my daughter and the start of the bike trip so I could savor the Big Island, get over jet lag and of course visit gardens. The Hawaiian Tropical Botanical Garden was on the other side of the island from where I was staying. I rented a car and drove several hours over to see it. From the East Coast of America, it seems like Hawaii and its sites are just that far to get to, but I am glad I made the effort. The garden is a remarkable memorial to Dan Lutkenhouse, who donated the garden and all the land for future conservation. I was also touched that there are quite a few memorial plaques honoring people who have been important to the garden, and the garden to them. Hawaiian Tropical Botanic Garden was a grand scale of a project, but I like to think that all gardens are in some small way share the vision, the effort and the loyalty that the Lutkenhouses and those who helped them achieve their dream garden.

If you find yourself on the Big Island, go see for yourself:


My Poor Garden

My poor garden. You wouldn’t know it to look at it today, but it has suffered much recently. Over the past weekend New England was plunged into Arctic temperatures, down to -9  with a windchill of -20. It was cold, the coldest it has been in more than 50 years!! AND, this weather descended only a few days after a day in which it reached 55 degrees, and then yesterday it climbed back into the 50s for a temperature swing of 70 degrees in two days. It is hard to make sense of it.

The weather pattern was not good for the garden. There is very little snow cover. The plants are bound to suffer winter kill, just how much I’ll know when they break dormancy in the spring. Even the weatherperson commented on how the Arctic cold and erratic weather was harmful to plants. I am glad I didn’t plant any woody plants this past fall. Hopefully all will survive and it will look like this again in a few months:


How are your gardens faring this winter?