Wednesday, June 4, 2014

House proud?

I ask you. Is it possible to be "house proud" of a place you have merely rented for twenty-five years? I have investigated the process of home buying lately and it is daunting given my income.Perhaps I was not meant for that kind of burden anyway, -- all that talk about sump pumps and closing costs. Perhaps I take after my near-legendary great grandmother who was "too busy rolling bandages for the Red Cross" to bother about lesser projects. Besides, when I say house proud what I really mean is garden proud, and even my garden would likely make true aficionados wince. Close up photos of flowers are all very well, but they are a bit like close up photos, indoors, of apples or cats: one doesn't see the weeds in one, nor the dusty bookshelves or abandoned socks on the floor in the other. And one carries on, renting.

Below, a "Wasabi" coleus. New in the market, I take it. 

Luckily I rent a place where a garden is possible. This year, I wanted four things: foxglove and hollyhocks again, and for the first time, cleome and cosmos. Would you believe it, I found them all. And not in artsy, orchid-stuffed garden centers or huge home improvement warehouses, but in a small local fruit and vegetable stand, and in the poky back room of a neighborhood hardware store.

Below, foxglove, Digitalis. Now we can pretend we're in a Miss Marple novel, and that someone is going to "accidentally" toss foxglove leaves into the salad. (They resemble very large sage.) You mustn't, they're poisonous.

In spring it is enjoyable to garden in the blazing sun and heat, just one afternoon or two. The winter was so long. After that, one will take care to dig and weed at cooler times of the day. The thunderstorm, just after I planted my foxglove, hollyhocks, cleome, and cosmos, was impressive. 

Below, cosmos, Cosmos bipinnatus. Gardeners can make themselves sound good by carefully quoting the Latin names of their plants, but it doesn't take any brains at all to do so. Just look at the tags that come with your poky-hardware-store purchase, and copy what they say correctly. Trust that no one's switched tags. A little cross-referencing in books with pictures helps.

And yet there can be brains in garden writing. I'm not quite sure what defines them. To recite Latin names and describe what one has done in one's own bit of earth is not a formula for an interesting book. It's downright annoying in the case of people who casually allow that they bought a two-hundred-acre farm in upstate New York just before setting out for that two year assignment in Algeria, so they had plenty of time to consult Hortus Third about the best spots for Anemone lesseri, and so on. See Elisabeth Sheldon's A Proper Garden (1989), which, despite annoyances, is a good book -- brainy.

Below, some type of peony, Paeonia.  The utterly ethereal pink of its outer petals is something no photo can do justice to. 


What sets interesting garden writers apart from the simple here's-what-I-do variety seems to be an instinct for noticing and appreciating small things -- ordinary things -- or perhaps (the other side of the coin) large patterns. My favorite piece of garden writing is an anonymous essay on a very small thing, the geranium. It was originally published in Scribner's Magazine's "Point of View" column in July 1914, and was reproduced in the excellent anthology The Once and Future Gardener (ed. Virginia Tuttle Clayton, 2000). Here, the Anonymous lays out the case that the geranium, the potted one, Pelargonium, is exactly what the garden needs in midsummer when the glorious procession of spring-flowering bulbs (daffodils, tulips) and perennials (foxgloves, hollyhocks) is over. Pelargonium, the writer says,
is too wise to want to interfere with the repose which must follow a period of great activity. She would only fain prevent an entire collapse, and would gently keep the garden's head above water until such time as it feels like swimming again. She can do this as no one else can, blooming brightly and quietly here and there among the discouraged plants, keeping up general appearances .... The exhausted garden  ... needs to be laughed at a little; and this function the geranium can perform for it amiably, not hurting its feelings but rallying it: "Come now! You are tired, but that does not mean the rest of the universe is undone." 
And as for good garden writers noticing larger patterns, we consult again our Finger Lakes-by-way-of-Algeria transplant, E. Sheldon of A Proper Garden. In Chapter 4, "Who should design your garden?" she asserts first that everyone really should cultivate whatever greenery they enjoy. Then she describes the unpleasantness that tends to result. She is commendably honest.  
In plumping for homemade gardens I must admit my intolerance of other people's ideas on what constitutes a proper garden. That it's homemade doesn't cause me to temper my cries of pain at the sight of raised beds made of cement blocks, of planted tires, of top-heavy, overfed and overbred dahlias, lashed like felons to rows of stakes, of marigolds marching around a fake wishing well, of large circles of flaming cannas edged with mournful wax begonias in the middle of a pocket handkerchief lawn ....
I stand witness to just those gardens, only sometimes people replace planted tires with planted bed frames, or eschew pink flamingos in favor of plaster statues of kissing Dutch children, or matching wooden cutouts of farmer-clad Ma-and-Pa buttocks, bent over. As if gardening.

Garden however you will, the thing about renting forever is you really can't name your house, which is what everybody does in Miss Marple and other delightful English novels. And it's not just the rich who do it; Miss Marple is by no means well to do but lives in "Danemead" anyway, and of course we can easily recite the house names from Mapp and Lucia. There is Wasters and The Hurst and Taormina and Mallards. Plenty of these householders are of quite ordinary circumstances. Perhaps then all the names are meant to be a joke, one which we anxious Americans don't get, just as we stand perplexed over English gardening instructions only applicable to mild English weather. Elizabeth Sheldon notices this too and complains about it, but still her two hundred acre farm grates on me and I feel she hasn't got a leg to stand on.

Can I name a first floor apartment in a century-old farmhouse? Perhaps, "Tresco" after the famed gardens of Tresco Abbey on the Scilly Islands (off the coast of Cornwall)? Or shall I open Elizabeth Sheldon's A Proper Garden, and choose as a name the first word my finger points to?

It's "couldn't." 

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