Thursday, 15 May 2008

Gardener's Hour

I was walking through someone’s beautiful garden yesterday and I suddenly had an epiphany: I am becoming a gardening enthusiast.

Where I used to be a person who would vaguely register “purple flower,” I am now a person who knows the difference between an “allium” and an “agapanthus,” and even realizes that they are plants suitable to a herbaceous border. Slowly, gradually, I have learned to recognize dozens of English plants and flowers. If I knew them before, it was only in a storybook way: “hollyhocks,” “lamb’s ears,” “dahlias,” “catmint,” “delphiniums,” “lupins,” “sweet peas.” Somehow I have crossed over from a person who loved reading The Secret Garden, to a person who wants a secret garden. I was thrilled when my peonies recently started blooming, and visiting the garden center for a plant shopping binge has been the highlight of my week. Believe me, it hasn’t always been this way.

I don’t remember a lot of flowers in Central Texas, where I grew up – only the rather boring, hardy varieties like pansies and marigolds. One suited to the mild winters; one suited to the arid summers. Bland, ubiquitous flowers. We had “lawns” of thick, coarse St. Augustine grass instead. Maybe some trees and a few shrubs.

A lawn is serviceable; it is frontage for your house; it is something that has to be mown and edged frequently. If you do take pride in it, it is because of the rigorous neatness, the vigorous greenness, the vanquished weeds.

A “garden” is something entirely different.

A garden is a creative enterprise; an aesthetic statement; a revealing form of self-expression. It is a constantly evolving project – full of delight, surprise and heartbreak. It may take years, even decades, of plotting and shaping; yet it can change overnight. A garden resists the control of even the most masterful hand, as it is constantly subject to weather vagaries and the self-seeding propensity of so many plants. It is never “done,” but always a work in progress. A garden is cyclical – and therefore, a source of ever-renewable small pleasures. I will be sad to see the wisteria, clematis and peonies fade with the end of May, but by June the roses will start blooming.

Many keen gardeners have a flower that they are particularly passionate about – and for me, that flower is the rose. The David Austin Handbook of Roses is like horticultural porn: seductive and highly thrilling. I drool over the descriptions, lingering lovingly over: “exquisite little buds,” “good, bushy growth,” “light musk rose perfume with a hint of myrrh,” “luxuriant healthy foliage,” and “richest velvety crimson.” Each rose is almost more beautiful than the last – and there are hundreds of them. I know that I can’t have them all, but I can still have lots. I fantasize over them, making wish lists. I like the old roses the best; the peony-like ones, with proper rose fragrance.

Being a word lover, I also love roses for their names. No doubt “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but I can’t help believe that there is something in a name. “Alan Titchmarsh” and “Eglantyne” are both beautiful pink roses – but which one would you rather have?

I have no problem confessing that I get a strange satisfaction from rose names – both the beautiful and the quirky. I know that proper gardeners learn the Latin names of their plants, but I would so much rather have a “Falstaff” rose or a “Shropshire Lass.” When I was choosing a pale apricot rose to mix in with some lavender and purple salvia I could have gone for “Abraham Darby” or “Evelyn” or “Pat Austin” – but when I spotted the “Ambridge” rose, I knew that I had to have that one for Sigmund. (English readers will recognize “Ambridge” as the village in which “The Archers” – a long-running radio drama that Sigmund is devoted to -- is set.) Although I picked “The Pilgrim” for its delicate yellow blooms and strong climbing prowess, I still delighted in its American overtones. (I hope that it will be a vigorous adventurer, swiftly conquering the ugly garage wall it has been trained against.) “The Generous Gardener,” a pale satin slipper pink, will hopefully bring good luck in the new border. “Celsiana” and “Penelope” will be massed against the side fence. Old English names, like “Glamis Castle” and “Winchester Cathedral,” are mixed in with my herbs. At some point, I just know that I will have to establish my Poet’s Corner for roses: with “Jane Austen,” “William Shakespeare, “The Dark Lady,” “Thomas Hardy,” “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and so many others to choose from.

Gardens really are about putting down roots. Because a garden can take years to properly establish, it is a long-term vision – an investment in the future. In July, we will have lived in this house for two years – nearly a record for our family. Even though we have spent nearly all of that two years renovating our house, I still think that I could happily “up sticks” if the right adventure presented itself. A house is a house. (And besides, I really need a bigger kitchen.) We have lived in lots of houses, but this is our first real garden. I can imagine that with a few more years of putting down roses, I may not ever want to leave.

After two weeks of glorious sunny weather, what I have come to think of as “default English weather” has returned: 50 degrees, damp, gray, soft, misty. I know that my newfound gardening outlook is starting to change me, because my first thought was thank goodness it’s raining, because the garden needs a good soak!


Brave Sir Robin said...

Good for you!!

Welcome to the club!

My father was an avid gardener and rose aficionado. He grew roses and competed in flower shows all over this part of the state. He was pretty successful, and there was almost always at least one silver cup on display in our den.

One of the fondest memories I have of my childhood home is my Dad's roses. At the time he sold the house there were probably over 150 rose bushes in our backyard.

He was a fan of the Hybrid Tea, but I always loved the climbers and the little floribundas.

I wish I could show you pictures, but those disappeared in the divorce.

And yes, my lawn is sparse and full of Saint Augustine.

Please post some photos of your garden when you can.

Alyson said...

Beautiful post! I love that there are others, like me, that love things just for beauty's sake and cultivate that. It's similar to my feelings about my environment. I could never live in a typical suburban development that so many of my comtempories seem to crave. I would be depressed to be in a place so devoid of beauty. I need to have nature and a feeling of being in a secret, beautiful spot.

I can see myself turning into you in a few years. I've never cared for gardening, but now that I'm done having kids, I'm becoming more and more curious about flowers and plants. At this point I just have a small embryo of desire for learning the gardening arts, but I'm sure in a few years, when my baby's a little older, I'll want to really nurture something else, like an amazing, enchanting garden.

Good luck to building your secret garden and do post pictures when you get a chance!

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

You have become gardener if you are happy for rain! That is the secret behind the English garden - it's a cool greenhouse mister. Blogging about the weather and gardens - I think you are going native, Bee.

Did you know that the 15th of every month is Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day? Carol at May Dream Gardens organizes it. You post about your garden with photos, and then post a comment on her Bloom Day post so people know to visit. Anyone is welcome. It's fun to see what is blooming around the world on one day. Call it a virtual garden tour.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

Oops bad link - I'll try again:
May Dreams Gardens

Anne said...

This post makes me all kinds of happy. I come from gardener stock: my mother and both of my grandmothers are avid gardeners, and some of my very early memories are of my Nonnie (maternal grandmother) showing me around her garden in Alexandria. I think there are pictures of me helping her plant things, patting the dirt around them to make sure they were securely in the ground.

I have long wanted to cultivate a green thumb of my own, and have had some success with orchids (and, when I was a child, African violets). While I don't have the space to have a garden at my house (we're renters, so the landscaping is not ours to change), it seems that I'm always talking plants with my mom. None of my other siblings is particularly interested in plants, so I think she enjoys being able to share her gardening with me.

And that's part of the fun, the sharing. Mom's garden includes daylilies and roses from Nonnie; firecrackers, roses, and foxgloves from my other grandmother; grapes and plum grafts from a family friend; and feverfew and a bay tree from my high-school-era horticulture internship at a local farm. I love that living things that have been nurtured by friends and family can continue to be nurtured in one's own garden.

I second BSR's request for pictures of your garden! :)

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

You have gone native. I am embarrassed to say that I did nothing to our garden this year. I wasn't sure what the owners had put in, and honestly, I don't know weed from flower since even the weeds are lovely here. I do know I have a rose bush, some raspberry vines, a strawberry plant, two olive trees in pots and a bay tree. There is also some unknown flowering ground cover, the odd tulip or two, a handful of daffodils and a really cool birdbath covered in English Ivy.

I love walking through the gardens in England. I know what you are saying about Secret Gardens (one of my favorite books of all time). Before I moved to the UK, gardening meant spending two hours a day watering my parents' azalea bushes in 100+ degree heat while getting eaten up by mosquitoes. Now it means soft grass, showy flowers, and sweet smelling air.

Bee said...


I am always amazed by the broad range of knowledge you possess! I just looked up some info on floribunda roses, and I liked the description of "mass colour effect" and long flowering season! I do love roses that flower over and over again. I have several new floribundas -- including a beautiful white "overlaid with a satin-pink sheen" called "Margaret Merrill."

Apparently Hybrid Tea don't grow so well in England as they like a warmer climate -- which makes sense if your father was growing them in Texas!

I'll try to work on the pictures. My camera charger must be somewhere in this house!!

I wish you could have been with me yesterday! I saw some of the most beautiful houses and gardens in a lovely village called Blewbury. You would have loved it.

I think that a lot of people come to garden slightly later in life. There are so many ugly things in life to fret and stress about, and maybe it is an antidote to that?

I HAVE noticed the Bloom Day before, but I've never really thought of myself as a gardener. Now that I've caught the bug I will start educating myself! (Food blogs; literary blogs; gardening blogs . . . where does it end?) Thanks for the tip.

I love plants that have a history behind them. My WP was showing me some cuttings from a favorite rose from their old house. She was so thrilled that they were starting to thrive!

I wish that I had learned some gardening at a grandparent's knee.

I bet that you will have a wonderful garden someday. And you can make plum jam and other good things.

The Secret Garden gets my vote for best-ever children's book. It is such a beautiful, empowering story.
(We were listening to the musical soundtrack last weekend. Do you know it?)

I need a bird bath! I am looking for two garden "features" for beds that have roses, lavender and herbs. I looked all last summer, but could never settle on the "right" thing.

Isn't the grass here divine? It is so soft and fine. Now I know why Sigmund used to always mock Texas-style grass.

P.S. Houston memories: I've planted two azaleas ("White Lights") in my new border.

JaneyV said...

Bee - What a great post! I'm not much of a gardener but I do love my garden. My mother was a wonderful gardener and could make the most frazzled of plants come back to life. Me - I can murder anything with a kind look.
We've only lived in our house since the first week of February and I love watching how the garden is developing. Friends of mine have given me a Rosemary bush and cytisus racemosus, both of which are wonderfully fragrant, to make it my own. So far no roses though which I'm sad about because I do adore a rose. Particularly a fragrant rose.

When my daughter was born my husband bought me a beautiful yellow rose bush (yellow roses are my fave) which bloomed every year on her birthday. Our dog ate it last year. She was only a puppy but it did make me sad. We also had the most incredible claret coloured velvetty one. I miss them.

I understand what you mean about being influenced by the name of a rose. There is a beautiful yellow rose with the unfortunate name of Golden Showers. EEEW! And I'm sure there are quite a few ladies out there who'd be very attracted to Alan Titchmarsh (I'm more of a Monty Don girl, myself!) HAHAHA!

And as for The Secret Garden... my absolute favourite children's book!

I was tagged again! fancy trying your hand at it?

Lucy said...

Lovely post.

I've become much more tolerant of plants and flowers that I might have been a bit snobbish about once, like rhododendrons, dahlias, azaleas, partly because if they thrive, I like them, partly because I don't affect to dislike big colourful rather vulgar flowers any more! But you can't beat a rose. Winchester Cathedral really is a star, very tough and easy going, quite compact, great perfume, really pure white, they put me in mind of Nivea hand cream! We've had them blooming some years right up to Christmas. Doubtless there is a Jane Austen rose, but look closely and I think you'll find the David Austin variety is Jane Austin, after one of the brothers' wives!

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Bee, my daughter likes to lie in the grass here. The other plus about England is NO fireants!

Bee said...


I, too, am horrified by the "Golden Showers" name. And I keep seeing it featured in gardens! (I think it is a good repeater.) I have an unfortunate memory associated with the perverse kind of golden showers . . . and I've never really gotten over it.

Yes, I can see that some women might fancy Alan -- but the name is hardly romantic, is it?

Yellow roses: We have a "Charlotte" in the front border and two yellow climbers -- "The Pilgrim" and "Malvern Hills."

I do love that roses bloom far into the autumn. I have two new white ones that I'm excited about: "Margaret Merrill" and "The Generous Gardener" (which has a bit of pink in it).
Thanks for the info on the "Jane Austin" rose!! (I just looked in my catalog, and how right you are . . . it is actually "Jayne Austin." But my beloved Jane Austen surely does deserve her own rose!

Yes we can easily live without fireants and mosquitoes! English grass is delicious to walk on.