Wednesday, November 3, 2010

About gardens

In bloom:  agapanthus, sedum, aquilegia, Lychnis coronaria (white and carmine), Nepeta "Six Hills Giant", scaevola (white). Photo: Maureen Viljoen

Back to my mom's garden in Cape Town as my demand for More Pictures! yielded excellent results. I never see this garden in late spring (this would be the equivalent of the Northeast's May, I think) and it is a whole other country from its summer self.

Rosa multiflora and R. Iceberg. Photo: Maureen Viljoen

The pink and profuse multiflora is the star of the show, and usually just a mass of green canes when I see in summer.

 Rosa multiflora and Fern Buttress. Photo: Maureen Viljoen

 Watsonias. Photo: Maureen Viljoen

 Chlorophytum saundersonii. Photo: Maureen Viljoen

Sweetpeas and Rosa "Peach Sunsation". Photo: Maureen Viljoen

And the man who helps make it happen, Elliot Sicwala. Photo: Maureen Viljoen

Can anyone say deadheading? This is not a low maintenance garden.

It was not until I started designing gardens in New York that I was confronted by this concept. We don't want any maintenance, said clients. And I pondered.

Now, I can deliver such a garden, given the right conditions and agreement on aesthetic, or as close to it as it is possible to arrive.

But sometimes one misses the mark entirely.

Almost a decade ago, one family for whom I had designed and helped plant in their back forty, one of my favourite gardens at the time, became incensed with it. And before we could start work on it, which involved imposing some structure - retaining walls, steps and stone patio - I had to agree to remove a stewartia tree. And not just that, but a Styrax japonica in a corner.

I should have known, then, that this was not a job to accept. Could anything have been a louder alarm bell? A pyramidal, deciduous tree that blooms in summer, with anemone-clear flowers, pure white with a yellow centre. A tree whose foliage is hot orange in fall and whose bark is silky-grey in winter? And the little white bells and green fruits of Styrax? The father: They're messy.

Why did I not analyse this telling little sentence? In a double-barreled word: Pay-cheque.

About ten months after the garden had been planted, in mid spring, I get an angry phone call:

It keeps growing! fumed the father.

That's what he said.

We had agreed to a green and white garden, calming I felt, and good for their half shade situation. There was plenty of structure from the hardscape and some trimmed boxwood balls (my friend Dan's nemesis - sometimes I email him pictures of boxwoods to rile him up), as even then I could tell that straight lines and order were important.There were three kinds of white hydrangea - dwarf oak leaf, Limelight and an arborescens. And two kinds of viburnum: a fragrant Mohawk and a horizontally branched V. plicatum (for whom a great deal of wrath was destined), there was a star magnolia, beautifully round. And even Otto Luyken laurels, so over- used and abused in industrial landscapes but quite pretty in their own right and nice and green in winter ("we don't want to see a dead garden"). There was a mahonia for evergreen-ness and early scent and pale yellow (eek!) flowers and fruit, a flock of skimmia ladies and their token male for berries and winter interest, and there were blueberries in the sun, for the children. There were stands of Solomon's seal and smilacina and phlox and Viola canadensis.  Formosa lilies for scented evenings. There were hay- scented ferns.

There was also bamboo, per the father's request. I try to avoid clutches of bamboo inground, as it spreads hopelessly, jumping over or diving under hi and low-tech barriers alike, but no, he liked and wanted bamboo - so we found a gorgeously striped Phyllostachys aureosulcata "Harbin" with multiple green stripes up its yellow canes and pink culms.

We had discussed what gardening needed to be done once everything was planted and they had received and approved a three page, exhaustive list of what needed doing when, in the planning stages. We like gardening, they said.

Then the irate phone call:

The bamboo had escaped. The star magnolia had grown six inches around in the first year and was touching a viburnum. The hydrangea flowers had TURNED PINK and then DIED after flowering. The viburnums had grown! One was growing sideways!!! The blueberries dropped to the ground. The bulbs' foliage turned yellow at the end of their season.

It's a mess, said the father: I have to keep cutting it back. And he did. With a saw.

The garden had worked. Everything grew, responding to the tons of compost we had added early on. It all filled in, bloomed in sequence. It was, in my opinion, lovely. And they hated it. The husband hacked, the wife tidied and the children whined, refused to touch the soil and fretted when told to go outside and play on the lawn enclosed on three sides by blooming shrubs and sweet berries.

I removed myself from the picture and handed over the garden's "maintenance" to a friend who reported back occasionally on recurring problems, like growth. Later, she quit, too.

It's easy to forget, now, how upset I was then. That I could not persuade them that this was right, that this was, in fact, a  garden, that their money had been well spent. That it was beautiful.

But that is the exception, thank goodness. I now recognize the signs early on and pass if necessary.

So, a toast to those who clip, who prune, who bend and sweat and pull, who dream and desire and dig, and hope and watch and water, and who start over again when something goes wrong. To those who make things grow.

To those who garden.


  1. I'll clink a glass to your toast and to your Mother's garden.

    Apple didn't fall far from that tree did it Eve?

    xo jane

  2. I have, sometimes, designed small gardens.But I will never design for the "friend" who says: 'I just love gardening! Can you make me one?'
    I've learned, sometimes bitterly, that the person who says he loves gardens is often not a gardener!

  3. I think I'm going to refer possible future clients to this post. Their reaction to it will be a bellweather.

  4. Wow, the Sun Valley Ave garden looks beautiful! Sigh.


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