While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.


A Plant only a Gardener Could Love

I am as attracted to beauty as anyone.  Gardeners know that beauty is intrinsically subjective.  It is defined by what catches the eye, what elicits a Wow!, by what is unique.  Sometimes I judge beauty by what survives; “It lived!  I love it!”   We know that all we observe we judge – unintentionally, often unconsciously, but judge we do, nonetheless.  Most gardeners have a favorite foliage color and texture, a favorite plant size, leaf arrangement, or blossom shape.  Some have an intense attraction to or dislike of an entire genus, some seem to fall in love with each new plant on the market.  We all have a weak spot, and mine is grasses.

Many years ago, I came upon a grass that was dramatic, bold, and in a color not (intentionally) represented in my garden.  The grass was Carex buchananii.  I was smitten with this plant from the moment I saw it.  Because I had nothing else like in it the garden, I decided to grow it in a container so that it could be used as a focal point.  I bought a large container with a deep red and green glaze, placed the grass towards the back and filled in the rest of the container with red Verbena, Lotus maculatus, a deep orange Calibrachoa, and Sedum morganianum.  I placed it in the middle of the back yard garden where it could be seen from all angles.  It was beautiful, it was exotic, it was exciting – and I loved it!

During the summer months my mother often stopped by for afternoon visits.  We would walk through the garden, enjoying the breezes and talking about plants.  Our approaches to gardening and plant preferences were quite different; her favorite plants were those with traditional blooms – roses, gladiolas, hollyhocks – plants from her childhood.   When we came around to the back of the house, she stopped in front of the Carex container.  She said nothing for a moment, then touched its blades.  After a while, she turned to me and said, “Well, that’s different.  Is it dead?”

Carex buchananii with Leucothoe fontanesiana in the garden.



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Grace in a Seed Head

Grace in a Seed Head

Fall comes on fast each year and I am never prepared.  This year it arrives breezy with flying leaves, patches of pale blue sky showing behind grey clouds, a weakened sun peeking through the seasonal curtain moving on the wind.

I have been cleaning up, cutting back, chopping down the remnants of summer.  Spent inflorescences remind me of paper lanterns left out in the sun all summer; tired, battered, but useful still.  Birds eat the seeds of grasses, shrubs, and perennials; winds take what remain and scatter them for all.

Conifers flag their thirst and exhaustion and demand my attention; I comply with water.  I wish I could give them the relief they gave to me during the hottest days of summer.  Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’ creates a rich backdrop for Pinus wallichianaCotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ competes with Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ for deepest, most dramatic foliage in the garden – both win, although the Asters and Lobelia are almost as showy.  Maples begin a dress-rehearsal for their grand finale in the weeks ahead.  Crisp brown leaf edges dissolve into reds and oranges and catch the eye of anyone who takes a moment to look.  To notice these small, purposeful gifts of nature is time well-spent.

The garden is a frantic place in autumn.  Squirrels and birds compete for the trail of seeds, weeds, and twigs I leave behind as I work my way through each bed.  They clean up after me and I don’t mind the help – the scolding I could do without.  Crows, especially, would prefer that I go inside the house until they have finished their forage in the yard.  Overhead, I hear the hum of our resident hummingbird when I work in direct line of her fuchsia basket.  I move away so she can drink alone.  I rake leaves from the lawn and spread them over the beds, grass clippings are added when l find them.  A thin layer of mulch is applied to each bed – apparently for the benefit of squirrels who bury their stash in places that my dog always finds.  He loves those snacks.  Everyone finds something this time of year.

What I find in the fall garden is grace.  Grace that bursts forth from pure, clean light as it streams through the seed heads of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silver Grass’, as it animates purple blades of Schizachyrium ‘Little Blue Stem’, in the dancing of statuesque stands of Calamagrostis ‘Avalanche’, and in the gold of Phyllostachys aurea that glows to life as summer fades.  I find grace in the colors of gardens that blaze with rusty orange and gold and red; with movement that answers each gust of wind with a nod and a sweep of blade of grass.  These plants, the monocots that feed the world, build soil, defeat erosion, and protect wetlands, are simple in beauty.  They enhance the autumn garden in ways no other plant can.  Grasses need no enhancement; we do well to accept the beauty that time has given them.  Like sparse, uncluttered prose, a stand of ornamental grass in bloom is complete; nothing more is needed.

As autumn moves towards winter and its colors flow away, grasses persist with their ancient chores of feeding and protecting the creatures that live in the garden year-round.  It is often said that evergreens are the bones of a garden, and I do love conifers, but I find that a garden built upon the fluid beauty of grasses is as substantial as any.