Sunday, February 21, 2010

I'm a petal person

A flower gather since childhood and a closet floral arranger, I’m a sucker for a big bouquet. When I lived in Manhattan I was on a first name basis with 11 different deli owners, and I prowled 28th street like a predator. So naturally, when I started to garden, I focused on the obvious suspects. Piles of peonies and other perennials jumped in my car, magnolia after magnolia followed me home and I collected hydrangeas like some women covet shoes.

My garden was stunning.

I cut armfuls of purple, pink and fuchsia. Filled bowls with cascades of salmon, lemon and cream. Ten minutes before arriving at a dinner party I’d be gathering handfuls of luscious, juicy vibrance for my host or hostess. I was in heaven.

Then came winter.

For a person who loves all the froth and flounce of flowers that first winter was dreadful. My dahlia’s were dug up, my annuals were dead and when I stared at the large brown circles where all my perennials hibernated amongst their skirts of faded January grass, I saw nothing but beige. Beige and brown and boring and bad. So I fought back.

I threw on excessive layers, grabbed my trusty clippers and ventured out into the cold. Forced outside to gather what I could to make arrangements, I learned how to combine wild rose hips with seed heads and pinecones and twisty twigs. I discovered that the simple gloss of Southern Magnolia leaves brings life back into a room. And when I had exhausted the contents of my own back yards I started wandering the roads and the properties of friends.

Being forced out of my comfort zone taught me how to see. Now when I cut sprigs of skimmia to mix with variegated holly, green transforms from filler to a radiant spectrum of olive through emerald to chartreuse, bottle and beyond. The few leaves left clinging to trees aren’t just brown, but range from the pale beige of our native beeches to the deep purple remnants on my privet. What I had decided was grey before properly looking is actually tinged violet or etched in silver. And there’s red everywhere, from the thin strings of bittersweet that I twist into balls to the berries left behind on barberry. Of course I lust after the winterberries in the wetlands – but leave them in their native arrangements along with the startled cardinal I disturb with my presence.

That the stems of a neighbor’s red twig dogwood named ‘Winter Flame’ resembles so closely it’s apt name made the plant one of the first I bought the following year. A black pussy willow, a plant I lusted for after seeing it used in a Valentine’s arrangement on an otherwise lengthy and dull date, was another and I’ve never looked back. A cryptomeria that turns purple when it’s too cold out to leave the house without gloves. Not just evergreens, but all the golden and variegated version as well. And things that I could force. Branches that would befriend my clippers. These all became plants I “have to have.”
Now, when the cold starts to stretch out interminably I can face the world with my trusty clippers. There’s clump of Forsythia I inherited with my property. Not being a big yellow person, I’d sort of ignored it, raised my nose to it, thought it common. Now I adore it. Its wide open egg yolk lemon makes me excited every time I open the door.

Winter is why I have two varieties of Prunus meme – a Japanese flowering apricot that blooms only sporadically in the garden – the vacillating extremes of December through February are normally too much for it’s delicate buds – but it explodes with delicate flowers when cut and brought into my kitchen.

I still can’t say I look forward to winter. I don’t like the cold, and this one has been a real doozy so far, but I like what the season has taught me. I’m a better and more diverse gardener with a deeper love and understanding of the entire plant kingdom. I’ve learned to look beyond the obvious. And I’ve discovered the anti-depressive qualities of a good pair of clippers and an open mind.