Before you purchase your first plant for your first garden, most books advise you to look around your space, to visit your neighbors’ gardens, to explore the places in your town where nature has reclaimed herself from man and to wander the places where he has not yet step foot. All to discover what will and will not thrive in the space you want to call your own. Then they tell you to make a plan.
They are absolutely right. I however chose to ignore this very good advice when I first started out. On the land that I first gardened there were abandoned pockets of weeds and wildflowers and volunteer cedars and deer paths along the sides of plowed earth. Like the meter of a poem I thought they would be all the garden structure I would need. In a place where a slight rise in the road made my first garden the highest land in town, the wind volunteered itself as a pruning expert and carved anything vaguely shrub-like as bare as a freshly shorn ram. I didn’t care.
I’d visited gardens all over the world and read hundreds of books that explained how to begin a garden – I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I was impatient. All I wanted was to buy plants and get drink on their eventual flowers. I didn't worry about planting shrubs and wind blocks, or any of the other bones of a garden – I was after the soul of the thing.
Knowing that I couldn't start with a sprinkling of forget-me-nots, although it is was I really wanted, I compromised. The first plants I purchased after officially deciding to have a flower garden, were 20 bareroot roses ordered from a catalog and six peonies found at Cheap Sam’s on the way out from the city one afternoon.
My flower choices evolved from there. First, of course, was garden porn. All those glossy magazine spreads and picture books with tempting photos of misty Welsh gardens and explosive Seattle backyards started me on the plant mania path – where I travel still. And although it’s crazy to try and duplicate an English cottage garden in the heat of August in the Hamptons, many other plants were purchased for even more evocative reasons.
Descriptions from Collette's recollections. A Fantin Latour bouquet. A sweep of wild meadow captured on a postcard pined above a colleague’s desk. Beth Chatto’s description of a plant that resembled a mouse who, having climbed up a stalk of grass when the breeze hits, clings with it's tail wrapped around the blade for balance. A friend’s childhood memories of Spain and mine of England. Southern folklore. A Sri Lankan poem. The centerpiece of an ex-boyfriend's casual acquaintance's bridal table. All were influences.
The low, low, low, low price promised in fat red letters on a big box store’s junk mail envelope. Tablecloth patterns. A defiant line of trees, seen through a rain smeared window of an Italian train. A favorite tea. A wonderful, unusual name. Joan Mitchell’s paintings, as well as Vincent’s and Claude’s. A clump of color escaping from a cultured garden and dancing wildly towards the depth of a woods along a back road in Oregon. Martha. Cracked ancient herbals. Thomas Jefferson's notes from Monticello. All influenced the arrival of various plants in my first garden.
Not all the plants I bought were suited to my garden. It's soil's sweetness or lack thereof, it's physical placement and its relationship to the equator determined the fate of many, many plants. Some died, some thrived and some threaten to overrun the entire area regardless of how completely I thought I had irradiated it. I have learned a lot since that first garden. I now love evergreens and I torture and kill far fewer plants. And when I buy a shrub I try to plant it based on what its mature shape and character will be, not what it looks like now.
I know that after years of bringing home plants for all the wrong reasons, I have no business even thinking of buying more – I can barely take care of those I already have. Yet I still find myself insisting that I can find a space, can ease in a hole for a new plant whose peculiar name or strange brown flower or unusual story has connected with that place inside me that binds it to me as something I have to have.
Paige Patterson is crazy about Itoh peonies and white daffodils.