Gardener's advice: let strong color breathe

Unfraid of bare dirt

South African bulbs | Tree peonies  | Clematis
  • South African bulbs | Tree peonies | Clematis

As time goes on, my garden becomes more defined. I like flowering trees and bushes, and climbing roses, for example, more than annuals, or herbaceous boarders. I’m sorry, I don’t like much color; I’d rather look at overlapping shades of green, a little unkempt. Matisse said that a strong color should be surrounded by gray so that it can breathe outward — I see the point of that.

I fret about adding clematis to a back wall — will the garden become too pumped up? I don’t want my garden to be a Hollywood movie on steroids that clobbers me over the head, more like a foreign film from my formative period, slow and considered, allusive, an expression I bring myself to. I struggle against the urge to possess, greed for the unusual and exotic, the desire to add “interest.” Should I replace the hard-working, dependable nandina with the tree peonies I crave? I want my garden to have the wisdom to be stupid — a funky wall, a sloping deck, co mmon plants. Still, I look forward to developing a patch of California irises and South African bulbs in the side yard and to the plain gray earth that will be visible during a portion of the year. I’m not afraid of bare dirt.

In Mexico and Italy, I admired courtyard gardens, each one containing the very same potted palms, potted oleanders, lemon and orange trees, geraniums — ancient harmonies, vernacular gardening whose pleasures are akin to the local cuisines that highlight a few honest ingredients. These court yards are the informal descendants of the gardens of the emirs of Persia and the monks of medieval Europe, and the forerunners of the bungalow courts of Southern California with their stucco colors (called something like Aztec Sand or Desert Mist) and their ferocious surges of palm fronds, banana leaves, and bougainvillea.

But now my back deck is as springy as a trampoline and two of the stairs wobble, so I am confronted by a design opportunity. If I rebuild the deck with a bite taken out of it, I can create a grotto beneath and add a little fountain. A fountain! A bronze bowl, or an old marble tub. (Yes! But where will I find one that has been softened by time, and how afford it?) And a metal pipe will jut out from the cement retaining wall to spill water into the stone basin as it has done for centuries. I can change the deck railing. Now it’s just Adirondack camp architecture, but why not recreate the balusters at the Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, California. I have forgotten so many things since I saw them four years ago (I can’t even remember a phone number the length of time it takes to dial it), but not the serenely elegant cedar balusters from the loggia of the Moon Viewing House.

But here I catch myself again. Am I buying into an invidious aesthetic program, building my garden to look already old, pretending to inherit some other culture’s nostalgia? Is this different from the fake French chateau next to the fake English cottages that line our streets? I rather like them. You could call that hodgepodge of revival architecture an attempt to appropriate the grandeur of someone’s past, lacking a past of our own that we have access to. Do I really want to go back to the future?

Okay, okay — I’ll build a new fountain, out of Plexiglas, asphalt, and zinc, say, but it will be so unusual that I will transgress my rule against emphatic events. Is there a form of the new that is not unusual?

Are you still with me?

What would be a contemporary garden style? Would it be polyvocal — having many voices — as are other postmodern artistic expressions? Would it be a coalition amongst disparate points of view towards some common goals, as our post- modern politics are turning out to be?

According to The Poetics of Gardens (the MIT Press), a book by Charles W. Moore, William J Mitchell, and William Turn- bull, Jr., our American vernacular tends to be very simple, because our attention to landscape is often focused on natural set- tings — unbeatable wonders like Borrego Springs, Yosemite, or Highway 1 — completely beyond the scope of any gardener. Even a grand house, like the Breakers, built by the Vanderbilts in 1895, will have merely a ter- race, a few steps, and then an unbroken lawn to the edge of the cliff, where the ocean starts,“suggesting in its simple sweep a dominion that extends across the Atlantic to Spain.”

The Poetics of Gardens deserves a full-scale review. It explores the qualities of 20 or so gardens and extracts their guiding principles, from Hadrian’s villa to the court of Ch’ien Lung to Disney’s Magic Kingdom. It is full of wisdom, historical matter, and felicitous prose.

As for establishing guiding principles for our own gardens, “It is not, then, an orderly, linear process of deriving specific consequences from established rules. It is a colloquium of the clamorous voices of memory — urging and intimating, sometimes reaching satisfying agreements and sometimes staking out contradictions, catching allusions and sharing jokes, making asides and getting back to the point, sporting with irony and flirting with whimsy, and finally concluding, somehow, that some particular ideas are right for a particular site at a particular moment.”

So, I will persevere with my overlapping complexities and endeavor to keep the final result simple, focused, and a little dumb. The Poetics of Gardens cites Sakuteiki, an 11th-century book on garden art, which advises us to consider the site, study the past, recall places that were beautiful, and appropriate that which moves us most. As for my South African bulb plan — why not? And I will go ahead with my little grotto.

In my mind I am already sitting on the old bench and enjoying the fountain. The birds are already singing, the water dribbling. And then I look upward to the golden bamboo rustling way above — swaying canes framed by the balusters of a 17th-century moon viewing porch. The raccoons dig up ground cover in the grotto and wash these greens in the water — I can’t help that. Instead of the clematis I plant a climbing hydrangea, less common but quieter, a deciduous vine with peeling bark and flat sprays of chaste white flowers. I leave the nandina (whose shapes echo the bamboo) where they are and remain content in their feathery shade.

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