There’s a thing going on here at 2Dits. People talk, cars slow down to look, and I think some of the neighborhood kids have been told not to come up the driveway. You know how things are in a small town. Word gets around: the odd little woman in the baseball cap is at it again.
She’s planting more flowers.
I can’t help myself. I respect and nurture my vegetable garden; we have a working partnership, and I am grateful for the sustenance. But my heart is given to the beauty that feeds my soul. In the dark months of winter, it’s the thought of roses, snapdragons, morning glories, and sweet peas that gets me through. One of the best gifts my brother Bill has ever given me is an album containing portraits of my garden flowers he has photographed over the years, exquisite studies of color, form, and grace. I keep it on the coffee table to return to again and again, and for those few moments, at least, I am transported to summer mornings of bee murmur and soft, painter’s light.
I would love to be able to claim that I set out to create a Cottage Garden in which what seems to be a riotous profusion of homey, familiar flowers is actually a carefully orchestrated composition of leaf forms and succession of bloom. Um, no. My gardening design principle is if it’s pretty in the summer and makes it through the winter, it stays. I like to mix annuals and perennials so there will always be something blooming. I start the annuals from seed, and the perennials I’ve either been given by generous gardening friends or I’ve bought. Too, I’m lucky to have some wildings that grow wonderfully well with no help from me, including Jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon’s seal, violets and Johnny-jump-ups, among others. Other varieties were once carefully planted where I wanted them, but have gone delightfully rogue and seeded themselves wherever they think best. Forget-me-nots, phlox, sweet Williams, nicotiana, and foxgloves fall into this category.
It isn’t all beer and skittles in the Garden of Weedin, though. There are some things I’d love to grow, but can’t. Other folks around here have gorgeous clematis climbing their porches, but a clematis takes one look at me, turns up its growing tips, and dies. Shirley, icelandic, and oriental poppies do the same, even while my next-door neighbor’s red poppies bloom shortly after Memorial Day every year, a handsome show. Canterbury bells should do well, but don’t, even though other members of the campanula family are perfectly happy. Go figure. I’d like to have some things like these, but I can live without them.
Roses, though, are a different story. I cannot have a garden without roses. Probably no single aspect of my gardening addiction has cost me more money and heartbreak as trying to grow tea roses in my zone 5 garden. When you take a plant whose genetics are rooted in some long-ago garden in tropical southern China and subject it to the kind of winters we get here in Maine, the result is predictably devastating. I tried for many years to grow the varieties I loved, and for a couple of seasons I was even a test gardener for Jackson & Perkins, the rose breeders in Oregon. Their French Lace is still the loveliest rose I’ve ever grown, with its classic form, spicy scent, and ivory petals blushed with pastel peach at the center.
I would have exuberant roses the first summer I planted them, and if the bush lived through the winter, I might get a few live canes in the spring and a smaller display of flowers the second summer. The second winter almost always killed them, despite styrofoam rose cones, heavy mulching, incantations, or any other measures I might take to try to shield them. Eventually I had to concede that growing tea roses is just not practical for me. It’s too expensive to replace them every year, and too discouraging to try again.
Then I discovered a lovely rose named Bonica, which bears a profusion of soft pink blossoms all summer and, with some moderate care, comes through the winter in fine style. The key to its success is that, unlike a tea rose, which is actually a two-part bush consisting of the blossoming part grafted onto a tough rootstock, Bonica and other shrub roses are not grafted plants. They grow on their own roots, which in practical terms means that even if many of the canes are winter-killed above the ground, the bush will sprout new branches from the root, and you’ll have just as nice a display of blooms as you did the first summer you planted it.
I blame Bonica for much of what has happened since. I began to seek out other roses like her, adding Seafoam and Coral Beauty, among others. One flower garden quickly became two, with shrub roses anchoring beds filled with rose-and-white columbines, spires of blue and violet delphinium, primrose yellow daylilies, and chartreuse lady’s mantle. Then I put in a wide foundation border in the front yard with powder-blue hydrangeas, yellow lupine, Double Red Knockout roses, and sapphire morning glories. After that I built a rock retaining wall to hold a hillside garden bordering the driveway, filling that one with white Popcorn Drift roses, sky-blue echium, and a frilly double petunia called Purple Pirouette.
For this summer, I’m thinking to re-do the garden outside the screen porch. And I know that when I’m kneeling there in the side yard with my hands full of a clump of some plant and my clothing grimed with mud in several unbecoming locations, the neighbors will give the odd little woman in the ball cap a toot of the horn and a wave of the hand as they drive by, because they recognize that those of us dazzled by love must be humored.
All photographs copyright William Gilluly and used by permission of the artist. More of William’s work, including a new gallery of photographic mandalas, may be seen at: william-gilluly.artistwebsites.com