Looks like I shouldn’t have pitched my old high-waisted bellbottoms…they’re making a huge comeback. And while fashion is famous for its style reincarnations, I got to wondering if the same holds true for the world of horticulture. Do plants, like fashion, go in and out of vogue?
Kiku: Chrysanthemum in Japanese
With the number of lavish autumnal displays popping up in streetscapes and botanical gardens everywhere, I had to look no further than the stalwart chrysanthemum to find my answer.
Once relegated to homecoming corsages, funeral wreaths and New Year’s Day floats, the ho-hum mum is being reinvented in ways that would make Madonna envious. Take the recent Kiku exhibit (chrysanthemum in Japanese) at the New York Botanic Garden. You just can’t imagine the astonishing things their hort staff can do with an ordinary mum. Chrysanthemum contortion is an ancient Japanese art with a surprisingly modern aesthetic. At a glance, the incredible mass of a thousand chrysanthemum blooms, Ozukuri, looks awesome because of its sheer scale and presence. But, take a closer peek and you’ll discover that what appears to be a gigantic bouquet of cut flowers is really hundreds upon hundreds of flower heads emanating from a single living stem!
A couple of years ago I joined a Garden Club of America group for a behind-the-scenes tour of the NYBG. It was there that I caught my first clue that mums were on their way back. We learned how Kiku masters are specially trained in Japan to nurture, cajole, prod and prune chrysanthemums of all cultivars and colors into incredible formations—everything from cascades to bridges to towers. A full year of painstaking devotion goes into each design all for a fleeting moment of glory.
Footnote: All this mum gawking got me inspired to try my hand at Kiku Ningyo, a style where Japanese historical figures are depicted all dressed up with, you guessed it, chrysanthemums. My twist: embellish mossy mannequins with mum-filled martinis and bikini tops bursting with mums. I’m calling them Thelma and Louise…just a couple of cool chicks just hanging out together in my fall garden.
Let’s face it. The fall garden is like that hot chick from the night before. You know the one now staring back at you with morning makeup melted down her face…what happened to that sassy girl? That special one-in-a million “gurl” from the dance floor: the one with all the fresh feistiness of a June peony.
Gone. Gone. Gone.
And for that matter, what about all the other early-summer lovelies? Iris, lilac, tulip…once all aglow, those gals made us foolishly think their vitality would last forever. With soft-as-May hair, pink cheeks and peach petals all properly in place, we wonder: why can’t things just stay, well, perfect?
There’s no denying it. By this time in the season, the fall garden has fallen. She’s succumbed to the harsh judgment of morning light. A last-night face exposed for all to see as she sits there slumped and sipping her Styrofoam coffee.
Of course those of us who cherish our gardens see past the smudges, streaks, and crumpled edges. There’s value in the imperfect. Like adoring mothers, we see only beauty in our creations. We squint more. We judge less. We cast late-season tender assessments. We’re the ninth-inning fans still in the stands when it’s clear the game is over. We’re the loyal garden forgivers–like holy men–granting absolution to Mother Nature’s fallibility. But for others, the fall garden represents the morning-after-walk-of-shame. They have no compassion; feel no tug for all those sorry-looking-slug-bitten -dehydrated princesses. Instead, they scornfully eye their once vibrant flowerbeds offering one last backward glance…until next spring.
Already it’s been snowing on and off for over a month. This time last year the sky barely squeezed out a single flake. Snowplows rusted in place hanging their shovel heads in shame as if they were to blame for the weather. This year they’re making bank as they shuffle snow against asphalt and scrape together mountains of cash. With temperatures so frigid, almost nothing has melted in between dustings. We’re talking a fondant frosting the Cake Boss would covet… a crusty glaze so abnormally perfect even the deer and squirrels have trouble leaving decent tracks.
I remember…in December… there will be roses blooming in the snow for me…
The Kim Sisters, 1959
While this jet stream high jinks might bode well if you’re a luge racer or an ice fisherman, it’s really better suited for a cryogenic sleep—a frozen suspension of life promising to resume at a later date. A gardener’s life…this gardener’s life.
But who am I kidding? Midwesterners don’t hibernate. We take pride in grinding it out. Dead batteries. Frozen pipes. Icy roads. Salt-caked everything. We muscle through each winter day looking for new and interesting ways to thrive and grow despite low, gray skies and endless snow.
Yes, flowers can actually grow in the snow…
I learned this truth at a young age while visiting Glacier National Park with my family. To this day I find inspiration in the sudden discovery of a pansy, hellebore or crocus popping up like a colorful buoy in an ocean of glistening white. And just in case mother nature slacks off, I’ve been known to double down on her job by lacing my own petrified winter garden with seeds: a trick I learned from a friend, who learned from another, who probably learned from another. I have no idea if it works…but that’s how it goes in the world of garden freaks. We trust each other implicitly with tips and secrets that require little proof of efficacy. Rituals sometimes are best unexamined: Cut the rose at the first cluster of five leaves. Never pick a trillium. Only plant in threes…some have proven merit, others are up there with tribal lore.
Already I can tell this winter is shaping up to be about a different sort of growth. The kind one experiences without invitation…the kind that comes with a degree of heartache. Unforeseen. Gradual. Then suddenly noticeable: Like discovering a child has outgrown mom-hugs along with his holiday shoes. Or, learning that the nursing facility your loved-one now calls home is full of snow flowers…brilliant, colorful buoys in a sea of white hair.
Maria Bougas is such a flower. With her felt tam adjusted just so, gobs of jewels set against a black bouclé suit, Maria stands out immediately amid flannel dusters and crumpled sweaters. She’s a winter rose with twinkling old eyes that implore she not go unnoticed. “Hi Maria,” I say reading her nametag. “I’d like you to meet Frances, she’s new to the home and doesn’t see very well….” Maria sparkles brighter as I wheel my aunt closer to say hello and hopefully make a new friend. At first we three sit in awkward silence. The dripping icicle outside the window marks time. Slowly their stories spill out bit-by-bit: “I helped in the discovery of Synthroid,” says Frances who worked at Baxter Travenol for 30 years—a pioneering woman who held her own in a male-dominated research lab. “I designed dresses for The Kim Sisters,” chirped an equally proud Maria Bougas, who once owned a well-respected couture shop just off Michigan Avenue. Well, ladies, it ain’t bragging if you can do it, I think in my best Jack Nicholson inner voice. I listen to them tell their tales and then retell them a few more times for good measure.
I had never heard of The Kim Sisters until Maria shared her story: A trio of South Korean beauties wandered into her shop one day and the next day they were dancing and singing with Dean Martin. She sewed day and night for them. They kept coming back. They played the Thunderbird in Vegas. She sewed some more. With dozens of appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, Maria was a very busy girl. At least that’s how she remembers it….
And the stories kept coming. Maria still blushes at the memory of a fashion show where her spring collection drew a standing ovation. She took a few bows. Fran recalls herself standing up to the rampant “boy’s club” mentality that irked her so tremendously back then. She definitely did not bow. What a force these two must have been. What a strong, proud and determined force they still are today.
Drip. Drip. Drip. Again there’s a lull as both women quietly bask in their nostalgic high. I see others in the room have perked up and are looking our way. They’ve been listening. All of them with “Kim Sister” stories of their own to tell.
Like found blossoms on a winter’s day, they just want to be noticed.
Is there a clinical term for people who overly identify with their passions? If not, we need one. Because suddenly it seems everyone around me has taken their hobbies and leisure-time pursuits to ridiculous extremes. We’re talking kooky.
I mean to the point where mere enthusiasts actually become one with their: golf-game-sports-team-bridge-hand, or, dare I even say, backyard garden?
How is it that we garden lovers, like our golfing brethren and other assorted passion-freaks, lose our personal identity? It seems to creep up slowly and then POW! one day: He’s a scratch golfer. She’s a master gardener. They’re a Steelers’ Nation…you begin to wonder where passion ends and demonic possession begins.
I read recently where a husband tased his wife because his team lost to hers. That’s not team spirit, that’s domestic abuse! I’ve seen hundreds of bikers act with impunity by blocking city streets during rush hour, that’s not recreational cycling, that’s thug mentality.
If my garden’s having a bad hair day does that mean I am? If you get dealt a bad hand do you fold your cards and quit bridge? If Roethlisberger gets sacked are you down too? It seems so much of what we love causes us to ruminate to the point of ruining all the darn fun.
Phhhht! I wave off the thought of all this mania and how it applies to my crazy-mixed-up-love of gardening. I do a quick gut check: am I crystal clear on the distinction between my personal life and the life of my personal garden? Well, of these things I’m certain…my own ten digits and the digitalis that graces my spring border are not one in the same. The silvery-soft lambs ear that colonize along my gravel garden path has no bearing on my own lopsided pierced ears. Between the Black-Eyed Susan of August and my own dark eyes, there’s no connection whatsoever…
Yet, I can’t deny that when a swarm of Japanese beetles assaulted my roses this summer, I felt under attack. When my fluffy nepeta splayed open the night before my garden walk, I felt exposed. When torrential rains drowned a newly planted section, I felt sunk. The more I consider my own warped gardenfreakishness the more I fear I’ve taken things too far: without noticing, have I become a horticultural Centaur—half woman half garden? Do I wear my garden like others wear their team jerseys?
C’mon, be honest, does this garden make me look fat?
Mary Gibson Henry was to plant hunting as Amelia Earhart was to aviation exploration. Mary chucked her finishing school etiquette, and her family’s Maybrook estate in central Pennsylvania, to explore some of the most hazardous and uncharted territory in all of North America.
Mountain climbers have it easy. Their targets of conquest are objectively defined: simply find the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents and go for it. There’s no debate about height.
For gardeners with a taste for adventure, it’s not quite so simple. Sure we could pick our targets based on sheer size, but that would eliminate some of the smaller garden gems out there. Bottom line: scaling the garden walls of the most impressive gardens this planet has to offer makes for a futile, subjective but entertaining debate. Your junk is my treasure. Your garden K2 is my Mount Trashmore (a pathetic local sledding mount made of garbage.)
The only hard and fast rule I have for selecting my Seven Summits of Garden Conquest is that I’m left breathless when I’m done. I’m talking adrenalin-shot-to-the-rear kind of stuff. I want to be carted away in exhaustion from sensory overload. I want to need CPR from huffing too much intoxicating and rarefied garden air. I want to hallucinate to the point where I think I’m “joined” on my journey by my personal dream team of garden greats–Edith Wharton, John Brookes, Emily Whaley, Claude Monet, Piet Oudolf, Ganna Walska, Jens Jensen–what a rush that would be–a marauding garden party like none other!
Certainly there are the obvious garden walls to scale before one goes: Versailles, Giverny, Biltmore, Yuyuan, Longwood–all garden Mecca to be sure. But what I’m really after are the undiscovered, off-the-beaten-path gardens–nirvanas waiting to be appreciated. I’m less interested in the showy public follies that resemble the spoiled summit of Mount Everest– strewn with hordes of candy wrappers and spent water bottles. I’m looking for the proverbial and pristine hidden gardens of the world.
Even while holding down the fort with three kids over the past many years, I’ve still managed to visit my share of great gardens. But, in many ways, my garden hopping is just about to begin–I’ll soon be an empty-nester ready to bust loose and get going on my ever-evolving water bucket list of gardens to see before I pack up my hoe and call it quits. To help me keep track I’ve started a new Pinterest page. Check out my Seven Summits board, and feel free to add your suggestions and keep an eye out as I add (and subtract) garden discoveries. I have a feeling we will all visit way more than seven “best” before we’re done–and just think of all the fun we’ll have getting there!
A mini orchid floats in my Cayman Punch. Actually that’s about all the flower gazing I have planned for this beach trip. Yet, through the haze of mid-day drinks and the occasional dip in the ocean, a floral cocktail garnish is enough to rouse my rum-soaked garden gene out of its stupor and into action.
Admittedly, most of my garden-hopping exploits are mapped out with about as much precision as a St. Paddy’s Day pub-crawl– long on fun, short on planning. This spontaneous way of stalking gardens makes for my most memorable adventures–just like a last-minute blind date–Hello garden, my name is Kim, tell me your secrets and I’ll tell you mine.
Grand Cayman Island, famous for its aquamarine waters and sheltering vast fortunes, also has other hidden treasures: among them, the Queen Elisabeth II Botanic Park and a cab driver named Dahlia—I’m lucky to have discovered both. More a gifted tour guide than a mere cabbie, Dahlia’s roots dig eight generations deep into Caymanian soil. Unlike some limp varieties of her floral namesake, this Dahlia stands strong and proud—no staking required!
Dahlia catches the vibe of my garden-marauding ways and begins to deliver her entertainment like the Jimmy John’s guy in reverse—freaky slow but with a genuine island-friendly ease. “Sugar, you gotta take the sceeeenic route,” which I learn means the long way in Caymanese. Grabbing the front seat beside her, I listen as Dahlia begins a melodic dissertation about her beloved island and the garden she’s taking me to see.
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Joni Mitchell’s lyrics hang out in my head as Dahlia recites the complete history of plunder: explorers, pirates, developers, tourists and various other miscreants, were slowly transforming the natural beauty of the island into one giant Kroger parking lot. But, by the early 1980’s, the National Trust closed ranks and establish a garden to protect the vanishing treasures of the island’s indigenous flora and fauna.
Without notice, Dahlia pulls over to point out a unique horticultural treat—the famous Cayman Shoe Tree. While plentiful on the island, not all towering Casuarina Pines are alike. This one serves as a time capsule of Easter celebrations past: where islanders traditionally camp out under the stars but often leave shoes behind in the wake of their resurrection revelry. The result? A Chagall-like mosaic made up of a thousand pastel rubber flip-flops. “Cool, eh?” prompts Dahlia. Oh, Yeah mon, ridiculously cool.
Every garden has its own mojo: some cheery, some demure, others as moody and musky as an old Orthodox Church. I love them all and couldn’t possibly choose a favorite. This garden clearly puts out its own deliciously steamy and exotic vibe; one I’m sure didn’t exist back in 1994 when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II showed up in her pearls and pumps for the official opening.
Off on an Adventure
But now, beneath a sultry canopy of trees and vines, a 65-acre concoction of exotic garden rooms beckon. Flaming Nicki Minaj hairdos dangle from Red Wax Ginger. Plants with naughty common names like Tittie Molly and Pokemeboy grace the Medicinal and Sand Gardens. And what garden seduction is complete without a bit of folklore to juice things up? “Tell me something nobody else knows about this garden,” I beg Marilyn, an employee with a history of her own—she’s been with the garden since the start and even met the Queen! “ Well,” she whispers back with all the drama of someone burdened with a heavy secret, “some say it’s built on the ground of an ancient tribal conflict.”
This revelation might explain some of the garden’s strange magic, but nothing prepares me for the prehistoric dragon with hacky-sack jowls heading my way. There’s no mistaking the celebrated Blue Iguana. The nearly extinct creatures roam the garden’s pine paths freely thanks to the National Trust’s program to repopulate the island. Like many reptiles, these guys are walking mood rings.
In the sun they turn the color of stonewashed denim and under cloudy skies they chill to a more erotic Fifty Shades of Grey.
Skipping the Woodland Trail (and the chance of further iguana encounters), I inhale the last bit of garden elixir and head for the car. With Ghost Orchids and Bismarck Palms still on my mind, Dahlia and I ride quietly together retracing the jagged coastal road. Gently, Dahlia breaks the garden’s spell and resumes her delightful role as tour guide: “Maybe you should try some turtle while you’re here,” she says in her friendly island lilt. “It tastes just like chicken.”
Can’t stop thinking of you. As the days tick closer to our reunion, I imagine running into your arms on that first warmish morning (me splashing coffee on my flannels–you with your winter bed head) both of us anxious to see what damage the deer, snow, ice, voles and various other assailants have done.
What yeoman’s work will we have ahead of us to get ready for the two garden tours I’ve committed us to in June? Sheesh, what the heck was I even thinking with all those gaping holes (that only grow larger in my mind) left over from our late-summer edit of the rampant Joe Pye Weed?
That said, I have a confession: I haven’t been completely loyal.
While we’ve been apart I’ve been seeing other gardens. Stop. I know it hurts, but it’s for your own good. Besides, I thought we had an open relationship? You know, where you and I agreed that you could seed wildly, while I visit other gardens and bring back new ideas so we can keep things fresh?
Don’t look so glum; our “arrangement” has always worked for us in the past. Think how I’ve allowed you to express yourself all these years with your crazy insistence for Verbena bonariensis. Do you think that’s easy on me? Pick-pick-picking new seedlings all summer long just to let you sow off your wild side?
What am I to do while you just lay around all winter? I admit, it started first with those naughty magazines–you know the glossy garden ones that make everyone of you and your friends look so dang good– but then, I got really desperate and turned to the Internet—yes, I said it, garden porn! I know that was not healthy—but it was mostly public displays of affection– big city botanic gardens and other showy high-maintenance types. I knew it was way wrong for us so I cut myself off and decided to sneak somewhere warm for a bit and clear my head.
It’s not like I was looking for it—it sort of just happened…
First I got hooked up with one lovely private garden, the next day another, then before I knew it there were several. But I’m telling you they didn’t mean anything. Besides, they’re not exactly my type—different zones altogether, strange habits—you know, how all those exotic tropicals are with a taste for the wild side of things? I’m not kidding, you should’ve seen how…forget it, I don’t want to make you jealous.
Here’s my point: I’m back home again and I’ve missed you madly. I keep looking out the kitchen window and pouring over pictures of us as we were last summer. I have big plans for us—move this here, divide that there– you’ll see, it’ll be fun. We just need to get back to the way we were; back to when things were warm and sunny between us– then I’m sure everything will be fine again. Shhhh, nobody begins to compare to you. Stop crying. Go back to sleep. I love you.
I learned to garden by visiting other people’s private gardens… And, while I do love being handed a cool cocktail and welcomed properly through the front gate, I’ve also come to see my fair share through the brambles and peep holes ‘round back.
Let’s say I’m here, and the garden I want to see is over there. Truth be told there’s no stopping me. Electrified gates, jagged fences, No trespassing signs, snarling dogs, menacing moats and other prohibitive barriers are all just pain-in-the-butt nuisances to my garden hopping exploits. On the cusp of this brand new gardening season, I’m drunk with the thought of all the gardens beyond…Actually, I’ve been thinking of little else over this ridiculously frigid and dragged-out winter. I’ve also been thinking: Does the forbidden nature of one garden make it somehow more tempting and alluring than the ease and accessibility of another? Is there truth to the proverbial forbidden fruit theorem? Is it more fun being slightly naughty? I say yes to all three and have come to learn that many others feel the same way.
Clapping my hands together calling, “ here kitty, kitty, kitty,” is my go to “cover” in case I’m found out. “Ah, seriously officer, my cat Jinxie (hat tip to Meet the Parents) is lost, lost I say!” I rehearse this line in my head just in case I’m ever caught, which as of this posting I have not been. But, I’ve come dangerously close. And I don’t slum. We’re talking Palm Beach, Lake Forest, Carmel, and Newport—fancy-pants places all over America with incredible private gardens just begging to be ogled. Like they say, gotta go where the going is good—or something along those lines… The key to effective garden hopping is to be armed with two things: a sturdy milk crate and ample amounts of chutzpa. At present, the milk crate rattles around in the back of my car poised for those times when I just have to pull over and sneak a quick peek above an imposing fence. It’s a trick I’ve learned from other GardenFreaks who, like me, get a rush seeing beautiful gardens the hard way.
The key to effective garden hopping is to be armed with two things: a sturdy milk crate and ample amounts of chutzpa.
My friend Ann confesses to driveway swoops…”especially those round driveways that bring you up close and give you a better view.” And one of my all-time favorite stories was when I learned from a friend that a very proper and unassuming older gal had scoped out my garden using the milk crate method. I was flattered and glad to learn this is a sport you can play at any age. Who knows, it might even keep you young!
So what if we steal glimpses of other people’s gardens– it’s not like we’re really hurting anyone–right? In my book, it’s the very definition of a victimless crime. We’re a quirky but calculating lot of horticultural voyeurs: the equivalent of people who flip through magazines in check out lines, or others who go out of their way to catch a “free” whiff of someone else’s delicious perfume. We’re proud members of a kinky Mile High Club for GardenFreaks! The only difference is we “score big” here on earth.
Question: Do you like to carry your own welcome mat when it comes to visiting forbidden gardens?
If so, join the GardenFreak! Mile High Club and share your tales of garden marauding. I’d love to hear your adventures. Email me and don’t you dare leave anything out!