08 July 2007

Great Britain. Land of fox hunts, polo matches, afternoon tea, Big Ben, Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh, the Loch Ness Montster, and the Secret Garden, among others. Now that I've been six times in the last five years, it's easy to see why such inspired works of art and lore come from the little island. It's an amazing place, which is why I keep going back.

England is the gardener's Mecca. Gardening isn't just a hobby in England, it's the national religion. Try to imagine a major national US news broadcast highlighting the public outcry over a medal winner at a flower show in Los Angeles. Yeah, right. The RHS Flower Shows at Chelsea and Hampton Court receive as much press coverage as Wimbledon, if not more. At least with the flower shows there's the near certainty that a Brit will win.

Gardening certainly didn't start in England, but most of the Western world sure behaves as though it did. Here on the West Coast, most of the gardening mags on the shelves are photographed and published back East. Given the East's proximity to the UK, it's no wonder there's such a heavy English influence on the pages. When one utters the term "English Garden", one automatically imagines thatched cottages engulfed in roses and foxgloves. Not true, I'm here to say. There are quite a few English Gardens, that is gardens in England, that are far from the stereo-typical cottage garden most envisage.

One such garden is on the desolate stretch of sea coast in Dungeness. Derek Jarman, film-maker, poet, artist, and gardener, managed to coax a garden out of the shale. Sharing beds with the native plants are follies of sea-rusted chains, garden tools, boat parts and shells. There are those who wouldn't call it garden at all, but it's an eclectic collection of plants that not only grow but thrive in this harsh environment, keeping company with relics and artifacts of the fishing trade.

Another one is Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden, which, when I first saw it, made me think I'd been magically transported back to Southern California. Every plant in Mrs. Chatto's Gravel Garden would not only do well in So Cal, they would positively flourish without the obscene amounts of water So Calians insist on throwing at their lawns.

Gardeners can learn a lot from the English, particularly the plantsmen and women who make it their life's work to study plants, seek and try out new ones, experimenting with combinations and arrangements that some might find shocking (one such plantsman actually received an irate letter from a visitor to his garden, stating that one cannot possibly combine pink and yellow in the same border. So glad the plantsman didn't listen).

Every time I travel to England, drooling over its gardens, I'm amazed at how many plants I see that will do well in my corner of the world given the quite dramatic difference in environment. Every year I come home with a list of new "English" plants to add to my garden. I'm not trying to create or copy an English garden, I'm just collecting a palette of plants that will work in my own backyard (or plants that I'm determined to make work; I'm stubborn that way)and that carry meaning. Each time I look at my Geranium maderense, for instance, I am reminded of the container arrangement that greets visitors at the entrance to Great Dixter. Snorting a Philadelphus's cinnamon and bubblegum scent will forever remind me of The Courts. The stately globes of Allium 'Purple Sensation' calls to mind my first trip to Kew Gardens (a band of marauding ginea fowl is the favorite image of my second visit). Don't even get me started on the monstrous Kifstgate Rose. All plants that will grow in my garden, and some of them are.

It's exciting to be blessed with the means to travel, to meet other plant freaks who share my passion. I never dreamed an interest in growing things would throw me into the circles it has, and what circles they are (we're not talking just your average, every day garden labyrinth, either!).

Now, if only my Dipsacus would hurry up and do something!

19 March 2007

Gardening as exercise?

A few weeks ago I started a new job. It's challenging, I'm learning a lot, and I like the people I work with. The thing that worries me the most is the amount of time I spend sitting. The fact that I sit so much is consuming much of my brain space. I worry about it, bouncing my knee at my desk and trying not to leap out of my chair. You see, last year I screwed my eyes shut, took a death-defying leap out of the corporate world and landed square in the garden. Ten years of sitting in a windowless cubicle warren, staring at a computer on a desk illuminated by fluorescent lights, breathing recycled air had taken its toll. I'm convinced I was dying a slow, meaningless and unnecessary death.

The first few weeks of my gardening career were hard work. I mean really hard work. It was the middle of summer and I actually missed the regulated temperature of the office on more than one occasion. My muscles ached, I got sunburned, I sweated more than I thought humanly possible, my fingernails were grimy, my socks forgot what color they were supposed to be, and I'd come home with bits of greenery stuck in my hair. But I loved every dirty minute of it and vowed I would never go back.

Within three months I had lost nearly 30 lbs. without even thinking about it. I had been semi-active after work, walking around the neighborhood and going to my fencing club a few days a week, but 30 pounds!? If that isn't testimony to the sedentary lifestyle we live and how harmful it is to our physical well-being, I don't know what is. Unfortunately, gardening doesn't really pay the bills.

I'm still in the horticulture field but now I'm a Manager. I don't get to garden, I have to Manage the ones that do. This entails lots of driving around to work sites to check on the crews, taking notes, then going back to the office to translate those notes into plant sales and work orders. And guess what? The office has no windows, fluorescent lights, and I stare at a computer. A friend asked if a regular paycheck was really worth it. Unfortunately, for now, I don't have much choice. And I'm starting to feel a bit thick around the middle.

All that to say: I have tremendous respect for those who toil with their hands. There's a line in Bruce Almighty that nails it: "People underestimate the benefits of good old manual labor. Some of the happiest people in the world go home smelling to high heaven at the end of the day." Amen to that. And I can't help but wonder what our nation would look like if more people got outside and did some of that good old manual labor for a change?

For now I am convinced that my current job is God's doing and that I'm supposed to be there, but my heart and hands long for the garden. I actually miss lugging around bags of compost! So what am I doing sitting here typing!? There are weeds to eradicate! Forsooth!

18 March 2007

You say 'Tomato'...

What is it about tomatoes, anyway? Everyone LOVES tomatoes. Even people who have the blackest thumbs around want to grow tomatoes. "I'm afraid I'll kill it" they tell me. "But they're weeds" I tell them. They don't believe me, and so I have to prove it to them with tales of the Brown Berry Cherry I planted in a pot last April, from which I plucked half a dozen or so sepia tomatoes on Christmas Day. I hadn't watered the thing in months, too (ok, the fact that it rooted through the pot into the lawn and was getting watered anyway is beside the point).

The point is, anyone can grow a tomato and most people, gardeners or no, do. I'm not sure whether it's a senitmental, harkening back to a simpler time when Grandma grew tomatoes and corn in the back corner of the yard kind of thing, or a desire that most people have (whether or not they admit it) of returning to the land. To dig in the soil, connect with nature, to watch something that we planted grow, that we can then harvest to augment our bagged grocery store salad is really cool.

Whatever the reason, it's tomato season and I'm fretting because I only have room for three. Three plants which will produce more than I could ever eat on my own and I'm bummed because I want to have more. Which is another topic altogether. So I have to whittle my choices down. I'm thinking there will definately be another Brown Berry Cherry to garnish the Christmas turkey.