Thursday, September 15, 2011

Garden Story with Hydrangeas

 Post 7 

If Cleome is for history, what is for story? And, how are garden and story alike?

In literary works, it's often the atmosphere, the mood of a piece that is remembered. An atmosphere, created as much by the author's prose style and choice of metaphors as by plot, theme or character, is like a visit into an exteriorized consciousness. It can be what can makes us love an author's work even if it isn't always successful.  How stories are told is what matters.  Gardens are like that too. They have moods, modes, spirits, that self-reveal within their larger context, so that gardens experienced become like stories told, poems recited, songs sung.

Below is my garden's story. Garden design-wise, what my garden lacks in planning, lists and drawn-up diagrams is make-up for by a fable.  Changes made in the garden work if they are congruous with the story's vision. It gives me, and the garden, a flexible, open structure, around which to grow

  "Once upon a time there lived an old woman in an old, stone house in Northwest Philadelphia.  On weekdays she would take the train to East Falls, where she taught Baroque Literature at Wissahickon College. But on weekends, vacations and those long summer evenings when the light wouldn’t go away, she made a garden.    
Mophead Hydrangea new, with Cranesbills and Ladies Mantle 
And what a garden it was. She packed it with every possible flower. She induced the plants to flourish so that they grew, climbed and tumbled into intersecting layers, too complex for the eye to take in all at once,  so that, by overfeeding the senses, it simultaneously quickened consciousness. It was so beautiful in growth or decay that it made you feel that somehow our world was more wonderful than you had previously imagined it, all meadowbright with possibility and discovery.  It was a magnificent garden, and as you may have guessed, it is not the garden that you now see.

Mophead Hydrangea old
For one day the lady, after decades of being old, went away. No one saw her again. New people came and lived in the house with its garden, and then even newer people. None of these people have gardened like the old lady. Still, the garden, messy and half-wild, has thrived. Though not as beautiful as it once was, it has persevered and so, prevailed.  It has continued, much like an old hydrangea blossom, its early sunburst of unearthly blue muted into petals mottled by mauve and green and aqua-like light.
Mophead, old, with Acanthus and hardy Begonia
A girl who had grown up int he house and played in the garden knew there was something unique about the garden and that it had to do with the garden’s shape. And love of course. Because a child would say that love was involved. That somehow the old lady’s love had seeped into the place.

And indeed, the garden, beneath its wild plantings, does show a distinct pattern. You can see it most clearly in winter. At the center stands an urn that is surrounded by four, sphere-topped columns arranged in a rectangle. A plaque on the urn read, “Quincunx/Lambda.”
No one knows exactly what that means. The first word is Latin, the second Greek, and few even try to guess why these words would be put together.  The child has grown up, and now lives in the house again and tends the garden.  And when she gardens she feels as if, time and again, she is bumping up against some invisible, solid, buried form, that is revealing itself, slowly but ineffably, a sign of she knows not what. 


How-to: Mophead, or Hydrangea macrophylla, is one of the most popular members of the hydrangea family ( Oak-leaf, Lacecap and Pee-Gee are also much loved and thrive in our area.)  Historically called Hortensia Hydrangeas, French Hydrangeas or Penny Macs, Mopheads are originally from Japan. They make a big-leafed, water-fond bush of about 5 feet that is happy in sun or semi-shade.

One of the fun things about Mopheads is that many varieties (though not all,) can bloom  pink, blue or purple, depending on the pH of the surrounding soil. To get the blue end of the spectrum, you need very acidic soil with aluminum in it. This is not too difficult in the Wissahickon Valley, since most of our soil here is naturally acidic. This is often not true, however, around the foundation of our houses, where leaching from cement and other building materials can over sweeten the soil.  I have 2 Mopheads up against the house and use Espoma Soil Acidifier to blue them. If that dosn't do it --try throwing some cheap aluminum nails into the soil around the bush.

If you want pink you need to do the opposite. Add lime to sweeten the soil, then--if you use chemical fertilizer, use one with a high phosphorus count; phosphorus blocks aluminum intake. I have less experience with this -- for me, the bluer the Mophead the better. One year I had one that was almost turquoise and am still trying to duplicate it.

Most hydrangeas tinge towards russet as they age. Some then pale into beige and sand.  You can also trim the heads off when they're still fresh and hang the heads upside down in a dark place to dry. They look good in dried arrangements. A spritz of hair spray will keep them from crumbling too soon.

It used to be that all Mopheads were prone to losing buds to freezing and thawing in winter, and therefore might not bloom come summer. "Endless Summer" and other like varieties have put an end to this problem, since they bloom from new spring buds and are dependable. They cost a bit more, but are worth it.

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