Thursday, August 6, 2015

Just pictures

Post 98

What can I say? Not much at the moment that I haven't said somewhere before. But I can show what I've paid attention to, pictures of the garden, bits of change and design.

I love my baby wilderness. I have tried to take lessons from the gardens of the great English estates and apply them to a small space. This means less giant drifts and more surprises, a medieval mead where some strong but delicate creature might be resting right behind that large plant over there..

Small does not have to look mimsy if seasoned with a hint of sprezzatura. Sound a tad pretentious? Well, I need to rationalize the garden's partial neglect somehow, and voice at least my hope for the garden, whether that hope is met or unmet.

Next year, when I will have more time, I hope I remember to leave in some decay, some emerging I know not what, some sense that behind all this is something worth longing and hoping and working and yearning for. something that given a name, would be lessened.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Anglophile or Anglophobe?

Post 97

Was it the British nannies? The Child's Map of London on the wall by my bed? The British teachers, including the headmistress, at my school? Or maybe that my grandmother looking just like Queen Elizabeth I to my young eyes? For whatever reason, I developed an early fascination for Britanna and all her squiggly bits.  Or, as I often put it at about age seven, "I should have been English. I was supposed to be English," as if I'd somehow gotten the wrong plane ticket, which merely needed to be exchanged.

Reality, in the form of a trip to England when I was 18, dispelled many of my more extreme delusions as to the allure of all things British, as did a later trip and later experiences,  I now see and feel the rightness of my being American. I am happy to be a Yank rather than a Brit, a citizen rather than a subject . But there was no reasoning with my childhood self, who in her constant reading put down a firm, old-fashioned knowledge base about Albion, from which I can still draw on for irrelevant facts and other odd bits of useless information, some even pertaining to gardening.

In the garden picture above, see that small yellow-flowering tree to the right of the President Lincoln Lilac? The yellow blossoming tree is a Laburnum, which is much more common in England than here. How do I know? Well, as soon as I became interested in gardening I used the PHS's library to read...every book on gardening I could find, and by some happen chance--most of them were about the United Kingdom. Which, of course, meant that as soon as I heard "Laburnum" my mind flashed onto this iconic view of a famous British garden image:  Rosemary Verey's " Laburnum Walk" at Barnsley House.

Quite lovely, isn't it, and intensely romantic. My small garden could not contain such a display--but I can underplant my Laburnum with as many alliums as I can. A nice bit of inspiration a bit apart from the usual, which is one of the fun things about being an Anglophile/Anglophobe (one is rarely one without the other.) There is a whole nother world of influences to explore.

To the right stands my tiny clump of Snake's Head  Fritilly, also called Chequered Lily, that blooms in my small rock garden. This is another plant not often seen in  America but popular in England, and made very well-known by the late Christopher Lloyd  at Great Dixter. Below is a picture of the meadow that his mother started planting with these babies. I forget in which book it is that he describes her assiduous efforts to enlarge her stock--but it obviously left an impression on her son, and on me.

So--on to more plants. Here on the left you can see the only Euphorbia I can't kill. I know because I have killed many. I love Euphorbias, partly for their yellow-green flowers, partly for the ecstatic euphony of their name. The one you see here in flower is an excellent groundcover for shade and semi-shade. When fresh its leaves are common leaf green, but as the summer heats they turn a very dark green. This makes them useful for contrast: we have them planted round a Japanese Maple with leaves of pale, mottled green. This variety pictured is Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae, also called  Mrs. Robb's bonnet.  Mrs. Robb was English, gardened in Hampshire and traveled in Greece and Turkey, where she found this spurge and brought it home in a hat box. For that alone I would have it in my garden. Add on that it is resilient, beautiful and needs little water once established. Why it is not more used in America I have no idea.
I am now wondering how I am going to cover everything? Because to a large extant, my garden heaven is based on my own version of a small English garden. Not a formal European garden, nor a sprawling prairie strip, nor a cold, neomodern abstraction...

My vision garden bliss is of a traditional Cottage garden abundantly overgrowing and cloaking its underlying formal structure. How English is that? Very, I would say. Have you ever visited the Cotswolds or the Home Counties? Plus, this love of England seems to seep through my whole neighborhood. Can you really tell that the next four pictures are of gardens near mine and not English ones?
Even though I use a large mix of low-care plants, some English, most native, the overall effect feels English. By which I mean that there is an ease about it all. It is a domestic, comfortable garden with (I hope) elegant touches that lack pretension.  (I mean, I use bowling balls instead of gazing balls to form my quinquinux.) So I'm pretty sure that it is pretty obvious that my vision has many of its roots in ole Blighty.  So maybe all my posts deal  with the inherent Englishness of my Browne, Robertson,  Jekyll,  Sackwell-West,  Lloyd, Fish, Verey, Hobhouse, Windsor, Chatto-influenced garden, even if I do not say it in every post.  I'm saying it in this one.
Well--back to plants Here is one of my three fleece-flowers. Awhile ago fleece-flowers  only seemed to turn up in Dutch or British gardening books but now they can be seen locally. This one on the left is the first to bloom and the shortest, as it is only about two feet high.  Like all of its kin it shoots up tall spires, in this case of a pale, porcelain pink that glows in the rain. It is Persicaria bistorta 'Superba. And, it is superb. 
On the right is  Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail. This one blooms much later than its pink cousin and gets taller as well, a good three feet in sun. Like its cousin it spreads, but not too fast, so if you want to keep it in bounds just occasionally donate an edge of it to a local plant sale. Firetail's deep red holds up well in the hot, wilting sun of August and goes well with the ever-present Black-eyed Susans. 

This last one is Persicaria affinis 'Dimity,' and it blooms from July on. Like its two cousins it needs little care or water, just some space and a good contrasting bloom. I use coneflower with it since they contrast harmoniously in color and shape.

Now, I'm not going to go overboard on detailing my roses and their origins. Suffice to say that some are Austin, and that they all are planted in a cottage, not a formal style.

Last of all is a fine plant that is sold by American nurseries, but that I have not seen in American gardens. It is Crambe cordifolia. I like it for its delicate baby breath-like flowers, its large Gunnera-like leaves and its name's silent, old fashioned b.

So, I will finish with a final soapbox thought. According to the Bible it is not good for humans to be alone. I think the same thing might be true of countries. And the United States tends to see itself as very much alone. The only thing that ever really mitigated that was WWII and the post-war "special relationship" with Great Britain. From that we got the idea of an English-Speaking Union and a consensus that helped produce kids like me.

 I feel as if the United Kingdom were a parent and America was its first-born son, rebellious and impatient. so he left in a huff  after a fight.  And the U.K., as parents often do, then got easier and less bossy with the other children, who were more able (though oldest daughters Ireland and India sure had a squabble,) to amicably break away. Hence the Commonwealth, that strange vestige of colonialism which makes for a very pluralistic, weirdly po-mo entity. Which the United States should still belong to. I mean, sometimes I think the Royals are more popular here than in their own country. We would get the symbolism and our siblings back. I'm not sure what the Commonwealth would get, but I hope that they would be charitable and take in a poor pseudo-orphan. The Anglo-Scot roots of our government, law and economy are clear. And the Commonwealth, which is amazingly diverse, might make our own diversity feel more at home.
So I guess I really haven't changed all that much after all. I still want to be English. I just want to be American first. Nothing wrong with have your cake and eat it too.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Messy, Hidden Order

Post 96
Lately I have been walking around Chestnut Hill and Northwest Philly, trying to take pictures that make visible the qualities that make this urban village such a beautiful and useful ecosystem.

We live more adjacent to each other than usually happens out in suburbia, Yet nature encompasses our houses more than it does in most suburbs. It is hard for me to take a picture of a house without tree limbs jutting in at obscuring angles, just as it is hard for me to take a picture of a tree without rooftops ensconcing the distance. We're all tangled up together here, vegetation, animals, humans and a predominately Arts & Crafts architecture that harmonizes the mix. The building materials are organic and often subtly variegated: local stone, usually left irregular, slate, wood, copper and brick. And often all these materials show up in the same house.

Since the Hill is an older development, the houses feel as if they have gratefully nestled into the sheltering earth. Most of them have patina rather than shine. The visual qualities I find in all this are; compatibility, co-operation, comfort, humility, dignity, respect and yes, even love.
All of which has led me to treasure the relative realism of photography. I am inept enough at Photoshop that most of the images I take are pretty much the images I see, (Well sorta, taking into account flattening to two-dimensions, different settings, etc.) So taking photos helps me see more of what I actually see instead of what I think I see. My mind erases all those branches, telephone and electrical lines and other messy stuff. My eye loves photos that my mind can easily read, pics that that are clean, have an obvious subject, focus on what is essential. Somewhat like the photo below,
For me, this is a fairly orderly photo. At least it is clear what you are supposed to look at (the tree,) while there are lots of straight lines, often parallel, making the background angles repetitive and obvious. Of course, turn around and this is what you may well see...
Hmmm, not so easy to decipher, is it.? Or give significance to either? It's just branches. But just branches is what nature often looks like. There are suggestions of pattern yet so many variations and layers that it seems to resist the mind. That is because it is an ecosystem. Nature can always  be broken down into dead analytical bits by mind, but it will only vitally function as a whole. The complexity is what life really looks like. And because complexity is hard to turn into order, we often ignore it or think it chaos.
All this makes me glad I'm not better at Photoshop, since the temptations would be hard to resist. Someday I may get better at photo manipulation and take photos as Art. Right now I take them as praise and as spectacles, lenses to help me see how the Hill's life-enhancing virtues show in it's actual physical reality.  In short, the Hill  looks like a place where a good life can be led. True, it lacks obvious excitements and like all communities, always has more than enough stuff to argue about.  But it is an excellent place to make a garden, take your dog to the park or walk in the cool of a gorge on a summer's evening, It is a supportive place in which to make your own entertainment by co-operating with nature and people around you. When George Woodward developed this area, he built it to hold different classes and different types of people, in fact, he went out of his way to encourage artists to settle here (The Red Rose Girls, Willets,) And because most of the architecture took inspiration from vernacular styles, there is an ageless feel to some of the areas,

We are born to abstract, to strive for clarity and order so that we can master facts and theories and so master nature, of which we are a part.. But in places like this are hints of a deeper order, a hidden order of life itself.

It is that order that most interest me, and that order that I try to take pictures of.