Pacific Northwest | January 11, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJanuary 11, home
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True Confessions: Ruminations of a world-wise plantsman
Getting nature to conform to the will of humans is a tall order.
THIS PAST FALL, as I invaded my fifth decade of living, I noticed here and there the abrupt appearance of bulges around my body. Inspecting more closely, I discovered not accumulated fat but gathered regrets — pockets full of those disappointing things rooted in some deed done or left undone, tucked away over the years and at last emerging in my ripening age. And though my life thus far has been nurtured by a garden in one form or another, it came to me that most of my regrets have sprung from the dirt or the activity above it.

Not that I lack personal and social shoulda-couldas. But those from the garden loom especially large now, in the drear before spring refreshes all things again. I must confess . . .

I REGRET believing in color. Young gardeners are impressionable and pure, and believe that one must bow to the prophets who subscribe to color in order to rise respectably within this craft of gardening. Once elevated, they, too, can cattily criticize the colors in other gardens — most of which are young.
"Planted" in Hinkley's back yard, his cat adds the perfect color accents to a patch of lily turf. But in the end, it seemed just wrong to try to pose her there to decorate the garden during social events.
It was a waste of my time.

Gardens pumped with color for the sake of effect without good horticulture, as many are, can be nothing more than shallow. They rely on pigment rather than plants, adjective rather than noun, forcing contrived drama rather than creating dialogue between plant and space.

I once considered combining a living animal with a plant in my garden. It was an epiphany. Our sweet, fat cat had beautiful black hair with a marbling of tawny brown throughout her coat. She looked simply swell when nestling into a thick patch of black lily turf in our back yard, the ebony foliage of this plant resounding as a superb background to her feline fur. The manure mulch was reflected handsomely in her coat's interlacings of chocolate. I deliberated ways to keep this charming animal in exactly that place during social events.

I am sorry for the thoughts — thoughts that are mixed with the awareness that I really never was very talented in my attempts to create a colorist garden and the regrets of my inability to concede this shortcoming with grace.
We never think to wish away the youth of our children or our pets, so why do we insist on wanting our gardens to age? Better to enjoy the freshness and potential of their early years while we can.
I REGRET that I did not learn earlier in my career the contentment of making other gardeners feel bad about themselves. In doing so, one becomes a better gardener and, thus, a better person.

Consider, for instance, Meconopsis, the blue Himalayan poppy, the holy grail. Gardeners in the Pacific Northwest are among the chosen few in North America who can bring these fabulously blue poppies to fruition in our gardens. That fact alone is a prompt to plant more than we ever should.

I have many horticulturally-induced friends from the deep South and Southeast and Southwest who cannot possibly grow Meconopsis. When they visit us in early summer, just when the flocks of Meconopsis are at their finest, I wait until the western light has winged below the limbs of Douglas firs in our woodland. Then, I suggest we saunter with glasses of wine in hand — a fruity chablis — through the garden. Our destination, known only to me, being my motherlode of blue envy.

If you play this form of botanical S&Meconopsis, it is important that you personally do not notice your cerulean drifts before your, a-h-h-h, participants. When they do, at last, you must then stoop down and extract a handful of Meconopsis seedlings from the bed, discard them on the path and step on them, while declaring in as dominant a tone as you can muster, "These Meconopsis are so weedy." It makes you feel warm inside.
Plants grow and grow fast in the Pacific Northwest. Hinkley regrets that he is unable to command his will to space young plants at appropriate distances, despite knowing they will explode into growth as they have here along paths at Heronswood Nursery in Kingston.
I REGRET wasting so much money on plants that should not be in my garden. We all feel this temptation, really. While it is a boring thing to choose too conservatively the palette of plants you wish to cultivate, it is quite easy to be tempted to push the envelope of diversity and choose plants well outside of our reality zones. Certain plants simply do not like the perpetual coolness of our climate. They are the plants that march in place while all others sally forth. They diminish in size while others inflate. They are at first ugly and then they die.

I wish I might have become more sensitive to the plight of these plants so abused in my garden, but it probably would not have made much difference. One benign winter and you watch adventurous spirits sprout like cress. Two consecutive mild winters, and new chapters of the Hardy Citrus Society begin to appear in the Greater Puget Sound region. After the third, just before a full-bore outbreak of the Arctic flu, our landscapes have morphed into a Bacardi Dark ad. I have been, I sorrowfully now confess, repeatedly sucked into the zonal-bending vortex of our mostly mild-mannered but regularly bitchy climate. After the freeze thaws, the garden melts and I feel a rather large lump forming directly behind my wallet.

I REGRET what I did to my Japanese maple. My raincoat pocket is swelling with apologies for believing that I might have gracefully pruned my exquisite specimen of this tree, coaxing forth its superb, inherent silhouette while listening to the Mariners play at Yankee Stadium on my headset.

"Here we go! Ichiro on third, Boonie on second, top of the ninth, nobody out, and here comes Edgar!"

I lift my pruning saw in a Zen-like trance. I am surgeon. I am artist. I am Ichiro.

"My, Oh My, this is a whole new ballgame, and maybe a whole new series."
Rarity for the sake a rarity does nothing for the gardener, Hinkley advises, noting that plants should be grown for the express purposes of making other gardeners feel envious and inadequate about their talents as horticulturists.
I stretch my saw straight out to the tree while adjusting the sleeve of my raincoat at the right shoulder.

"Here comes the first pitch from Rivera, and Edgar belts it hard up the middle."

I begin sawing really fast, lost in the zone.

"Jeter leaps high to his left and makes an UNBELIEVABLE catch; he fires the ball toward Posada at home, he's GOT Ichiro! Boonie towards third, Posada struggles to stand and fires to Aaron Boone, Boonie dives in head first. He got him, he got him, Boonie's out by Aaron Boone. Holy Cow. UNBELIEVABLE, THE MARINERS HAVE BEEN TRIPLED OUT. THE GAME IS OVER."

My Mariners. My tree. My, oh my.

I REGRET not getting even more often. I believe in it. My gardening friends in Vermont, for example, insisted that I take a division of Mentha buddleifolium 'Variegatum' when I visited them three years ago. "It is very good value," I was told in a pretentious and potty voice. It was also a very generous division, a transaction that should have been flagged as suspicious from the start.

It grew well in my garden the first year. The second, we clocked it weaving the borders at 5 miles an hour. Over the course of a month, as I meticulously chivied and unearthed each warp and woof of root, I mentally wrote the note attending the care package I would send my friends:

"Dear Boys," I would ultimately write, "we have come to simply adore the frilly texture and undaunted courage of the plant I am sending along. It is of particularly good caliber." Lamentably, I derive exceptional pleasure from picturing their garden awash in the filigreed emerald green of horsetail.

AND FINALLY, I REGRET that for as many years as I have been making gardens, I remain incapable of spacing my prepubescent plants in the garden with their ultimate size at maturity in mind. These are big regrets and add many lumps to my pockets. It is not as if I forget to have a conversation with myself as I'm placing the pots before digging the holes. We generally have a pretty good row with one another.

I lose.

Four-inch pots of infantile perennials or shrubs look unconditionally ludicrous spaced 6 feet apart. The desire to possess a thing of pride after a week's work prevails. In late April, a warm rain soaks the ground, and within minutes plants swell faster than a dieter being let off the Atkins bus in front of a Cinnabon outlet. The borders are annexed by steroidal specimens assuming the graces of a 1960s East German Olympic women's track team. It is an opprobrious action fundamental to the most shameful of my regrets, impatience.

I have never raised children other than several endearing dogs who, in my mind, resemble tolerably well-behaved children with cold noses. I could not imagine wishing away the puppyness of my dogs, so I can only assume that most parents feel quite the same about their brood, except, perhaps, during their second year. So why is it that we wish away the youngness of our gardens? In a wink, the seedlings we coddle are already trees, and the small divisions of perennials fill the void and puerile vines mature and secure the arbor. There is no revisiting the childlike garden, short of moving and starting it once again — itself unthinkable as we, too, are no longer youthful but bloated with years and many regrets.

Yet it is exactly this that I will do, once again, as I strive to make another garden and make it the most beautiful garden in the world. I will again scribble my passion upon a canvas of open ground and stand with a dazed expression on my face, a gallon pot under my arm, burdened with indecision.

As I do, I will reflect on those nascent days of my first garden and the guilt that would blossom in me for having done just that, retreating indoors at dark, mentally exhausted and feeling as if I had accomplished nothing at all.

In retrospect, those were my most productive moments. My garden was, in fact, planted through the moments I'd believed I had lost.

So I will not regret these moments again, ever, as I attempt, in my mind, to create the most precise of color combinations, with plants too tender, too aggressive, planted too close together from friends too generous while listening to the Mariners play on my headset.

And with each pot I place in the earth, I will extract a few regrets from my pockets stuffed here and there and gently scatter them in the bottom of each hole for future harvest.

Daniel J. Hinkley is co-founder and director of Heronswood Nursery in Kingston, which, with more than 10,000 plants, is a mecca for horticulturists and garden enthusiasts around the world. Hinkley is also an experienced plantsman, having led expeditions to China, Nepal, Chile and all over the United States in search of interesting plants. He is a frequent lecturer in Europe and North America and a regular contributor to horticultural publications. His latest book, "The Explorer's Garden, Rare and Unusual Perennials," is published by Timber Press.

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