My mother, who grew up in a small New England village, raised her kids with country culture, although we were in a quickly infilling suburb. When she had things to do, we were hustled out the back screen door to find our own way around the gardens, climb the trees, make forts under the shrubs, and pretend to be cowboys, superheroes, or pirates.
What makes a grown-up go outside and play? When my garden space is connected to my grown-up desires and values, it draws me outside. The garden may draw me outside because (yum) I want furry, pungent sage leaves to sauté in olive oil and drop into my white bean soup. It might draw me out to watch the drama of a hummingbird nectaring in the pineapple sage, dive-bombing and quarreling with any other hummer who might try to get a sip. Or I might want to watch my veggies, visibly bigger than yesterday, stretching out in the fertile, moist soil.
Food and flavor, wildlife, the sun and stars, all draw me outside. But what makes me wake up breathless with excitement is the eye-crossing beauty of the garden. It is more lovely to me than any artwork, because it is alive, fragile, and swiftly passing. The generous beauties of the garden may knock me out with a texture or color combination. But the next day, when I bring a friend to look, its perfection may be gone. The urgency, delight, and sorrow of time passing is more vivid to me in a garden than anywhere else.
This month at Garden for the Environment we have seen many beauties come and go. In a mature garden where artists have been at work, the contrast and complement of one vista may peak, and make lovely sense, and then fade as something else wonderful happens. Here are a few visual moments that have arrived this month at the garden.
In the southwest of the garden, a shallow flight of wooden steps rises from the sidewalk between two enormous old Phormium (New Zealand flax). Over a year ago, these elderly plants got a substantial division. We removed about half each clump, and then mulched them heavily. This summer they responded by producing their enormous, otherworldly flowers, which tower over passing pedestrians. The dramatic stems and bracts of these flowers are still standing, although the flowers have faded. (Bracts are modified leaves growing just below a flower. Sometimes they are more dramatic than the flowers themselves, i.e., bougainvillea “flowers” are actually bracts.)
The Phormium on the right (if you are standing on the sidewalk) is variegated, with cream and pink tones in its leaves. These leaf colors with the deep reddish-brown color of the flower stalks look beautiful against the dark burgundy bracts of the flowering Abelia behind them. The delicate pink of the Abelia flowers on their arching branches also matches the pink in the Phormium foliage. Add to these the red bells hanging from the flowering maple and you have a color colony of burgundy, red, pink, and mahogany which created a glowing, shady room of color all through the month of August.
Enter the garden up the wooden stairs and turn left. Ahead on the left side of the pathway, Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ is earning its name. The bracts on the deep blue flowers of this salvia are a brilliant chartreuse. Right now, this salvia is in full bloom, next to the large yellow flowers of our native evening primrose Oenothera hookeri. Another blue flowering salvia is weaving between them (Salvia cacaliifolia) backed up by a wall of peachy Alstroemeria. The neon yellows and clear dark blues of this color colony glow like lovers meant for each other.
At the northwest corner of the garden’s exterior border is another colorspot, this time of pale lavenders and brilliant oranges. The promiscuous bloom of Lavatera maritima is unstoppable now, and on the fence behind it, the cup and saucer vine (Cobaea scandens) is full of flowers that have a similar size and color, but a completely different shape. Between and in front of them, cannas are gleaming with their tropical reddish- orange blooms, just starting now and planning to blow our minds for months. Among these, matching so well that it seems like a disguise, a young Salvia confertiflora has begun its first flowering.
All these groups of related shapes, textures, and colors, peaking together like a symphonic moment, will soon be gone. They will be replaced with some other intrigue of stem and petal and leaf. As the garden matures, and as the gardeners mature, the pace and transition of these effects will be refined, but it will never be exactly the same again. The thrill of the detective, of the artist, and of the lover wake me up early in the morning, and draw me to “go outside and play.”