Sunday, September 21, 2008

Whoda thunk it?

I used to think that as gardener I was either uninformed, or lazy, or cheap -- or possibly all three. Now I find that I was just ahead of my time.

Take my lawn for example. Having lived in naught but rented apartments until Mars and I purchased our house in 1979, I was totally baffled by the plethora of green stuff that covered most of my property. It probably had more broad-leaved weeds, ground ivy, and wild violets than fescue, bentgrass or ryegrass. But damn it, IT WAS GREEN AND IT WAS MINE. To my mind it was the perfect lawn.

We bought in April and (as I remember) it rained regularly for the first few months of our new occupancy. The grass grew. And the grass stayed green. What me water?

A few dandelions appeared. But I quickly excised them with the really cool fork-tongued weed remover that was part of the starter kit my father-in-law had given me. The new neighbors talked about fertilizing but -- not having any idea what they were chattering about, and not wishing to spend money to find out -- I simply looked at them with the superior air of a Smart Car owner staring down a Hummer SUV driver, and changed the subject.

Was I a "rebel without a clue"? Perhaps at the time yes. But who knew that thirty years later having a well-kept lawn, instead of being a sign of civic responsibility, would be viewed as an ecological crime against humanity. In spite of my self-doubts I was in fact a pioneer in the "Freedom Lawn" movement.

According to that scorekeeper of style, The New Yorker magazine, "The Freedom Lawn is still mowed -- preferably with a push-mower -- but it is watered infrequently, if at all, and receives no chemical 'inputs.' If a brown spot develops, it is likely soon to be filled by what some might call weeds, but which Bormann, Balmori, and Geballe [authors of "Redesigning the American Lawn" (1993)] would rather refer to as 'low growing broad-leaved plants.'"

Damn! If I had a better P.R. rep I could have been a glamorous trendsetter instead of just a guy in dirt-stained pants duckwalking around his yard uprooting weeds with a long-bladed tool.

Then there are our perennial beds -- which to some more closely resemble a science exhibit demonstrating the "Survival of the Fittest" than a functionally spaced assemblage of flowers, compatibly arranged by size, color and texture, blooming in succession

But what are you supposed to do when well-meaning friends offer you their overstocks and outcasts? Or when your hometown threatens the lives of innocent plants with its bulldozers of mass destruction? You find a place for them.

Fortunately there is a fancy-schmancy name for this -- a Monet Garden.

Claude Monet was probably the most prolific of the "Impressionist" painters. And he was a planter of perennials who frequently used the gardens at his home in Giverny, France as his subject matter.

Monet's landscapes tended to be busy with color and texture -- as did his flowerbeds -- somewhat like those that can currently be seen at our house. Okay, maybe his plots were not quite as crowded. That just means he probably didn't have as many "giving" friends as we do. And perhaps the placement of his plants went from short in front to tall in back, and perfectly followed the gradations of hues on the color wheel. But that's just because he actually knew the name (and perhaps other characteristics) of the vegetation he was using.

Still, he had a lot of stuff in his perennial plots, and so do we. And that is close enough for me.

Several autumns ago Mars asked me to cut down the seasonally dead coneflowers, daisies, rudbeckia, and other summer has-beens that blighted our landscape. I was feeling tired at the time so I suggested that we "let the plants stay for the winter so the birds can eat the seeds." (I actually was hoping that the little feathered invaders would chop the plants down completely and tote the stems away for firewood. I knew that they wouldn't, but I hoped.)

To my total surprise Mars bought the idea. As a result, not doing anything about the perennial deadwood is now an integral part of my annual fall cleanup regimen. Years later I read somewhere -- probably in a belatedly published back issue of "The Procrastinator's Journal" -- that I actually was right. Not only do the finches and their colleagues actually eat the tiny pits, but the tall stems also provide protection and temporary shelters for the little guys during the cold winter months. Whoda thunk it?

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." (Shunryu Suzuki -- Zen Buddhist Priest)

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