I can face the fashion and food porn that is regularly shoved in my face. In this world, all models come without hips and tomatoes are blemish-free. I know many times the photographer makes these slender models thinner while the food stylist paints the strawberries with red food coloring. I can cope with these tales of make-believe, but recently I have been throwing garden magazines against the wall in disgust.
I love gardens and I love to garden. But, tell me, has anyone ever seen a perfect garden without any blemishes? Where are the flopping plants? Where is the struggling rose? Where are the weeds?
Now there are professional gardens that are pretty flawless — I will grant you that. Longwood Gardens, Winterthur and our Sarah P. Duke Gardens here in Durham, N.C. are hard to beat. These gardens also have armies of professional and volunteer caretakers. What I’m talking about are our modest gardens, the ones you and I tend with perhaps a little help from the outside.
Flopping plants are one of the banes of my garden. Here in the Piedmont, we are subject to drenching rains that can bring a good plant down. Now when the plant-staking genes were passed out, somehow I was overlooked. I’m truly an untalented plant-staker. I recently discovered long rebar poles and thought that my drooping lily problem was solved. All was well until the first heavy thunderstorm when the weight of the water on the blooms caused the stem to bend and almost break where the 6-foot rebar brace ended. This happens in real gardens.
Roses, especially young roses, can develop canes, which are several feet longer than the rest of the canes. The gardener has the choice of either (1) pruning the cane, leaving an obvious mark; or (2) staking the offending cane. Likewise, crinums can flop after a heavy rain as can some varieties of daylilies.
In the photographs, no plant needs to be deadheaded. Now, it can take over an hour to deadhead all my daylilies — and this has to be done on a daily basis. I don’t care when you go out into my garden: There’s always a daylily requiring deadheading. Likewise not all crinum blooms or lily blooms die at the same time. There is always a spent bloom on one of the clusters. I’m convinced that lilies, daylilies, and crinums in photographs either aren’t real or have been artificially manicured before the photographer takes the pictures.
Weeds in this neverland seemingly do not exist. Now, I’m a talented weeder. I have an eagle’s eye when it comes to weeds. Between the pine bark mulch and my avid eye, I keep weeds to a minimum — but even I will suddenly see a tulip poplar seedling, a sprig of nutsedge, or a pokeweed that I have overlooked. To garden is to weed, but you’d never know that from the pictures or the accompanying article.
The coordination of color I find jarring. There are those who want a large swath of color, which I tried a long time ago. When I first moved to the Carolina Piedmont, I planted 12 magenta colored azaleas, simply because I thought gardening in the South meant azaleas and I had a large area to fill. The consequence was a blob of color where one azalea ran into the next one. There was no spot for the eye to linger. The azaleas eventually left, to be replaced with a perennial border consisting primarily of daylilies, roses, and gardenias.
Now, I am as passionate about daylilies as I am with roses. My roses are mostly pink in color, whereas my daylilies stretch across the rainbow of color, although I have never seen a blue daylily. I go through stages, but right now I’m passionate about red daylilies. Red and pink can clash, and certainly if I were properly planning my garden I would minimize either the pink roses or the red daylilies. However, I want both, so while the garden magazine would disapprove, I happily do my own thing, telling myself that the pink roses will probably take a break at the time the red daylilies shine forth.
How do the photographed gardeners get those perfect mounds of lavender? I have no idea. Why are their salvias so well behaved while mine are unruly clumps, growing out unevenly? Surely these growers must have one rose bush that is either slow to take off or isn’t performing well. Where are they in those pictures showing masses of roses all in a state of perpetual bloom? It’s common to take pictures of delectable roses with water droplets on them, but where are the roses that ball up because their leaves don’t dry out in time?
I think what these gardening magazines overlook is the fact that gardening at its best is a hit-or-miss occupation. Why does one rose thrive while another fails to take hold? Why can you grow echinacea while I suffer from the echinacea curse? Where are the empty spaces found in my perennial border? I suspect the photographer and landscaper have filled those spaces in with hidden planters – such is the working of my cynical mind.
Do these garden designers ever make mistakes? Surely we learn more from our mistakes than we do when a combination we’ve put together happens to work. It would be lovely to hear about the mistakes these landscapers have made, as without mistakes there are no gardeners.
One of the quotes in the summer issue of “Garden Design” pinpoints perfectly the problem I have with these magazines: “We live in such an unnatural world. It’s nice just to be someplace that feels natural.” Now, I love plants and I love to garden, but let me repeat one of my mantras: There is nothing natural about our gardens — even if we restrict ourselves to using native plants. We prune, we add water features, we amend our soil, and we create what to our eye is a pleasing landscape. However, this isn’t necessarily what nature has in mind.
Just as fashion magazines try to show us that we, too, can be gorgeous clothes hangers, the garden design magazines are intent on proving that the flawless garden exists. My response is this: Dream on. Maybe someday models will have hips and garden photographs will show off flaws.