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Ready for My Close-Up

Imagine all the ways you can transform your garden, then go get drunk



On most days, the only way I get through my life is by reminding myself that it's okay to have very relaxed standards about pretty much everything. The whole house needs to be vacuumed, but it's not as if Good Housekeeping is coming over to do an inspection later this afternoon, and besides, nobody ever died wishing they'd spent more time running the vacuum cleaner. So that can wait.

I spend my days in grubby jeans and oversized sweatshirts that conceal several layers of T-shirts and, on some days, flannel pajamas. But then again, Vanity Fair is not likely to show up around lunchtime for a portrait. So I'm okay for another day.

Naturally, I use this approach in the garden as well. The oxalis and wild onions are coming up as they do every winter; several overgrown shrubs are in desperate need of a good whacking; and the latest round of transplanting and dividing has been postponed because we haven't had the rain that makes transplanting such an easy job. (Not that I'm complaining about the sunshine. Oh, no.) But who cares? It's not as if Sunset is sending a photographer over.

Except they are. This week.

This is not really as big a deal as it sounds. I wrote a little essay for their April issue, and they want a little picture of me holding some flowers. When they first told me that they wanted to send a photographer over to get that picture, I didn't even think about the condition of my garden. We were only talking about a head shot, a few open blooms, and some kind of blurry generic background. No problem.

But then, questions were asked.

Could I send a few snapshots of my garden for the photographer to consider? Is there easy access to an electrical outlet for additional outdoor lighting? Not to worry; it is, of course, understood that the garden is out of season.

Yeah, my garden is more than out of season. It's out of sorts, out of pocket, out of resources, out of time and terribly understaffed. It is only remotely Sunset-worthy for a few heady weeks in June, when everything blooms at once in a crazy cacophony of color that could charitably be described with remarks like, "Well, it certainly has a lot of personality."

I realize that I should be setting an example for others by having a garden that looks great year-round. And I even know how to do that -- I really do. I swear. I can walk around my garden and diagnose its problems and come up with perfectly reasonable and easy-to-implement plans to fix them.

For instance. Planting anything in masses makes it look better. In the front yard, I've begun a process of rounding up scattered plants of the same type and grouping them together. It's easy enough to do, and it really does work. If you like some particular plant, no matter what it is, buy three or five small ones rather than one big one, clear out enough space to hold all of them at their mature size, and plant. Trust me, they'll look great.

I know what you're going to say. When you decide to buy that lavender or ornamental grass or ceanothus or whatever it is, you're not yet sure that you really do like it enough to plant five of them. Maybe it will turn out to be too tender or petite or leggy or blackspot-ridden to work in your garden. So you'll just get one for now and see how it goes, and if you really like it, next year you'll go buy four more and plant a mass of them.

See? That's what I always tell myself, too. Doesn't really work for me either.

There's also the idea of using paths, sculpture, or some kind of hardscape to pull a jumbled garden together. You can plant a meadow of wild grasses and asters in your front yard, but if you put a nice crisp brick walkway through it, it's like you're saying, "I meant to do this." It's amazing what a little contrast can do. I've also seen gardens that are a real mishmash except for the sculpture. Repeat the same piece of sculpture over and over in the garden, and you've got a theme. And by 'sculpture' I don't mean marble sculptures of David; I've seen toy windmills, hubcaps, homemade square cement planters and even bowling balls mounted on copper pipes used as repeating elements in a garden. The repetition is a kind of structure, and breaks up the chaos just enough to make the chaos more interesting.

And then there is the entirely sensible idea of planting something that will look good year-round. I'm a sucker for a flashy plant. I like to see a show. I'll put up with nine months of dormancy just to watch something go nuts in the summer. But don't think I fail to see the point in year-round, sturdy, reliable green shrubs and trees and groundcovers. I do. I just don't fall madly in love with them, and for that reason, they don't get to come home with me.

So that leaves me with an entirely unphotographable garden and a photographer on the way. I posed a question to my Facebook friends about whether I should scramble to pull it together in the days I have left, knowing that last-ditch efforts in the garden usually look like last-ditch efforts and don't fool anyone. One of my friends replied, "Just keep it real, pour yourself a drink and don't do a damned thing."

That's the kind of advice I'm actually capable of following. Cheers, everyone.


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