My wife asked me to plant a flower garden that incorporated her favorite color scheme of pink and lemon yellow. For inspiration, I drove to the local library to consult the huge coffee table gardening books that are stocked there in abundance. What an inspiration they were! I returned home with a very long list of the plants I had seen in the picture books and with an unbridled enthusiasm. I had just seen practically every flower that nature provided.
And then I went shopping. A big box home center was new to my city and as an incentive to shop there, it advertised over two hundred different perennial flowers, all for eighty eight cents each. The renovations to our new home had gone over budget so that an ad for cheap perennials was a real find. Or so I thought. I needed to quickly fill up a flower bed that measured sixty feet long by six feet wide, to be viewed at a distance of twenty feet from my back yard deck.
I purchased every plant that suited my wife’s color scheme and I was able to fill all sixty feet of flower bed in one weekend. Unfortunately, after all the flowers were planted, I had little to show for my efforts. At eighty eight cents each, I had bought perennial seedlings. Any blooms they produced were so inconspicuous that they were invisible from our deck. So, out I went for more cheap perennials, this time buying compost and fertilizer as well. And still, my garden looked puny.
By year two, I was spending as much time weeding the big empty spaces between the plants as I did arranging and rearranging the flowers for maximum visual appeal and promising myself that the following year, I would only purchase mature plants.
By year three, all of the perennials reached their promised maturity but I was faced with several disappointments. I discovered that - color scheme or no color scheme - some of the perennials that were prominently featured in the picture books of England are, in fact, invasive plants. Weeds masquerading as flowers may be acceptable overseas, but not in North America. They had to go. So began the long process of digging up, discarding, and buying anew. Then I discovered that many of the flower combinations featured in the picture books only bloom for a very short period. But that didn’t seem to matter over at the gardens in England because another composition of flowers, a half acre down the path of the same property, would start blooming shortly thereafter. Well, I didn’t have another half acre of garden bed to spare, I needed all my plants to flower over the entire growing season, otherwise my yard would look desolate. It appeared that my garden was never going to compare to what I had seen in books.
On reflection, I realized that the first mistake I had made was to plan a garden that was viewed horizontally from my deck. Most of the gardens in the big books were photographed along a path at right angle to one’s line of vision. When examining these gardens, one is able to see all of the flowers at a glance. That makes a grand visual impact. Looking at my garden, my eyes needed to scan from left to right and back again. I was never able to see the interplay of colors, textures and heights that the picture books provided.
The second error I had made was not to have studied the blooming periods of the plants I bought. With some planning, I might have selected flowers with various blooming times which would have ensured that my garden would be in bloom all season long.
I returned to the library to revisit the books again to see if there were any other facts that I had neglected. And this time, instead of studying the pictures, I decided to read the text that accompanied them. What a revelation! I had not paid attention that each of these magnificent gardens is spread out on estate sized property and not in someone’s urban back yard. Furthermore, not only are the flower beds arranged in brilliant configurations that showcase the plants, but each estate can have up to twelve full time gardeners tending to the flowers. Once I understood that, I needed to scale back the expectations of my city garden, because mine is a mere back yard, it offers no perspective because it is wider than it is deep and I am the only gardener on staff.
Finally, what really burst my bubble was the English style garden my neighbor planted on his front lawn. It looked messy all summer long as English gardens do when they are not surrounded by large expanses of lawn or meadow to tame them. And, in the fall, when all of the perennials had been neatly cut down for the winter, and there was nothing to left to see, his front yard looked like a miniature city devastated by an aerial bombing. If I was to do anything inspired by an English garden, I would need to factor into my plan the bareness of winter. I discovered that this can easily be done by planting miniature evergreen shrubs, tall sedum, polygonatum, and ornamental grasses amongst the flowers to provide texture and visual appeal from late autumn through the end of winter.
In the end, I learned that recreating any garden that one sees in a book is an unrealistic expectation. These books are suitable for inspiration, for color and textural combinations and for opportunities to discover unusual perennials. I have made peace with my enthusiastic imagination. My compositions of perennial plants are now contained in a series of small arrangements that can be enjoyed from any perspective. Gardening has now become a pleasure, as it should always be.