I often admire gardens displayed in magazines and books, and wonder, what can I do to make my garden look like that? I must be wired in another direction, and probably lack the skill to duplicate these lovely gardens. Masses of perennials, each more lush than the next, spill from beds with color and textural contrasts that I am incapable of. I marvel at the artistry required to create and maintain such a masterpiece. I suspect, as seems reasonable, that photos are taken at the garden’s peak season, but on its best day mine falls a bit short (below), I think.
The problem is not budgetary. My wife complains (though she understands this is futile) that too much is spent on the garden, and that more attention is needed to prevent the house from falling apart (which was too true until she emptied the household bank account last summer repairing every problem, minor or major, that she could imagine. Our fix-it guy will retire a wealthy man).
Despite these perceived shortcomings, there are days when I stroll through the garden and wonder, how could it possibly be any better? Leaves of Japanese maples are fresh and vibrant, dogwoods and redbuds are bursting with blooms, and hostas and lush foliage lap over the stone paths. And then, I consider one marvelous magazine garden or another, and realize, I am not failing, those gardens are ill suited to me.
I am contentedly simple minded, and intent on gardening with as little effort as is possible. I am satisfied with small pleasures, entertained for months with subtle changes of the fernleaf Japanese maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, above and below), from unfurling leaves, to dangling seeds, and finally to colorfully mottled autumn foliage. With twenty-some cultivars of Japanese maple in the garden, this is enough to keep me happy through the year if there was not another tree or flower.
Instead of masses of perennials, this garden features paperbushes (Edgeworthia) and nandinas, hydrangeas, daphnes, hollies, azaleas, and so on. There are more trees than only Japanese maples. Tall (and dwarf) cryptomerias and cypresses are dotted through the garden, as well as silverbell (Halesia, below), stewartia, and a dozen other wonderful flowering trees. Two beeches (Fagus) dominate, a purple leafed monster in the front, and a splendid green leafed beech with pendulous branches graces the northern property line in the rear.
On a winter afternoon, for a moment I can imagine this garden with flowing drifts of anemones and irises, but this magazine garden could not be satisfactory. I want to plant and forget, to watch over decades as the red horse chestnut (Aesculus × carnea) spills over its intended boundaries. The ground beneath the tree will become more shaded in time, and declining roses will eventually be changed to hostas, or Forest grass. My gardening style requires woody plants to minimize labor, and my eye is pleased more by the finely divided leaf of the Linearilobum maple (Acer palmatum ‘Linearilobum’, below) than the undeniable beauty of the bearded iris.
Yes, there are irises and toad lilies, hellebores, and many more perennials scattered in spaces between trees and shrubs, but this is a different garden than those in the glossy magazines. This garden is uniquely mine, one that is three decades in the working, well suited to my eye and to my maintenance ethic. I could not, and should not wish for anything more.