Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Gardening: Ennui, and Books to Cure It

It's been a long time since I was in the throes of full-fledged garden obsession.

During catalog season, I used to carry around stacks of gardening catalogs fat enough to fall over.  I'd write and rewrite lists of seeds and bulbs and plants, perfecting my orders to minimize shipping. ("If Seeds of Change has rainbow chard and floating row cover, I can eliminate my Burpee order altogether!")

I'd drive to the Grange and come home with so many plants that they overflowed the trunk and the car floor. I'd guiltily put six-packs of seedlings on the passenger seat, hoping that the dirt would brush off later.

It's been a long time since I experienced that happy garden obsession. I've theorized about why, but I know the most likely answer. I think that it's because the garden is full.

Filling the garden is the goal - perhaps more for me than for some gardeners who follow a sparser style. I like every last inch of space to be covered in plants. Ideally, I'd use every layer - trees, then shrubs, then subshrubs, then perennials, then ground covers, then those little flocked-wallpaper-height groundcovers like creeping thyme and Irish moss. Oh, and bulbs, blooming in late winter and early spring and late spring and so on.

And the garden is fairly successfully fulfilling that goal. I don't get the credit for this - it's mostly the work of Gardener Artist/Miss Mosaic, who hasn't gotten much mention in my blogging, because of the whole reduced gardening obsession thing. In between creating wonderful things in the Artist part of her career, she keeps our garden in a condition that we couldn't possibly achieve ourselves.

But, of course, the downside of the garden being lushly, beautifully, fragrantly full is that the garden is full. We're rapidly running out of empty space.

There is nothing more exciting in a garden than empty space. I can stare at it endlessly, sitting in a lawn chair with a notebook and a garden book in hand, moving the chair to different viewing angles. I can prance around placing pots in the mud, deciding exactly where the hydrangea should go in relation to viburnum, for hours. And then come back the next day and change it all, having decided that, no, it's sunny enough for roses after all.

Blank space is the ultimate garden wealth. The jealousy that one feels over a new car or a freshly-built mansion is nothing to the jealousy that one feels observing a friend's newly dug sixty square feet of dirt.

We have no more of those big glorious spaces. But we do have some spaces. Little spaces. There's a spot about six feet by three feet next to the neighbor's fence on one side. There's room for three roses by the garage, though we'll have to chop through the ivy first. There's a bed slightly larger than a sofa cushion in the kitchen garden. There's a nice little terraced area, quite possibly even that sixty square feet, where nothing but trees grow because everything else dies in the shade of the trees. There are several square feet of sparsely-filled dirt by the front fence.

That should be enough to generate excitement. But I just glance blankly at those spaces when I walk by and vaguely plan to make a plan to think about doing something.

The only cure that I can think of is garden books. They're what got me started on this obsession, so they ought to be able to pull me out of this slump, even without a big blank patch of fluffy dirt to motivate me.

So, which books?

Henry Mitchell, of course, is the most likely cure. That is, his books On Gardening, One Man's Garden, and The Essential Earthman. His garden was full, too. He struggled with the desire to have everything on a modest city lot. But he took endless pleasure in the garden and the puttering and the plants. Come to think of it, perhaps some of the pleasure was in the writing - his books came from his newspaper columns. Maybe just blogging could be the cure.

Cheryl Merser, in A Starter Garden, takes a similar pleasure in all the puttering details, though she's more focused on filling the empty garden than on entertaining oneself in the full one. But she enjoys it so much that I'll read it again.

Anne Lovejoy's Organic Garden Design School is the book to read when I want to get more play value out of apparently fully-planted spaces. Her "sandwich gardening", a method of stuffing a plant in every possible layer and season, might tell me how I can buy still more plants, and after bare dirt, nothing sparks gardening enthusiasm more than piling plants into the cart at the nursery.

There are many more. Elizabeth Lawrence, Christopher Lloyd, Allen Lacy, Patricia Thorpe. Wait, Growing Pains and The American Weekend Garden were both written by Patricia Thorpe? I've really been away from my garden shelves for too long.

Reading will commence. I'll return with an update.

Photos: Mine

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