June 1, 2010

Well-contained Enthusiasm

I was at the Chelsea Flower Show a few years ago, standing in a queue for drinks. Directly in front of me in line were two gentlemen, both silver-haired and attired in gray, chalk-stripe suits that spoke of both good tailoring and good breeding. They said little during those few minutes I was behind them, but one sentence continues to ring in my ears with a clarity undiminished by time.

“Penelope,” one of the men said to the other, and then paused for just a moment before continuing, “has a £100 a week perennial habit.”

He said this with neither anger nor regret in his voice. It was a statement of fact; tinged with opinion only in his use of the word, ‘habit’ in describing Penelope’s voracious gardening budget. I swiftly did some currency conversion in my head: at the then-current exchange rate, Penelope was buying up $182 a week worth of salvia, astilbe and hosta.

When I returned and handed Betty her drink, I related what I had just heard and I said, “Don’t ever again fret over what you spend on gardening. You will always be a rank amateur.”

We had a pounding rain here overnight and one of my jobs this morning was to empty saucers from the various containers around the property. Saucers with water in them mean containers can become waterlogged, which leads to root rot.

Somewhere along the way, I began counting the containers surrounding our home. I found 52 and am not certain I got them all.

Now, one or two are just for show – unplanted behemoths that are in perennial beds strictly as focal points. Some others are long-term homes to plants that we overwinter, such as a beautiful burgundy loropetalum or the stone planter given by Betty’s garden club that is home to a fern that returns majestically every May.

The core group of containers – medium and large terra cotta, glazed ceramic or high-quality foam ones – numbers about 35. Betty has been diligently planting them for the past month, filling them with an amazing array of mostly annuals but also including perennials, tropicals and a few shrubs; none of them common.

Those containers are scattered around the property, bringing color to otherwise bare areas of asphalt, concrete or rock. Some are awaiting permanent assignment, such as a large, colorfully planted pot that will sit atop a clutch of prominently visible daffodil greens once those greens have started to yellow later this month.

There are multiple containers along the sidewalk that will fill voids in the perennial beds as June bloomers pass. There are six containers on our deck, turning an otherwise drab structure into a colorful annex of the garden below it. Two matching metal urns are overflowing with color on either side of the front door. Large containers bring drama to the spaces between garage doors and still others fill an awkward, dark corner.

Does this count as a ‘container habit?’

Hardly. And, were it so, then I would be the principal enabler. Betty takes me plant shopping at her peril. I’m the one saying, “Don’t you want another of those?” And, at container sales, I’m the one piling the cart to overflowing, with Betty ordering me to put them back.

It isn’t even a container obsession. Rather, it’s an appreciation for what can be wrought by mixing plants of differing heights, bloom size and color into a small space, and then massing the resulting containers into a pleasing arrangement. It’s art using a different palette and medium.

So, to the gentleman at the Chelsea Flower Show, I say, “Hooray for Penelope.” I hope that she, too, is still creating art of a different kind somewhere in the U.K.

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