It is said that George Washington had his dining room at Mount Vernon painted green because he believed that the color aided digestion, and I have always wondered what effect color has on us in the house and in the garden. While this could be one more apocryphal story about our first President, given the current political climate and judgments of our forefathers, I am relieved that his paint color choice was green, not white. Perhaps it is a sign that he was our first environmentally minded President; indeed, Washington was one of the first farmers in America to focus on soil improvement and replenishment, following the principles set forth by the agrarian Phillip Miller.
But the only soil that interests me today is that which filled the window boxes I saw in Nantucket this summer. Each year, when I visit the island, I am taken by the window displays, not store windows with their endless blue and white striped furnishings, but window boxes on houses throughout town that seem to sparkle and express something about the people who live within. And oddly, the colors that seemed to garner attention this year for me were not as much the pinks, blues and oranges of previous seasons, but the more subtle tones of gray-green, silver and white that often took a back seat in previous years to the brightly colored annuals in the boxes along Pineapple Street.
In a moment when white seems politically charged, I was surprised by how often, in the floral compositions of Nantucket, white was as omnipresent as in the population of the island. In these compositions, though, white did not appear to be dominating, but to be playing well with others, providing contrast to grays and silvers and a few more brightly colored annuals. One window, emblazoned with a Black Lives Matters sign, provided a floral example of how black and white can work together beautifully, and the way dark-defoliated begonias were set off by white flowers and colorful annuals made me hopeful for a more peaceful co-existence in seasons to come.
I wonder if the whites and subdued tones this season might be a reflection of our subdued tone in the age of COVID. Yet I feel that these softer tones also serve another purpose: they sooth rather than excite us. Just like graphic designers understand that empty white space on a page provides respite from the busy-ness of graphic design, it seemed like Nantucket garden designers were understanding our need for respite — from the news, from the pandemic, and from the rhetoric of the moment.
These boxes made me realize the importance of white in the garden – the ability of a non-color to unify and lower the tone, something I also yearn for in an election year. But, for me, the silvers and greens in this season’s window boxes represented the most powerful use of color this summer. Agaves and silver sage, succulents of all types and silver pony tail, all seemed to sooth my nerves after perusing the Times or listening to CNN. I fell in love with the window boxes that were the most demure and least attention seeking, and it made me think that perhaps George Washington was right. Green does aid digestion – digestion not only of lobster rolls and chowder, but also of the news of our times.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.