The Self-Taught Gardener: One-night stands

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By Thursday, Apr 21 Home, Garden & Design
Gabriella C. Marino
Spanish lavender thrives in full sun, and will never bloom like this if it is placed in too shady a site. Plants thrive when their needs are met and, like us, languish when their needs are ignored.

This past weekend, I helped my friend Michele at her nursery in Brooklyn, as she was shorthanded. It was a great chance to catch up with one of the most curious plantswomen that I have ever known, see her nursery, and end up feeling either young or old, depending on whether I felt like a hipster or an oldster as skinny jeaned twenty- and thirtysomethings (who wouldn’t even understand the last reference) came in to buy plants and learn how to garden. Michele’s nursery is really a special place, filled with carefully selected plants that make sense for city gardening (along with chicly packaged green nylon bags of potting soil and mason jars of slow-release fertilizer that made me know I was in fashionable Brooklyn.) She also works hard to select plants that are of interest and garden worthy in a larger sense.

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A vine grows in Brooklyn, into its perfectly branded logo at Gowanus Nursery. Photo: Gowanus Nursery

 

I thought it would be fun to help her out (and to have a chance to sample the food that Brooklyn is now famous for), but what I didn’t expect was a gardening lesson from all these new gardeners. As my father would say, everyone can teach us something, even if it is something that we should already know. What they taught me was to take note of your surroundings, whether you are gardening in a tree well on Henry Street or on three acres in Ashley Falls.

Plants, like people, including the many customers I saw at Gowanus Nursery last weekend, often have more needs than we grant them. Newly single, I have found myself going on dates and enjoying myself, but often not asking the larger question: does this person have the traits that will allow us to succeed with one another? I might like the way someone dresses, or what he reads, or his skills in the kitchen (although what I need most is someone who is more adept at laundry than I am, or at least puts it away when it is clean and folded). As with relationships, there are questions we should ask about plants for the garden, and not just overlook hoping that things will work out in the long run. These questions are twofold and symbiotic: Do I have a place that provides the conditions this plant requires to prosper? and, does it have the qualities I need for it to fulfill its role in my garden?

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Red buckeye blooms at a young age which is good news for gardeners drawn to its bright flowers, but this plant should be provided with a home that gives it a fair amount of moisture and protection from hot midday sun to prevent the leaves from scorching. Photo: Gowanus Nursery

 

As I worked with customers all weekend long, asking them whether their garden was shady or sunny, faced north or south, had rich soil or hardpan, they looked back at me quizzically, as if there wasn’t any reason that I should need to know such things. A plant was a plant, to their mind. These new gardeners did not want to consider the plant’s needs and how they could ensure its survival; they wanted to buy the plants they were drawn to. The equivalent of a late night pick-up at a local bar. As people insisted that lavender would love their shady deck or that their exposed rooftop overlooking the East River was not really too hot in the summer for plants that love cool shady sites, I saw shades of my own behavior, purchasing plants over the years that had flowers or foliage that I liked, but that could not possibly grow where I wanted to site them.

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Michele’s use of vines and vertical elements at Gowanus Nursery provide a lesson for both city and country gardeners who want to squeeze in more plants per square foot — in essence, all gardeners. Photo: Gowanus Nursery

 

On Sunday, I walked through the nursery with a man who was underplanting a gingko on a shady street in Park Slope, and showed him plants that could do well under these conditions – competition for water, little light once the tree leafed out (described by those in the know as deciduous shade). He continually walked ahead of me as I pontificated on the virtues of sweet woodruff, picking up one sun and moisture-loving perennial after the next, filled with ideas of how it could work. “I think there is more light there than I thought,” he stated at one point, following that lie with, “I will make sure it always has enough water.” I looked down to see if he was wearing a wedding ring or had some other sign of being involved, and was not surprised to see a bare ring finger. For how could someone provide another person with what he or she needs, when he refuses to meet the needs of a plant that he purports to be taking into his care?

Lamb’s ears can make a wonderful ground cover in full sun although extreme humidity can take its toll on the plant’s foliage. The silver hairs on its leaves help protect foliage from desiccating sun and allow the species to withstand intense sunlight.

Lamb’s ears can make a wonderful ground cover in full sun although extreme humidity can take its toll on the plant’s foliage. The silver hairs on its leaves help protect foliage from desiccating sun and allow the species to withstand intense sunlight. Photo: Gowanus Nursery

 

But in him, I recognized myself, as a young gardener, and hoped that I had learned something over the years in selecting plants and all of the other living organisms I may bring into my life.

Shade-loving plants have a romantic allure of their own, but customers are often drawn to showier, sun-loving plants, and mistakenly plant them where they won’t thrive. Photo: Gowanus Nursery

Shade-loving plants have a romantic allure of their own, but customers are often drawn to showier, sun-loving plants, and mistakenly plant them where they won’t thrive. Photo: Gowanus Nursery

 

Spring Plant Sale Special events

Please mark down these dates for plant sales in the area (but take note of your needs and garden conditions before buying anything).

May 6th and 7th, Plants and Answers: The Be-A-Better-Gardener Plant Sale, Berkshire Botanical Garden, www.berkshirebotanical.org

May 7th, Hollister House, Broken Arrow Nursery Plant Sale, www.hollisterhousegarden.org

Trade Secrets, May 14th, Lion Rock Farm, Sharon, Conn., www.tradesecretsct.com, with garden tours on May 15th.

And when in Brooklyn, check out Michele’s nursery, at www.gowanusnursery.com.

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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.


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