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Green Acre #16: Of Pots, Friends and the U.S. Botanic Garden

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The plants surrounding the twin pools at the U.S. Botanic Garden are not very colorful this year, left; last year, right, they were lush and vibrant–the way I like them. On the front, and below: a potted plant display at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. / Photos by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

THE MAIN HALL at the U.S. Botanic Garden at the foot of the Capitol does not thrill me this summer. There’s entirely too much restraint on display.

An ex-friend and I once had a dispute, well, we had more than one, which is why she’s now an ex-friend.

While I have no issue with disagreement in genera—a little disagreement can aid in the creation of thought balloons that contain symbols such as ? and ! and ?! As well as the strings of letters and symbols that we substitute for expletives.  I do however mind when said disagreement is entirely disagreeable, which is what  the final disagreement was, which I will not get into.

The following was minor as such things go:

We were not arguing over flowers, but over excesses. She preferred House Beautiful magazine, which was in those days a paean to the myriad things you can do with sheets, and what she called “practical furnishings.” I preferred dreaming big, drowning myself in  (the late lamented) House and Garden, with its photos and descriptions of things I will not have in this lifetime but can perhaps figure out a way to fake.

(Not that she wasn’t extravagant and acquisitive; she was terribly so, and snobbish about it. Thirty-some years ago, at a time before Rose’s Luxury, she came to see our brand-new old house, pinched her nose across the fence to our neighbor’s yard, strung with nylon line and dripping with wet underwear, then sniffed and cooed, “Darling, how quaint.”

Also note that House Beautiful has greatly improved since the time of the sheets. Worth subscribing to, particularly if you like odd color combinations, as I do.)

Where was I? Oh yes. The Botanic Garden.

Some years, like this one, it is pretty dull. Even the flowers of color are pale and constricted and constipatedly tasteful. Very Wasp (no offense to wasps). Very Washington.

In other years, the twin pools that flank the center court have been lush and fanciful and you want to take off all of your clothes and lie there in the turquoise water with the fountains splishing about while you breathe in and out many times while filling your eyeballs with purple and lush and overgrown. And there’s no worry of snakes nibbling your toes or bulbous hairy spiders flinging themselves out of the branches overhead.
My ex-friend would have it pruned.

I should mention, to get to the actual point of this story, most of the Botanic Garden’s  seasonal displays are in pots. The entry hall has pots of ferns and flowers grouped about the floor. More pots sit atop columns. These are filled with many things that grow up and down.

You will note how cleverly I am refraining from naming many (if any) plants. This is either because I do not wish to intimidate you with my knowledge of flora or because I have no idea what they are.

In any event, I  have found that displaying a knowledge of plant names can be highly irritating, particularly so when someone tosses about the Latin. And It’s a fairly useless use of brain space. If you need to have a certain plant, steal a sprig or bud or whatnot and wave it around at the garden center until someone identifies it.

The beauty of pots is that when plants die or fade or grow ratty, as they too frequently do, you can move and remove them so easily, just as you might do with certain friends.  Considering this, there is no excuse for the pallor of the current display. Surely there is something under the hothouse roof that is outrageously, sense-ticklingly florid that can be dropped in to perk things up. It’s quite simple.

For example:

On this morning’s tour of the back forty, I noticed that the six-foot-tall banana tree was crowded behind the hydrangea, so I put down my coffee on the pebbled path, shifted the jasmine a few inches to the left, picked up the banana and dropped it in the space. Then  I sat on the back porch, finished that cup of coffee and considered  the new arrangement. I think I like it, but if it disagrees with me later, I’ll just move the tree again. It took only, more or less, 47 seconds, including travel time.

My garden, or much of it, shifts around this way because it’s in a collection of pots and urns and assorted odd containers. The container collection has evolved over the years, from mainly plastic, to more exotic designs and materials. Among the more basic pots is an old plaster birdbath (which really needs work, I suddenly notice), and the Victorian umbrella stand that I mentioned last week, and the terracotta cat that The Prince and I toted back from Mexico City several decades ago that is stuffed with a few purple sprigs of wandering jew and perched in an old wire bird cage. Oh yes, and the bird cage.

Growing stuff in pots is helpful when you have an ill-considered if beautiful (for a spring week, maybe two if you’re lucky) cherry tree that’s swiftly taking over the air rights to your garden, as I do. And particularly when you persist in buying plants that thrive on sun and all you can provide, to put it generously, is dappled shade. That would be me as well.

And  when you spend a small fortune (me! me! me!) on plants that want to spit at you and thwack you with flailing limbs and lethal thorns for the lousy environment you’ve provided—the least you can do is attempt to make them happy. And if one of them is disagreeable enough to drop dead on you mid-summer? A little shift here and there and you soon forget to feel guilty.

Even if you’re blessed with sunshine, when August rolls around various clumps of wishful thinking will have gone belly up, leaving brownish clots amid the greenery. While you can plant something in the blistering heat (should you be lucky enough to find something to plant that isn’t already half dead), you’ll need to spend the rest of the summer hovering with a watering can. So much easier on the manicure to just move a this or that to there.

Speaking of there. There was a time, not long ago, when most of the garden was actually in the ground. But then The Prince, in a self-serving mood, built a greenhouse off my second-floor office so I would get the goddamn plants off the goddamn kitchen counter . . . where they upset him. And WHY, I ask you, since he hasn’t cooked since the artichoke debacle of 1994,  and considering the condition of his garage. . . .

Most likely he needed space for the often indecipherable notes and various lists and instructions that he leaves on the counter for me each morning. Today’s collection included the following proclamations: “I’m thinking of leaving you for the Duchess of Alba,” “Your damn pet mice will be killed this weekend” and, “I ate all the sticky buns, tough.”

One of my all-time favorites, and soon to be the title of my book, was a cautionary notice to my daughter Baby and me, set amid the merest sprinkling, just a dappling, of breadcrumbs, that began:  “Ladies! Ant season is upon us!”

Ant season. Pffft. The man is so put-upon. You’d think I didn’t keep him in Rice Krispies.

Anyway, he built the greenhouse, and this enabled me to winter-over the never-blooming lime and other leafy tropicals, marching them upstairs in their pots in October. Some of them die anyway, because I’m lazy and easily distractible, but most perform enthusiastically, and the scents of orange and jasmine and paperwhites and such are quite fabulous, drifting through the house in midwinter.

In April the plants march down again to take their summer positions in the garden.

The banana tree that I hoisted about this morning is fake, by the way. But that’s another story.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

Gardener Cavanaugh is writing a book on urban gardening. You can read all her earlier Green Acre columns by typing “Green Acre” in the Search box at the top right of the page.

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One thought on “Green Acre #16: Of Pots, Friends and the U.S. Botanic Garden

  1. Nancy says:

    Wonderful! I chuckled throughout. And this is from someone who can kill cactus.

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