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Green Acre #17: Gardening Beyond Flowers


A DC garden with the happy addition of Christmas balls to supplant fading flowers. / Photo here and on the front by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

IT IS ONCE AGAIN the time of year when one must consider the Demise of the D.C. Garden: the molding of the zinnias, the wincing of the cherry tree leaves, the withering of the potato vine. That sort of thing.

It’s too soon for the pansies and mums (which live for about 30 seconds around here anyway) and those frilly ornamental cabbages that will carry us through winter.

Are we then forced to wait for some measure of garden jollity? Nyet, I say, exercising the extent of my Russian.

It is time to purpose and repurpose items that can cheer the border between now and then.

Consider now, that whatever it was you bought and planted, that thing that was certain to bloom but instead fizzled in the heat while you were off sailing with Cucumber and Desmond and you can’t plant a damn thing because of the heat wave (never mind that there’s scarcely anything left at the garden center). That’s when you crawl up into the attic and dig around for the box helpfully marked Christmas Balls and locate the glitteriest specimens and cart them off to fill that bare patch.

Do not dwell on this concept; I know it’s a little off-putting, so just glance over it. Imagine wandering down a little side street and coming upon this pocket garden glittering its fool head off in the sunshine, thanks to strewn glass balls in what-have-you colors that might have dropped from the sky in a recent rain, all higgledy-piggledy-plop.

It’s just happy. And, we might add a favorite word, cheap. Happy, cheap, done, drink time!

Now consider the urn, the one with the plant in the center, the one that is supposed to stand upright and bushy (I have one; it’s supposed to be covered with pretty little orange flowers but, eh, can’t have everything).

So—alert!—actual successful gardening tip coming.

But first I will point out that this was supposed to be cleaning day. Yesterday while floating around my pool draped over a hot pink noodle (Note: This is only my pool in the sense that I paid a couple of hundred bucks for The Prince and me to belong for the summer), I was getting all energized about Waxing the Floors and Washing the Kitchen Wallpaper. Perversely, as these things happen, this morning arrives and I have zero desire to clean anything. I am, in fact, in full step over the crap on the floor mode, and I catch sight of this leggy thing that just . . . drips. If it gets hit with rain it goes entirely splat and tangles with the ground cover. This is not the effect I was going for.

I really want to tell you about curly willow branches, which I buy each January and allow to leaf out in joyous celebration of the coming of spring. As always, this year I intended to plant them in a pot once they’d rooted in water and I was going to have this gorgeous display just like the one I saw outside a florist’s in Old Town last summer. This did not work, possibly because I am not a gay male, which sometimes you absolutely have to be for things to be . . . just so.

So. The branches did root, but then upped and died, and I was left with a bunch of curly-looking sticks. I liked them for their curliness and tossed them on the growing heap of stuff I can’t throw away that thrives under the back porch.

And then in one of these frissons that occasionally strike, I found myself holding a curly willow branch while eyeing the urn with the delinquent plant and, putting two and two together, I stuck the branch into the pot and coiled the limp and leggy stems around it.

And everything looks all jolly and perky, except for the missing orange flowers—and come to think of it, the greenish whitish plant that underlies it is supposed to have purple flowers . . . oh well.

You too could do this! You don’t need a curly branch, just something tall and interesting in shape. Jam it into the ground and twist the recalcitrant whatnot around the limbs. If you want to get fancy, as I semi-successfully did one year, spray-paint the branch a shiny Chinese red first.

Speaking of China, or Japan, maybe Thailand, plug the words “Asian umbrella” into Google and the colors will leave you heaving with passion. Hang one or several from a tree, or stick it in the garden. If you have deep pockets, get one that’s table-size. If I had deep pockets like you, I certainly would.

Add color! Paint a door turquoise, or plant a pair of shocking-pink chairs against the foliage—a brilliantly colored tablecloth works as well. Hang a bird cage from a tree and stick a fake parrot on a branch; I’ve seen it done and you don’t notice much else. Consult Thomas Hobbes or Tony Duquette if your senses need a thorough jolt; they give me palpitations. Amazon has their books.

You might also make a statement with statuary.

On a recent stroll around Capitol Hill I spied a six-foot-tall metal rooster, all red and white and green, that vibrates against a yellow house. Don’t tell the owner, who probably paid a fortune for it, but I recently saw a similar piece in the, um, statuary section of Slindy’s of Culpeper, my favorite junque shoppe, for 15 bucks. (Years of junking and no Renoir. Where’s the fairness in this, I ask you.)

Of course it’s nice if you happen to have evergreens to back-up your statuary and what-nots. (It’s also nice if you happen to have statuary), but a bed of mulch will do. In my wander I came across three amusingly primitive giant stone heads lined up in a nearby garden. I would have taken a photo but it was trash day and well . . . the big blue cans. Feh. Multiples of most things are good. Except trash cans.


A lovely gloom on Capitol Hill. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

I love the gloom of the statue of Olive Risley Seward, commanding a private yard near Eastern Market. It’s depressing even in mid-summer, but now it has all the cheer of a tomb. You could change the offerings in the casket at her feet, winging along with the seasons. Petunias for now, skulls for Halloween, fir branches for the holidays, maybe some bulbs under-planted with crocus and tulips and such for a spring show.

Nearby, a four-foot statue of Bacchus usually sports shiny strings of Mardis Gras beads in addition to what looks like a bird cage on top of his head. Beads are always appropriate. Flamingos are too, as long as they’re not (shudder) plastic—this is never amusing. A neighboring house has a pair cleverly composed of conjoined bits of hardware and bicycle seats; they’re painted ballet-slipper pink and stationed beside a garden pond.

And you didn’t think Capitol Hill was witty.


Asian accents on Capitol Hill. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

In a more stately vein, a handsome Buddha mingles with ivy and grasses on North Carolina Avenue. There’s a large square Asian thing—I have No Idea what it is—behind him. The Buddha and the . . . thing . . . and a tree are angled just so, creating a clean and quite dramatic division between two otherwise joined townhouses.

A bold arrangement between homes, I have found, is a particularly fruitful idea for a D.C. garden when you have disgusting neighbors and don’t want to look at them. This is, theatrically speaking, called “pulling focus.”

—Stephanie Cavanaugh
Gardener Cavanaugh is writing a book on urban gardening. To read all her earlier Green Acre columns, type “Green Acre” in the Search box at the top right of the page.

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