SOME PEOPLE reach for the Bible when life seems, shall we say, infertile.
I reach for Henry Mitchell.
Thinking I was out of thoughts for this week, I picked up The Essential Earthman, let it fall open wherever it would, and landed on the chapter “It’s a Jungle Out There.” Yes, it is, thank you, Henry.
Mitchell, the late (and getting later all the time) gardening columnist for the Washington Post, remains the most delightful of gardening writers. His columns have been gathered into several books, all dog-eared on my bookshelves.
“There are prim gardens,” begins one paragraph of this chapter, “and they are very nice, but I would not want one. I remember at Versailles, the garden of Louis XIV, wondering how anybody could spend so much money and construct canals on so large a scale and have so many trees and still achieve a sparse and stingy look.”
Dissing Versailles—what a pleasure this man is.
I consider with pleasure the jungle I have created of my small patch of back yard, hardly one that a serious horticulturist would envy. Here, the bird of paradise mingles with the jasmine, hibiscus, bananas and cannas, lemons and a sad little lime. These are set against the platter-sized leaves of the philodendrons and elephant ears. None of this can survive a winter in Washington DC and must be toted by My Prince to my little second-floor greenhouse at the first hint of a snap of frost.
Nothing native about it.
I am also reminded that I intended to write about a curbside plot a few blocks away that I came across this spring; a breathtaking tangle of yellow iris, the early purple flowers of the lunaria (with seed pods that resemble capiz shells once they’ve shed their papery skins) and purple geraniums. These flowers frothed around spectacularly blousy pink bourbon roses and delicate apricot tea roses with a commingling of fragrance so potent it could bring on a seizure.
It’s the Secret Garden* before it was tamed, a jostling of strange bedfellows that came together to create a masterpiece. Like something a brilliant florist would create for a million-dollar wedding, or a creation by brilliant perfumer Annick Goutal, who might call it Eau de Rue, and sell it for $100 an ounce.
Have you ever tried ginger jelly with Brie? If this garden patch had a taste, it would be that. Heart-stoppingly rich with a frisson of savory-sweet.
I took a photo of the garden and posted it to Facebook and immediately had a response. “I drove by it a few minutes ago,” the writer wrote, “and I almost drove over the curb, it was that gorgeous.”
So ferociously untamed a patch is this that few might even call it a garden. Certainly not those who enjoy their roses set apart and neatly mulched, with little identifying tags at the base. A practice I’ve always found peculiar. Roses shouldn’t sit there in isolated splendor; they need equally dazzling yet complementary companions, a hit of spice to zhuzh** the sweetness.
Was there art amid the chaos?
I searched out the owner of the plot, and was told he’s a curmudgeon, good luck getting him to respond. I left a tearful begging message under his door, and set forth to wait. We’ll never know.
Of course I want an entire front garden of this, leaving the back to the tropics. Happily, lunaria is everywhere around here and easy enough to dig up and transplant, which I did. Or rather, the Prince did as I directed with an enthusiastic wave of the arm.
Already I’m dreaming of next summer.
*Did you know there’s a new film of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, starring Colin Firth? I don’t know which gives me stronger palpitations, the star or the book. Rent it on Amazon Prime for $19.99.
** Maybe you thought I made this word up. I did not. It’s a verb that means to make something more lively and interesting. Thank you, Sara Barnett, for enhancing my vocabulary.