28 April 2013

As the old saying goes, any idiot can have a beautiful spring garden - and that only goes double if you're relying on daffodils.

Nothing eats them - their poisonous reputation goes back to Homer who, according to Katharine Beals, "asserts that it delights heaven and earth with its odor and beauty, and at the same time induces stupor, and sometimes death." And although sources variously claim that the flowers Persephone was gathering were crocuses, hyacinths or anemones, Beals and many others contend that she was gathering daffodils when she was seized by Pluto. Yet, despite this association with death, daffodils naturalize more easily than almost any other flower that isn't considered a weed. And they are a particular boon to the woodland garden because they bloom before the trees' leaves grows in - which is why, if you are willing to endure the numb fingers and chills of planting bulbs in November, spring is the season during which any idiot can make a woodland beautiful.

Tulips are a bit more high maintenance - a "bit" meaning wire cages and spraying them with Liquid Fence. Rodents love tulips, and our best advice is plant early, plant often. (And plant species tulips as much as you can; as with most plants, they seem to be much tougher than hybrids, and the rodents don't like them as much.)

Beyond that, get used to your tulips migrating around the yard, sprouting wherever the rodent digestive tract decides to leave them. (Sometimes that can help - as when we planted an entire slope of bright red tulips by the pink Japanese magnolia that flowered precisely the same week. We were all but offering rodents bounties to move the red tulips anywhere but there.)

A Devon folktale that Charles Skinner tells reinforces such a philosophical approach. According to the story, the pixies placed their children in tulips at night, to be cradled by the wind. An old woman who discovered the fairy children immediately planted more tulips, and was rewarded by the fair folk with luck and beauty as long as she lived. But when a miser took over her property and planted parsley instead, his crops all failed. But a crop of tulips always bloomed beautifully on the old woman's grave.

A similar approach has always rewarded us when we're sensitive to the flowers that awaken when you simply attend to a garden: For example, for years we kept asking each other whether the odd, mottled leaves we found on the paths in the lawn really were something.

Oh, yes. They are.

They're dog's tooth violets, and the hybrid versions of this wildflower can easily fetch nearly forty dollars in plant catalogues.

The species version is a lot harder to commodify. We've found dog's tooth violets blooming in nearly twenty-foot square masses in the wild. And, according to Daniel Atha of the New York Botanical Garden, the underlying tubers are both edible and quite ethical to thin. But that hardly means they are domesticated. Like any other violet, they are stubbornly migratory, wandering around lawns, paths, and beds for years without blooming before they find a place that suits them. But when they do, they are spectacular. (Although we freely admit, we have yet to put them to any practical, edible use.)

Still, accepting things like the violets' independence of spirit has led us to relax and try to garden as Gertrude Jekyll would have us do. Every part of our garden has its moment - from the springtime daffodils to the autumn fruits of our potager. Fight the rodents as best you can - especially when it comes to their nibbling the tomatoes. But in the meantime, simply enjoy the luxury of a springtime garden any idiot can produce.

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird