Weekly links: Pro-PC/Post-Election edition

Surely all of us are feeling suasion whiplash after reading 4000 post-election think pieces. It was the party’s fault, Hillary’s fault, racists’ fault, liberal elites’ fault, fake news on Facebook, Russia and James Comey, and pandering to immigrants… The first few days I felt guilt (alongside crushing despair and grief) for falling into the trap of thinking that Trump was too preposterous to ever win, instead recognizing the power of his various anti-establishment, anti-civil society narratives to the downtrodden white middle class. I tried hard to sympathize and understand how they could feel left behind and angry enough to vote so destructively. But when I found myself potentially nodding along to an article that suggested that it was the Democrats’ focus on “identity politics” that galvanized whites into feeling like minorities and lost all of us the election, and that going forward we should be less focused on diversity messaging, I had to take a step back.

One of the best things about being a liberal elite is that I take “political correctness” (spawn of “identity politics”) as a given among my friends. I love it. I fucking love it. Now more than ever. It makes me feel safe and cared for and caring. It opens spaces for dialogue that provoke insight and push us forwards towards greater empathy and understanding. It means that I have to think hard about value judgments and what my statements might imply. It means that sometimes I realize I am prejudiced and have to address it. It means sometimes my friends call me out for things I say. It means I actually have to work on myself.

Consequently, I struggle to find people who argue against “political correctness,” who say that we’re all too sensitive and it stops people from speaking the “truth” – and let’s be clear that what they’re arguing against is really just making an effort to be inclusive of others and not undermine them based on factors outside their control like gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, etc. – as anything other than lazy and selfish.* Maybe they also lack imagination. Kim and I were discussing this the other night, the lack of imagination issue, since law school collects those lovable white bros who think that we’ve made progress and now it’s going too far, or maybe it’s just not totally necessary you know? … Are they really unable to recognize their privilege? Do they really think women or minorities can go a day without trying to understand the world through the position of a white male? Or maybe the issue is an abundance of imagination and they believe we’ve achieved gender parity and ended racism??

I shouldn’t put white men on the spot like this – Trump’s election is almost assuredly the patriarchy’s fault (and economic inequality didn’t help). We’re all human and hurting and we all need to work together to build a more compassionate, open community. It’s idealistic, but I’m not willing to give it up – especially not in the face of white nationalism. And there is some comfort in knowing that Hillary won the popular vote and there are millions that agree. In my dejection two weeks ago I was scoffing at all the #love posts but I guess that’s what it’s about at the end of the day, although it’s a complex love, that is forced to reckon with personal shortcomings and the challenges of living next to one another.

It feels more imperative to be open and sincere generally (#love). It’s the best we have. “Post-truth” is more terrifying to me than Trump. I don’t know how we recover from it. It gives me no comfort that John Herrman, my favourite writer of the internet dystopian narrative, was predicting fake news years ago and is now saying it misdirects from the real issue, that there is no trust in “real” news. Honestly, I’ve been disappointed with the NYT coverage lately; I don’t want to see a front page article on Hamilton tweets – now is the time for substantial pieces. They hyped their meeting with Trump so much, and for what? He just pandered to them like he panders to everyone else. I have no solutions for coverage, but this clearly is not it. The Washington Post seems to be doing better – doing actual investigative reporting instead of reacting to social media posts. I shouldn’t be so hard on the Times, but like, now is not the time for click bait. Click bait is the problem. Click bait brought us to fake news.

In an effort to intellectually engage in something non-election related this week (ok, ok, it’s election-adjacent), I re-read Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (published 1928), which implores women to put their writing out into the world. I couldn’t have been more delighted by how gently she calls out several centuries worth of mansplaining. So sensitive and yet so firm in her conviction for what women need in order to write and write well. I got to the end though and I couldn’t help but think of Marie Henein’s brilliant op-ed in the Globe (published two weeks ago) regarding the visibility of women needed to ensure we one day get a female Prime Minister or President. Eerily they end the same way. Virginia writes: “As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born…she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.” Marie writes: “This is what I would like you to tell your daughters today: engagement on every front is the only answer. It means that young women must participate. I do not care where. I do not care what view you take. I do not care what your political stripes are. I do not care whether I agree with you or not. What I care about is that you are seen. In every boardroom. In every school. In every C-suite. In every political party. Engineer. Artist. Judge. Politician. Doctor. Until you cannot be overlooked. Until seeing you in the highest office anywhere is as normal as breathing. The sky is not falling. It just feels a little darker right now. She is out there. I know it in my core. In some school. On some playground. In some boardroom. She may not even know it yet. And our collective job is to light the path so everyone else can find her.” 90 years and the fight remains.

*Like foragers! Tragedy of the commons is real y’all and this time we’re talking about collective human dignity and casual acts which diminish it!

Other links:

From the London Review of Books: Is this how democracy ends?

From Foreign Affairs: The globalization of rage

From Mother Jones: Van Jones: “Hope for the Best, Expect and Prepare for the Worst”

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I hope she gets to say it all

“[T]he out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.

Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”

I recently discovered Rebecca Solnit’s graceful essay “Men Explain Things to Me: Facts Didn’t Get In Their Way” and thank god. I know I’m not alone in saying that this US election campaign has made me feel acutely feminine and emphatically feminist; by that I mean, I feel threatened as a woman, but more determined to speak out in defense. I caught myself after the last debate thinking for a minute that Trump had performed better, and then collected myself, because there is absolutely no way he is capable of performing better as an intellect and leader. But he does a better performance of the ‘masculinity’ we face too often – the kind wrapped in hubris and callous disregard. The kind that we meet with slow nods, half smiles and fake laughter when we encounter it in the workplace or on a date. The kind that eats into our time and our well being.

Inhabiting my femininity has felt like a work in progress. Law is, despite a growing number of women entering the field each year (my law class was evenly split), still dominated by men. They’re more likely to be partners, judges, and appear as counsel in civil and criminal cases. I feel lucky to have been admitted to the bar while working for a talented, nurturing boss who gave her support and knowledge freely. Actually, all my colleagues were wonderful women and I looked forward to working with them every day. But court was a different story; there are other women representing clients, but you never see them in the coatroom or standing in noisy knots in the hall. I felt my femininity and youth acutely every time, and was easily frustrated by the petty games and ego-stroking necessary to lubricate settlements in cases, that, quite often, were brought against single mothers (or grandmothers). The structural barriers my clients faced in court, in the welfare system, in the healthcare system, in the workplace… it’s better not to get started. The patriarchy didn’t make me quit (like aversions to lawyering and living in New York did), but it made me wary.

When I decided to start my own flower business, I made a point of introducing myself as a floral designer, “sorry, a what?”, a florist. I’m a florist. Maybe I would say it with a slight blush or a tone of defiance, I tried to be nonchalant. Then my friends would interject, “but she also went to law school!” I hope it’s because they found the career change interesting and not because they felt I needed boosting in the eyes of others. I hated, still hate, having to explain the change, dredging up as it does all my insecurities and an endless stream of cliches, cloaked in the privilege that I have been gifted and am grateful for, mindful of. But I also feel defiant of the assumptions made in contrasting law and floristry: it isn’t a profession requiring a degree, I am self-taught; my daily work is not preventing injustices against the disadvantaged, I just brighten peoples’ day; and while anyone who has worked in the flower industry knows this isn’t true, I assume my peers see it as the realm of dreamy women, not assertive, ambitious ones.

I find a lot of joy in being a florist – growing flowers and arranging them for myself and others; working with other creative, gifted women; helping mainly female clients bring their beautiful dreams to life. Weddings, my primary source of work, are a satisfying rush of competence and hands on labour, laced with ribbons and pearl-headed pins. I’ve even gone so far as to call myself an artist on occasion. And it’s let me embrace my emotionality and sensitiveness, my desire to please, instead of constantly fearing a show of weakness.

I can’t say the gardening world has been as welcoming. Again, there are talented women working in gardens and/or designing them, who own nurseries and write newspaper columns, but they’re still in the minority when it comes to more high profile positions. At Chelsea this year, there were complaints about the dearth of female judges (none in the prestigious show garden category), although the RHS was quick to point out there was an increase in the number of female designers presenting gardens. It still seems like a conservative, old boys club. Just this morning I was reading Robin Lane Fox’s ‘Thoughtful Gardening’ and came across the essay “Gendered Landscape.” He reconciles the dominance of men in the history of land ownership with a few paragraphs on women in gardening (some of whom, like Vita Sackville-West, gardened “in a gendered male slipstream”), but ends the essay rather more emphatically.

“Those haystacks and hedges, those pleasant little coverts, those magical clumps of beech trees: all of them go back to men in the landscape, imposing their masculine gender for the sake of artistry, profit and their beloved country sports. The landscape has a masculine orientation. It is so masculine that I even risked putting the fact to a free-thinking feminist over lunch and asking her what she thought. How would she feel driving home now that she realized that the landscape is imprinted with the tyranny of the phallus and the patriarch? ‘Sexy,’ she answered, ‘incredibly sexy: it really grabs me.’ An alternatively gendered landscape is not what the other gender wants.”

Really, Robin. Thanks ever so much for your contribution. I can’t say the young men in gardening seem any better – hard to say whether this is a function of Britain’s general acceptance of sexism and racism on the street, in the pub, in the newspapers and on their tvs, or just, you know, boys being boys while bonding over manual labor. Regardless, during work, vulgar comments and period jokes are fair game. I should just be flattered that I’m pretty strong for a girl. Perhaps I’m over-generalizing, and I’m sure not all experiences will bear this out, yet I can’t imagine the impetuous to change is high unless more of us enter the profession or society stops finding such microaggressions unacceptable. I’m also sure some men will want to explain to me how there are no problems with sexism in gardening and I will smile politely, cough, agree with- wait no. I will say no. You can and you will do better.

The specter of Trump haunts me. I imagine all the people throughout his life who fake laughed and coughed politely as he spewed hate and lies. In his total confidence, I’m sure he rarely knows the difference. All he cares about is the attention – some article today tried to argue that Trump is compelled to pander to the crowd, hence why he has declared he wants to start a witch hunt against Muslims, but he probably doesn’t actually care that much about them one way or another, so maybe his presidency wouldn’t be as bad as we think (sometimes the content mill generates real hogwash). Watching his fragile male ego self-destruct in big ways to even the smallest of perceived slights illuminates all the small detonations we women face every day, or at least it does for me. And it’s frightening and exhausting, but also a reminder not to stand for it.

I have men in my life who are loving and supportive, who have never made me feel less or threatened because of my gender, who choose not to make sexist jokes or accept them from others. But this is not enough. Trump and his ilk show how the slippery slope of sexism trips into misogyny, both verbal and physical. I am optimistic given the recent polling on minority turnout (especially among women) in the advance polls, but he lingers as an ever-present threat.

Solnit closes her essay: “Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have certainly gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime. I’m still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it.” I hope Hillary gets to say it, everything she believes in and hopes for, on Tuesday. I hope we all do.

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July Wildflower Expeditions

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We were just 10 minutes into the hike, one we’d decided on almost randomly the night before and spent an hour preparing for, filling our packs with power bars and peanut butter sandwiches, when we were stopped dead on the trail by two rangers carrying dart guns. Instructed to follow 100 ft behind them back the way we came, we asked our fellow thwarted hikers what was happening – a “sick bear” behaving “erratically.” In those tense 10 minutes back down the trail we made jokes loudly, and darted nervous glances at one another. I wondered how often the rangers practiced firing their dart guns and how long it took for them to work on bears…

Safely back on the other side of the fence, we formulated a new plan. We would do a much longer hike up to Healy Pass. To this day, I thank my lucky stars for that sick bear as otherwise I may have missed the most stunning flower meadows I have ever had the fortune of witnessing; “no imagining can come near to the beauty of things seen.”

Wait, what? Sorry. Been reading too many plant hunting ‘epics.’ Bless.

Anyways, we did end up at Healy Pass (in Banff National Park) back in early July and it was magnificent. I haven’t shared any pictures from that trip, and inspired/threatened by William Robinson’s exhortations on true art, “which is always marked by respect for Nature and by keen study of her,” I thought I should do so immediately. Over the course of the week, we also hiked up to Ptarmigan Cirque, and Eiffel Lake, which had different sub-alpine and alpine plant communities. Only saw one grizzly bear, on the side of the highway, which Sam proclaimed looked “small.” See if he ever gets a 20 page spread to recount his adventures with that attitude…

(This is actually only a small fraction of the plants we managed to see – in the interests of not boring you overly, I’ve included only a selection of photos and plants. Apologies in advance for the suspect plant IDs. There are no rare plant photos because I can barely identify the common ones… I strive to improve in the coming years.)

Healy Pass (maximum elevation 2360 m)

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Veratrum viride, Thalictrum occidentale and Erythronium grandiflorum

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Castilleja, Valeriana dioica, Aster alpinus

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Claytonia lanceolata

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Erythronium grandiflorum and Claytonia lanceolata

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Valeriana, Senecio, Ranunculus, Delphinium bicolor, Aster alpinus, Erigeron

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Castilleja rhexifolia (?)

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Agoseris lackschewetzii

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Valeriana dioica, Castilleja, Ranunculus, Delphinium bicolor

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I have a million photos of castilleja – sadly my ability to differentiate the species is currently non-existent

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A beautifully coloured Myosotis asiatica Sam found

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Cypripedium passerinum

Ptarmigan Cirque (maximum elevation 2415 m h)

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Evidence of recent bear activity

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Anemone parviflora

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Gentianella amarella?

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Silene acaulis

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Micranthes lyallii?

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Androsace chamaejasme, Potentilla, Salix, Myosotis asiatica

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Eiffel Lake (maximum elevation 2225 m)

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Morraine Lake from the trail up to Eiffel Lake

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Anemone occidentalis emerging after snowmelt

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Ranunculus escholtzii emerging after snowmelt

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Phacelia sericea

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Neottia borealis

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Gentianella amarella

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Saxifrages!

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Saxifraga bronchialis

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Micranthes odontoloma

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Eiffel Lake

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It’s fall, technically

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Dixter mid-September

I really hate this time of year – it’s hard coming back from 10 days on the East Coast, which is just approaching peak fall, asters everywhere, to snow and a dead garden. Sure there’s still bulbs to plant, but it won’t be last year’s gentle slide into winter. It’s over. It’s done. I miss my flowers already. Nothing to distract me now from the doldrums of winter except thinking about the gardens I’ve seen this past month.

Last week, I tagged along with the Chanticleer team to see the most beautiful meadow-style planting at a private garden designed by David Culp. It was a minimalist matrix which allowed the few non-grass perennials and self-sowers to fully express their forms. Seen through the veil of spent grass they appeared especially sculptural. It was expressive and tuned into the space – and the evident control exercised over it, in the way a minimalist interior expands before the eye, gave it all the necessary gravity to command attention.

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Chanticleer first week of October

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The beautiful work of Lisa Roper and the Chanticleer team

It was a subtle end to a day spent on sensory overload at Chanticleer. There’s so much to be said about that garden (beyond that I think Lisa Roper is a genius, which is what I spent a good chunk of time silently exclaiming). There’s just an overwhelming sense that the gardeners delight in plants and how they can be combined, and that they’re open to the visitor lingering and looking (I may disagree with the paint jobs on the chairs, but I love that they’re everywhere). I knew it was going to be a good afternoon when there was a stunning combination of a cactus and asters, abutting some eucomis in the tea cup garden… hello. I mean, I don’t even like agaves and yuccas, etc., but Lisa had me believing they have always co-existed naturally with nicotiana and asters, combining in some kind of pastiche on Mediterranean abundance (what?!).

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There’s just something so natural in the way that Chanticleer unfolds – I know I’ve said this multiple times, but the more I visit other gardens the more I enjoy the subtle transitions, the rolling landscape, the curving paths, and the trees. Beth Chatto’s resonated immediately with me because of its mature trees and I wonder if it’s because I’ve spent so much time in East Coast gardens where it’s not about hedging, it’s about copses of trees and shrubs. And the forest is always just beyond, closing in on you and the garden (although in NY and PA it’s of a more reasonable proportion than North Carolina’s slightly terrifying overgrowth). It makes the garden feel much more organic and of place; and I readily excuse the messiness of autumn because that’s reflected from the trees down.

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I’ve never really liked colchicums – in the garden they tend to look patchy and collapse at the slightest hint of moisture or wind (and it’s fall… so poor planning on their part?), but I have to admit they livened up the car park at Beth Chatto’s a few weeks back and they were delightful spilling down a grassy hill at Chanticleer. I love a good bulb meadow and on the grey day, the pinky-purple fairly glowed. On closer inspection, they were a mixed assortment at Chanticleer, with doubles, and different colours. I think what I like about bulb meadows in spring and fall, is that, for the most part, you can easily see the shapes of each plant and flower. I’m struck by the multitude because I can distinguish amongst it.

Great Dixter long border

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Great Dixter high garden (of helianthus)

So we come to my struggles with visiting Great Dixter a few weeks back. I arrived on Friday and we stumbled through the garden just as dusk was falling. Maybe I was jet-lagged, maybe it was the lighting, maybe we were too hasty, but, aside from the beautiful pot displays, the exotic garden, a spare moment on the long border where I suddenly didn’t hate the pine and yucca (should have been a sign that I was not at my best), I could barely understand what was happening. That night I had the sensation that the long border had been wallpapered onto the hedges, the high garden was a seething mass of helianthus and the orchard garden a disorder.

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I have not been cut off from Dixter wholly in the past few months – a perk of friendship – and I have read enough Christopher Lloyd books by now to know that much of Dixter’s summer/fall plantings are not especially to my taste. And so maybe I came to it unfairly, primed for disappointment. We went back the next day for a slightly more leisurely stroll and then worked there on Tuesday and Wednesday. Every day I could feel myself softening towards it – the long border gained depth, the peacock garden resolved itself into a space I could recognize again, I appreciated the plantings around the pear espaliers, I said hello to the hydrangeas in the blue garden that we pruned so many months ago.

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Dixter forces a confrontation with the border taken to the extreme. So often with borders (all art, really), complex representations don’t appeal on first glance, and coming at it from an Albertan scale of plantings certainly didn’t help matters – the visual leaps were that much bigger. Heavily amended soil and constant division means that plants are primed to explode into maximum growth and they do. No one could accuse the gardeners at Dixter of not knowing how to grow plants. They do big square blocks of plantings and the plants sit as close together as possible. The impression is a rich tapestry of colour and texture. When my eye finally resolved the borders into constituent parts, I was astonished by the plants used, particularly in the long border.

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Amicia zygomeris in the foreground, Dahlia ‘David Howard’, Tetrapanex and Musa basjoo (a hardy banana)

I do feel like the endless lectures of gardening for foliage are slightly hypocritical when looking at summer/fall borders like Dixter’s (I am mainly referring to the long border here). You can’t even see the foliage. Or what you can see is quickly mildewed, desiccated, frayed. The best foliage is unarguably in the exotic garden, which was everything I could have asked for – lush and humming with its own green energy. It’s a stroke of genius that rewards time and again. There, the overwhelming nature of the plantings work.

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Begonia ‘Burle Marx’ underplanting

The exotic garden also rewards the visitor with a close look at unusual plants that have been allowed to maintain their form (as opposed to be grown so closely together they meld into one mega-plant). I was struck by Amicia zygomeris and Telanthophora grandiflora. And the textural carpet of begonias (‘Burle Marx’) is yet another reason to celebrate bedding out. (Honorary mention goes to a beautiful moment in the barn garden with melianthus, a dark red dahlia and one of the osmanthus. The lower steps from the mosaic garden also had a beautiful pot display of hostas, begonias and other foliage-rich plants.)

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Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Les Moutiers’

A few days later, after more heat, the asters started to bloom in the peacock garden, lightening the space. There’s nothing like a good aster. ‘Little Carlow’ and ‘Les Moutiers’ are standouts. I learned the name of the mystery, feather-leaved plant I kept batting off while going into deadhead – Helianthus salicifolius (of course it was a helianthus….), cursed the beautifully treacherous Rubus thibetanus, and got some lessons in Dixter staking. And every time I came down the steps with a full bucket of weeds, I took a moment to appreciate the Plectranthus argentatus, with its beautiful silvery foliage.

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Plectranthus argentatus above the cat garden

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Salix purpurea ‘Nancy Saunders,’ Verbena bonariensis, and the spent seedheads of Selinum wallichianum (and a bit of the insane 10 ft cosmos…).

I saw the Plectranthus again in a private garden headed by another Dixter alumnus and the same Helianthus appeared in the Chanticleer cut garden which is presided over by a past Dixter scholar. It’s fascinating to see Dixter re-imagined by others. In the private garden, annuals are used more sparingly, but gracefully, in the long border, and the overall effect is softer and invites the visitor’s eye into the very back of the bed. The colour schemes are more harmonious. There was a particularly good moment at one point, with Salix purpurea ‘Nancy Saunders,’ Verbena bonariensis, and the spent seedheads of Selinum wallichianum. It’s still Dixter in its sensibilities and plant choices, but the plants are given more space and support.

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Chanticleer cut flower garden in early October

The Chanticleer cut flower garden was stunning. As with the private garden, there is a huge reliance on cannas for height, colour and foliage impact. But putting them on the outside of the border as punctuation was so fun, especially in combination with Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather’, Persicaria orientalis ‘Shiro-Gane Nishiki’ and Dahlia ‘Glorie van Heemstede.’ (Side note: thank you to Eric, who makes the best plant lists of any garden). It felt like what Dixter’s high garden could be. Height on the edges is engaging, but only if you can see through to the center and I appreciated the Chanticleer beds for the editing. Even in the late season chaos, it was engaging and beautiful. It was a strong entry for why deep beds that rely on annuals (or perennials used as annuals) can be powerful and worth the effort.

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Canna ‘Bengal Tiger,’ Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather’ and Dahlia ‘Glorie van Heemstede.’

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And while we’re on the subject of annuals, I thought the addition of zinnias and verbena to a grassy area was clever and fun – the possibilities for a loose meadow-based matrix then become endless. Have I mentioned how I much I enjoy the playfulness of Chanticleer? I also love the invitations to sit in the garden. I miss that at Dixter – there are few spots to just luxuriate in the surroundings or that suggest to the visitor a particularly nice view. Maybe that’s what makes the experience that much more overwhelming – you never get a rest!

Dixter continues to be an outsized influencer, with good reason. It is always full of gorgeous, surprising plants, and possesses a tangibly generous spirit. If anything, seeing its distinguished traits translated into new spaces by different gardeners, has gotten me even more excited about the coming years in our garden. As always, Dixter and its people, past and present, were warm and endlessly hospitable. It has been such a treat to spend time with so many gardeners (at Dixter, Chanticleer, Beth Chatto’s and private gardens) in the past month and I’m grateful to all of them for sharing their time, knowledge and enthusiasm.

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My favourite part of the Dixter long border

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If I see one more struggling potentilla…

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What I would like to see in ‘natural’ plantings

I saw those perfect donut peaches at the market on the weekend and thought of all the wedding table arrangements I’ve seen recently on Instagram with peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries on the branch, or scattered loose down the tables. A bacchanalian scene complete with dripping currants and cherries. Sometimes I dare to cut apple branches and occasionally one can find a use for the bright red Evans cherries, but otherwise we would go bankrupt trying to use that fruit here.

It got me thinking about using natives or commonly found things here – it’s uninteresting to be honest. I mean I love all the alpine wildflowers, but they’re basically out – I’m not going to grow them for cuts and I’m sure as hell not going to be foraging them. Even in this year of green abundance, there’s not a tonne that is appealing. Rosehips, I suppose. Some prairie grasses.

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Dad and I were discussing natural plantings in Edmonton – they lack a certain picturesque quality that Oudolf interpretations of mixed prairie plantings evoke. Perhaps it’s the lack of biodiversity and inherent scrubiness in Aspen Parkland. There’s only so many times one can see poplar or birch under-planted with grasses and asters, or god-forbid, potentilla and spiraea. And surely this won’t catch the eye of most citizens. It blends nicely into the contemporary urban landscape, softening edges, but failing to evoke anything bigger.

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I think this is why it’s important to move beyond natives when designing public planting schemes in Edmonton. I’m not saying that our river valley is ugly or there isn’t beauty in the gently undulating landscape of Central Alberta, with its fields and gullies, and shallow windbreaks. But there’s nothing to inspire curiosity or evoke awe of the natural world. It’s too familiar, and planned representations fail to draw anything more significant out of the limited palette. And no, it’s insufficient to chuck in a swathe of a newer rudbeckia variety, in case you were wondering. TRY HARDER. I honestly think people, particularly children, would be more impressed by a wooly burdock or common verbascum grown to full size. Not that I would ever advocate for the use of noxious weeds….

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It might be over soon

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There’s some new Bon Iver stuff out, repetition and melancholy. Perfection. When I look for confirmation of myself in music, it’s usually Bon Iver. I like the routine, and the emptiness that is allowed around it. When every day is your own to make, the space seems interminable.

I love the phrase melancholy and the landscape. I saw it the other day on Federal Twist, in a post that reflects a bit of what I’ve been thinking about lately. Why aren’t photos of bright English borders making me feel anything? Why do I feel a fondness for kale in a mixed border in the evening light? Why am I loathe to stake anything? Why am I so uncomfortable being lonely now when it used to be as natural as breathing?

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It’s a recalibration, coming off a few weeks of working on weddings, and back to my own, solitary existence. Back to a garden that will be taken apart and redistributed in a few months. I make flowers with the mildew ridden ‘Graham Thomas’ roses, sunbleached yarrow, and drying astilbe. I cut whatever I want from the shrubs because who cares, I’ll be gone. There are luxurious bouquets of Koko Lokos and Distant Drums.

I’ve let the frosted explosion grass and cosmos self seed, making the main bed near impossible to get through. It takes me practically 5 minutes to get to the zinnias 3 meters away. It doesn’t have to be this way but I like encouraging the plants’ agency (and aphids). Every spring I never seem to be able to remember just how big individual cosmos plants get. I think I can leave them in between the rows of other plants. Always a mistake.IMGP3643

 

The pounding rains have forced me to corral the sweet peas (now reaching 6 ft and going for broke) with hastily erected trellis I had lying around, and a prison of twine. It looks vicious but already the vines are growing through and softening the look. I can hardly imagine the painstaking work that must go into cordon training them. If I manage to prevent them from going to seed another day, I pat myself on the back.

My garden is not melancholic. It’s just a lot of flowers growing every which way. Flowers everywhere. It’s a mess. Can your own garden ever be melancholic? Melancholy suggests a longing and aloofness that’s difficult to feel about your own work (or lack thereof). Although, yes, it is true that death is always around in gardens and the season might be over soon. Might be over too soon.

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Too, one has to be melancholic, or at least suggestive towards it, to let the surrounding melancholy seep in. Otherwise the garden just looks shabby, tawdry, distasteful. The landscape evokes but I think more often it confirms. Like listening to music or viewing a dance performance, really any art, you either feel the weight of a piece or you don’t. You can learn from something or appreciate it, but not feel it.

Just because something doesn’t strike you one day, doesn’t mean it won’t another, and vice versa. I think this is why good gardens have a variety of spaces, and there is always some point that lets you breathe. Maybe it’s why we love long views ending in classical statuary. Really, is there anything more melancholic than a yew hedge, lawn and a crumbling Aphrodite? A few days since that lawn was mowed, a few decades since that hedge was planted, and a few centuries since that sculpture was discovered, in pieces, in a cave; millennia since it was first made. Time.

Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely
in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on the edges
of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)–: why then
have to be human–and, escaping from fate,
keep longing for fate? . . .

From The Ninth Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

Getting lost in a garden, or having the sensation of disconnect, is another way of approaching melancholy. It’s good to have curving paths and small alcoves. It’s good to be alone.

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And why should it be melancholic? I suppose because there’s a peace to melancholy, there’s no expectation of excitement, joy or curious engagement. It has a realism in its embrace of age, bitterness, and death. It accepts the ephemeral nature of plants and the garden. It opens space for quiet longing and gratitude. At its best, a melancholic garden takes you outside your lonely self and into the company of those others who aren’t present but surely have felt the same resonance of the space. It confirms, and envelops, then fades softly in memory into something more beautiful than it was.

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Walking Great Dixter

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The first erythronium

For those first, heady weeks of spring, when the ephemerals began to bloom, a few of us played a little game: who can find the first bloom of x or the emergence of y. Initially, it was just me being stupidly excited by the first Tulipa turkestanica or frit in the meadow. The first violets, erythroniums, Narcissus cyclamineus. Sophora microphylla ‘Sun King’. I would drag everyone over to admire the miracle and they would all nod patiently. For a week or two it got so intense people started humoring me at lunch: “Ok, Amy, we’re ready for today’s nature walk. Lead on to the next 5 cm plant.”

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Ophioglossum vulgatum

They ended up being some of my favourite times with the gardeners and students because they were always generous with their knowledge of the plants – even if they’d seen something bloom many times before – and they usually took you to see some of their favourites as well. A stray comment about an anemone (pavonina or fulgens) blooming alone in the meadow, had Fergus telling us about how it had been there thirty years and never seemed to expand. Then, he suddenly dropped to his knees to look for yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) germinating, which reminded him it was a good time of year to look for Ophioglossum vulgatum and so we all trailed after him through the meadows, squinting (some were eventually found in the same spot Christopher Lloyd first identified them after waking from a nap in the lower meadow). Or poor Graham, who patiently tolerated my hellebore ramblings and then showed me the best erythroniums and the location of the only yellow snowdrop. Things got a bit dicier with the students – some accusations of blatant cheating and an imposed rule of latin names – but you know, that’s only to be expected (if I’m playing…).

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It’s interesting how little you end up walking around and just looking at a garden when you work in it, so I made a conscious effort to walk regularly, alone. In the morning, the dew or frost glistening, it was usually a brisk stroll, just to check on something from the day before, or maybe to visit the blooming Corylopsis glabrescens. And in the evening, it was often to catch the setting sun, or see what a warm day had pushed into blossom. At lunch though – those were scouting missions. It takes focus to be aware of the garden and small changes. Even now I can mentally walk through the garden with clarity. It’s a comfort that I left when the tulips were at their height – my Great Dixter is perpetually roiled in spring colour.

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The thing about Great Dixter is that almost every day a plant (or five) is putting on a new display. There are just so many plants, so many different plants. It’s hard to overstate. And if they don’t have it now, they’ve probably tried it. We’d go off to gardens or nurseries on the weekends and bring back plants we were excited about and Fergus would invariably have grown it before (and actually, it was growing right now, this very second, in the Vietnam stock bed!). It was overwhelming and thrilling. There’s nothing better than seeing plants you’ve only read about come to life in front of you. Well, except, digging it up, dividing it and potting it on?

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Gardening practice at Dixter is idiosyncratic, as one would expect at a garden created by intense individuals living in the middle of nowhere, England. Four months in the garden has infused me with a new confidence in plants. There are so many forces acting against them – clay soil and poor drainage, clumsy students, neglect, badgers, competitive neighbors and rampant self-sowers, etc., that some days we joked about how they have to really want to live to make it at Dixter.

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Sometimes, the jumble of plants at Dixter is oppressive. The garden drives home the maxim ‘less is more,’ and a light hand when editing a bed full of self-sowers manifests over a period of weeks as plants fight it out. My eye would tire while staring down the Long Border or parsing the combinations in Vietnam. It would tire, and it was only winter/early spring, nothing like the chaos of high summer or the bounty of fall… It’s not that I didn’t know what I was getting into, but experiencing it in person is something else. Walking endless loops failed to inure me to some garden moments. My catchphrase was ‘burn it’.

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And yet, I catch myself looking at our plantings at home differently now – contemplating how another layer of planting might be worked in, or why it might not be totally offensive to have those lime Aquilegia ‘Mellow Yellow’ close to some purple cotinus (perpetually dwarfed by our climate).

Just kidding. I still think it’s offensive. I suggested Geum ‘Mai Tai’ instead of the aquilegia.

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It’s difficult to separate out the garden, the garden walks, from my emotional attachment to the place. I made an effort to look at the garden, but I also lived, worked and socialized in the garden. The beautifully worn York paving stones that define the garden, are also the same ones I’ve spent days weeding; the walled garden is full of the work of decades and an ancient Cistus, but also hundreds of larkspur and nigella that Aideen and I planted; the weird trial strip by the fruit cage is ugly and dedicated to stock but it’s where Susan and I had a fun day working with volunteers, where I spent a few quiet days with Lewis and Aaron when I most needed them, where I watched the tulips succumb in days to fire blight, where I managed to get some cell signal… I have a fondness for it, despite its overabundance of bergenia.

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It’s hardly fair to talk about Dixter without disclaiming my gratitude towards the people there. They gave me months where I had no imperative except to show up to work on time, take in as many gardens as possible, and be with people who love gardens. At Dixter, the world of gardening expanded before me.

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But I also reveled in the smallness of it all. I walked the garden in hopes that I might somehow come to know it intimately, bounded as it is by hedges, fences and property lines, and hundreds of sheep. In spring, their baa-ing was incessant. But like any garden, it grows and changes, even before my eyes I watched beds swallow newly planted seedlings never to see them re-emerge, or a magnolia appear at the back of the long border like a mirage, with a few white flowers faintly outlining it, how had I never noticed it before? And of course I can never know the weight of history, the layers of imprinted knowledge of warm spots and cool, frost pockets, where the wind does particular damage, those are beyond the reach of my casual observances in a short time. But there’s still something to the containment, a satisfaction that each day you are getting better, that you could one day know the paving stones and trees at least, even if the plantings are ever changing or the shrubs sometimes pruned into dramatically different shapes. Even the topiary lawn took a butchering while I was there.

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It’s almost better to think of it as an extended pilgrimage – enlightenment through pacing and futile weeding of the topiaries in the midst of the meadow. What’s done today will need to be done again tomorrow, or maybe in two weeks, or maybe two years, but it’s rarely the last time something needs to be done. The garden is decades of memories of planting, pruning, weeding, staking, soil amendment and the like.

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As Robert Macfarlane so aptly says: “The journeys told here take their bearings from the distant past, but also from the debris and phenomena of the present, for this is often a double insistence of old landscapes: that they be read in the then but felt in the now.” I came to Dixter for its history and plants, and felt Christopher Lloyd’s presence every day through stories, reading, a well-chosen tree, but my day-to-day experiences are superimposed on it, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. There’s no objectivity to my understanding of the garden. I respect it for what it is, and hope that it respected my efforts (and wild enthusiasm) in turn. The pilgrimage complete.

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