Fame and Philadelphia

Life is full of amusing little interludes. After my facetious letter to Elton John was published, I was copied in to an email from Don in Colorado. He wrote: “Every so often I receive a Google News Alert linking me to a gardening news article that makes me want to stick my finger down my throat or laugh ’til I drop. Today’s article, by Abbie Jury, in the Taranaki Daily News of New Plymouth, New Zealand is one of these. If anyone would like to send this gardening writer a Dear Abbie, she is: Abbie Jury Phone/fax +64 6 754 6671 jury@jury.co.nz”

Being sharp eyed, I instantly noticed that Don was a d*hlia aficionado (the reason for the asterisk will become clear soon) and each time this genus was mentioned, Google would notify him. My words in that letter to Elton were: “Big, blowsy d*hlias are so vulgar and OTT, really, without even the bonus of fragrance.” While fearing that my email inbox would quickly become overloaded by international d*hlia enthusiasts, I naturally emailed Don by return to clarify whether my column had in fact made him laugh or made him want to vomit. Sadly, he did not reply and there were no incoming emails. Just a few postings on his site.

Tom took it all rather seriously and commented that he was “Surprised we didn’t hear about her Royal Dalton tea service with the hand painted periwinkles.” . I bit my tongue and resisted the temptation to correct his spelling of Royal Doulton. There were a few other neutral entries but it took Elaine from Christchurch to clarify the situation. “Thanks for the article Don. I am assuming that Abbie Jury is a family member of a well known and respected hybridiser of Rhododendrons, Camelias (sic) and Magnolias from the Taranaki area. Elton, is Elton John who recently performed in that area. The Kereru referred to is a native wood pigeon, and the morepork is a tiny native owl. All tongue in cheek I would say.”

Thank goodness for that. But my moment of fame on the internet seemed all too brief and insignificant. Now it is just back the garden pages of the newspaper, as long as I do not mention d*hlias in anything other than a glowing reference.

We had some interesting visitors from Philadelphia this week. We have been having our usual summer conversations on achieving more summer glory in our garden. For us, it is the next big gardening challenge. New Zealanders generally excel at spring gardening. It only takes about ten years to achieve a reasonably mature and pretty spring garden in our climate and we tend to do it with trees, shrubs and spring bulbs. When you think about it, the majority of trees, shrubs and bulbs flower in spring. Summers tend to be rather green. In fact we have more colour and flower in mid winter with the camellias, early magnolias and rhodos than we have in mid summer.

Mark and I have been talking for some time of wanting to make a summer trip to England to see the splendor of their perennial borders. We had assumed the Brits still lead the world in the practice of herbaceous borders. Apparently not. An esteemed colleague emailed and told us to forget going to the UK to see summer gardens. Philadelphia is the place to go, he urged. This may have something to do with the fact that he is leading a tour of summer gardens there next year and he would like us to join him. And it certainly had something to do with the Philly duo that were visiting him and subsequently came here.

hese visitors came bearing a gift of a splendid garden guide to the notable gardens of the Philadelphia region. The front cover shows a colourful mixed border including a cordyline, coloured flaxes and canna lilies, photographed in early summer I would guess. One of the visitors gardens at Chanticleer which takes pride in its tropical plantings of bananas, coleus, cannas and the like. Tropical? In Philadelphia? It gets so cold the ground freezes solid. Yes, he explained. The garden is not open all year and as soon it closes at the end of October, they lift the plants. Some get forced into dormancy and kept in cool, dry conditions (even the visitor toilets and facilities are utilized for plant storage). Others are brought into the glasshouses. Yes, they lift much of the garden every year (it is a mere 35 acres). Not even camellias will survive the big freezes. When the ground is frozen, it prevents any uptake of moisture and evergreen plants get dessicated by the dryness. In early spring, they replant each year in preparation for opening on April 1. Mark and I were stunned at the prospect. It certainly is not gardening as we know it.

It does explain to some extent how they achieve such splendid effects with herbaceous material (all those leafy, clumping plants which will give flowers from spring through to autumn). These types of plants like to go in to freshly cultivated soil and they need dividing and refurbishing often. Presumably the freeze kills weed seeds and soil afflictions too. It should be said, however, that the challenge of very hot and dry summers following on quickly from their springtime is another gardening hurdle we do not have to contemplate.

Lacking a small army of skilled gardeners, a suitable budget (no grandfather who owned a pharmaceutical empire here, alas) and large visitor numbers, we can not contemplate a style which is dependent on lifting much of a garden every season. Nor do we have long periods of dormancy to accommodate this activity. We did not enter into any discussion with these Philly visitors on the sustainability of this approach to gardening. In time, history may consign it to folklore – the latest example of gardening practice which can trace its roots back to Versailles in its heydays when a legion of lowly paid staff could change the entire colour scheme of the vast bedding plant displays overnight so the French king and queen could contemplate a different view if they looked out their bedroom window when they rose.

So it is still a matter for much discussion here as to how we can achieve a sustainable summer garden full of flowers. You can only go so far with utility but reliable hydrangeas and agapanthus. The lilies are coming in to flower and are wonderful but there are few other summer flowering bulbs. Clematis continue to put on a splendid display. The roses limp on but are past their peak. Our few d*hlias continue to perform well. If we want a summer garden, the bottom line is that we are going to have to turn to greater use of clumping herbaceous perennials.

Gardening would be dull if all one did was to maintain what is already in place. The challenge of achieving a sustainable summer garden will continue here for some years to come.