Life Lessons From The Garden

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Even though there’s no such thing as the perfect flower, every gardener has their favourites.

I would be hard-pressed to name a single variety as my overall favourite, just as I would be hard-pressed to name one favourite book. Most people have roses, tulips, dahlias and irises on their list, but gardeners are a funny sort and sometimes claim grasses, native species, even zinnias and marigolds, among their favourites.

All flowers have their strong points and their flaws, as every gardener well knows. A rose, for example, despite its considerable virtues—gorgeous blooms, wonderful scent, variety of color, varied growing habits, and so on—is notoriously greedy for nutrients, hogs the best sunny spaces in the garden, is prone to pests and disease, and is covered in cruel thorns.

To give another example, an iris can tolerate xeric conditions, has long stalks with large, flamboyant blooms and comes in a rainbow of amazing colours. Irises are relatively pest-free and have gorgeous leaves, even when the iris is not in flower. And, yet, some gardeners, proving once again that there is no pleasing some people, incomprehensibly affect to find the irises sword leaves ugly.

For me, the iris comes closest to perfection in my mind, partly because of its inherent virtues and partly because I have been planting and enjoying this wonderful creature for about 50 years now. But even they have not-inconsiderable faults: their individual blooms are relatively short-lived and every stalk soon has ugly blobs of shriveled, faded blooms on it.

Next: Orchids and lilacs

Lovely lilacs up close

Orchids are a sealed book to me, as I have never lived in the tropics nor been lucky enough to have a greenhouse, so I am completely ignorant about them. But they strike me as being close to perfection in many ways: their blooms last an absurdly long time, they are extremely interesting to look at, they come in a huge variety of colour and they don’t require soil. And yet, many of them are very difficult to grow and to get to flower. Still, they grow all over the world in the most amazing places. I remember, as a boy, tramping through the Australian bush, looking for these delightful beasts. They were very tiny there, but not hard to find if you looked down and really concentrated on their modest beauty.

Lilacs are also a good illustration of my theme, because the virtues and flaws are so pronounced in them. The blooms are beautiful, simple, wholesome, traditional, and wonderfully perfumed, but the plant itself is far too large for the small amount of blossom it produces. Weedy natives and xeric flowers, while extremely hardy, are another example of the same flawed principle: a low proportion of bloom to plant material. Even peonies, with all their virtues, have this flaw, plus the drawback of being so top-heavy that they are ruined more often than not by the not-uncommon rains of May. But their flowers are so absurdly gorgeous that we devotees put up with these serious drawbacks for the sake of the occasional May when their magic is at its unspoiled peak.

Next: Pretty red peonies

I do have a special soft spot for our red peonies, I must admit, despite their being rather gaudy and highly susceptible to spring showers. I’m pretty sure they’re the variety known as “Lowell Thomas,” named for the travel adventurer and news broadcaster who was a boyhood hero of mine. I once, as a student, got to meet him. I was waiting in the outer office of the University of Denver’s great chancellor, Maurice Mitchell, when the door to the chancellor’s office opened and out came the charismatic chancellor and, to my great amazement, the legendary Lowell Thomas. It was he who popularized the phenomenal exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, and his name is synonymous with news broadcasting. Mitchell introduced me to him and I was, of course, enthralled. So I grow his eponymous flower as a dutiful and happy tribute.

The vicissitudes of life in the garden teaches us much about anticipating, accepting and enduring life in general. These are some of the great teachings of the garden for the gardener, and the gardener would do well to study the example patiently and modestly spread before him by the plants who have chosen to befriend him.

David Jensen writes the popular American blog The Garden Interior which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. He’s also the author of The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty.