I spent a quiet afternoon two weeks ago working in a small garden outside my guest room windows. The room is built into a sloping bank and partially surrounded by a deck, and therefore the garden is not only visible on an intimate level from below, but from a larger, birds-eye view above – a challenging prospect.
For the most part, I have filled it with sensitive and ostrich ferns, dicentra, Iris tectorum, bronze and standard petisites and several Hydrangea serratas. A fatsia also battles the winters there and more often than not, comes out with most of its dignity intact.
But the aim is not to block these windows; and these plants – many of them thugs – are seasonally wrestled with in order to provide a gateway to the woods and field beyond. An introduction of sorts.
From the deck it is abundance. The ferns blend, the petisites looms, the dicentra prays it won’t be asphyxiated. There’s a landscape light or two (in trendier speak, the area has been ‘nightscaped’) and I threw in a bird bath last summer for good measure.
From the other side of the guest room-glass however, the scene is very different. One’s perspective contracts, and becomes almost that of a small creature at ground level. It is not the vast, smothering heads of petisities that he sees, but a forest of reddish-green stalks topped with umbrella-esque hats. The jumbled lush that is a stand of ostrich fern from above becomes a study of their shuttlecock form and an awareness of new crowns, unfurling with both delicacy and vigor. Ants make nests against the stone foundation and each evening spiders spin tiny webs between the branches of the hydrangea.
All this is visible below, and invisible above.
And thus we come to the meat of it – what I was really working on outside that window last week, and what I sadly feel I must defend in my position as gardener who regularly uses Latin, propagates her own shrubs and knows what do with coir.
I was building Toad Hall.
It began as a broken pot in my last garden many years ago. An expensive broken pot I might add, but broken clean in half and therefore even harder to discard. I did not. Instead I tucked both halves under the feet of a climbing hydrangea on the north side of the house, and for the benefit of my children who were both young and still listening to stories at bedtime, wrote ‘Toad Hall’ in large capitals with a sharpie on one of the sections. One half would have been a house, I said. But two? That’s a stately home.
They would check occasionally for Mr. Toad and any friends he had, but alas, toads did not visit Toad Hall, most probably due to Mr. Dog who frequented that area and had no fear of sticking his nose into dark places where it did not belong. At this point I could still hold my head high in the face of garden visitors who assumed that broken pots provided habitat and terracotta was chic.
Thus we went along for a year – me feeling ecologically sensitive and the children perpetually disappointed – until I was wandering one Mother’s Day at a nursery.
I saw the little statue early in my walk: a cement rendition of two toads playing chess, one intent on the game at hand, one languidly sitting back, arms and legs crossed.
It instinctively made me smile as I thought of it sitting in front of Toad Hall, and I just as instinctively stopped myself. It crossed a line that I wasn’t prepared to cross and one that I certainly wasn’t prepared to let others see that I crossed if I indeed chose to cross it.
I continued to wander, half-heartedly picked up a salvia and a new succulent, but could not take my mind of that ridiculous little statue. I had, up to this point, considered myself young and still fairly vibrant. Fairly vibrant people do not buy kitsch I said to myself. Formerly vibrant people do. You shall not have that statue.
Friends, I bought the statue and began my transition into middle age.
Several years and nine pairs of [where are my] reading glasses later, I had a choice to make sparked by our move. Leave the moss covered pots and their cement inhabitants for the incoming young couple and their offspring, or take them with us and set a very bad precedent for my new garden.
He was a film producer and she was an English professor – I had no doubt that they sipped macchiatos each morning as they read The New Yorker. I took my kitsch with me and it sat in the potting shed waiting for another moment of weakness in the life of the resident gardener.
That moment occurred one afternoon as I was making the bed in the guest room and watched a toad hop by directly outside the window. On my run to the potting shed with the wheelbarrow, I pleaded with the serious gardener who had just created a pergola walk to showcase allium and was taking great pains to incorporate rare ephemerals in a sunken woodland.
Fairly vibrant people do not buy kitsch I said to myself. Formerly vibrant people do. You shall not have that statue.
“Uh…not in your world.”
“The children will love it.”
“They’re at work.”
“It’s providing habitat.”
“Good, then you won’t be needing the statue.”
“You won’t be able to see it from above.”
“But you’ll damn sure see it from the guest room. You put plant people in there – are you insane?”
The fact that I am writing this article – as a direct challenge by a friend and colleague from the American Horticultural Society – should give you a shrewd idea of how that conversation ended.
Not only did I install Mr. Toad and his chess opponent outside that window, I cut a moss roof for Toad Hall and gave them a ceramic mushroom umbrella. It was at this time that I realized they weren’t playing chess at all – they were playing checkers.
Oh the shame of it.
Since that day, there have been bottle trees and copper mushrooms. I have lost all credibility in the eyes of my colleagues and even an in-depth article on the finer points of propagating hardwood cuttings could not save my reputation at this point. It is a slippery slope surely, but I will point out that there have never been fairies.
That, at least, should count for something.