getting real

Echium wildpretii growing wild in Tenerife

Grow this plant and your garden will look exactly like this! (Yah, right… )

[ Right: Image of Echium wildpretii by Mataparda. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. ]

I’ve got to be realistic, I keep telling myself. The plant may be cool, but the whole effect probably won’t be much like how the plants grow in the wild or how they’re shown on some dramatically illustrated garden website.

It’s like buying clothes out of a catalog that are being modeled someone impeccably styled and impossibly toned. But because of the recession most of us have had to let our personal stylists go, and when you go to try on the clothes the look ends up being a sad disappointment.

For my last post, on my blooming echiums, I was having a hard time coming up with an attractive photo that showed the entire plant. The plants are growing in a tight corner of the garden that has a woodpile, a rusty shed and a big disorderly stack of stuff waiting to be dissembled and taken to the metal recycling facility at the landfill–not stuff I wanted to publish out there for all the world to see.

From one vantage point the studio walls act as a fairly neutral backdrop, but to take this photo my back was against the neighbor’s wall and I couldn’t get the distance I wanted.

The angles that showed off the plants better also showed off all the junk. Gag.

Okay, back to getting real. My garden will never look like the high volcanic slopes of Tenerife. It’ll never look like the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, or approximate the wide vistas of our desert two hours to the east of here. Some of my plants may come from those places, but cultivating them won’t hide the fact that I live in a suburb with neighbors all around.

I guess I look at the garden as a scrapbook or photo album. A plant might have associations with somewhere I’ve been or would like to visit. Maybe I grew up with another of the plants. Yet another may be intriguingly cool even though I have no idea where it comes from. In arranging the plants, in making the garden, I can come up with something where my memories can mix with the shapes, colors and textures of the plants and produce something I like and hopefully will look okay to others.

Blooming now in one of my little bog gardens is a stream orchid, Epipactis gigantea, a plant with a huge pile of associations for me. (You can sort of make it out to the left in this photo.) Those memories go something like this: I was taking some of the rough Jeep roads in Saline Valley, a generally unvisited expanse of white sand immediately northwest of Death Valley. I’d camped one night on the west side of the valley at the mouth of a little canyon leading up into the Inyo Mountains. All night long I kept hearing angered challenges from the wild burros that called this area their home. The next morning I headed towards the canyon, keeping a wary eye on the burros that were never far away. Soon I started to hear water. I guess I’d unknowingly plopped myself on top of a trail leading to a water source for the burros–That would explain the angry noises all night.

Soon the canyon folded in around me, and I went from the glaring white hotness of the exposed valley floor to a cool, sheltered outdoor room. Water drizzled down a granite face in front of me. Ferns grew everywhere. And scarlet columbines. And dozens of this plant, the stream orchid, in peak bloom. Imagine that. Orchids in the desert. It was one of those peak outdoor moments that I’ll remember forever.

Well, the little bog garden looks and feels nothing like that May morning in Saline Valley, but seeing this little orchid will remind me of that encounter every time I see it.

13 thoughts on “getting real”

  1. I think you are right that we grow certain plants—even when we largely favor natives for various good reasons—because they remind us of someone or someplace we love. And that makes the garden a more interesting and more personal place. Everything doesn’t have to fit in perfectly for it to be “right.”

  2. You’re absolutely right, James. Who wouldn’t want to bring into their garden a reminder of something they stumbled across while traversing the wilds that would recreate great memories of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Although not literally, of course, unless you happen to have a collecting permit. I’ve stubbornly tried to grow several montane/alpine plants that I’ve encountered in the Eastern Sierras in my own garden, but with zero success (Newberry’s Penstemon, Alpine Gentian, Western Monkshood, and Western Blue Flag). I should have known better, but stubbornly persisted cuz I just HAD to bring the Eastern Sierras down into the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. Needless to say, Mother Nature wins every time.

    I’m very interested in how you put together your bog garden (maybe you’ve posted about it before?). I’ve had this idea in my head for awhile now about making my own mini version of a vernal pool. Would probably be similar to bog garden construction (with a liner to prevent drainage), and then let it fill up with the winter rains and dry out with the summer heat. But perhaps it’s easier said than done.

  3. Great story. I just saw a stream orchid for the first time in a friend’s garden. Not the most impressive flower, but orchids always have something bizarrely fascinating about them. There are many plants I like because of my first impression of them. Nothing wrong with that.

  4. Pam, as impressed as I am by stunningly designed gardens I really appreciate gardens that read a bit like an autobiography and give you a sense that somebody interesting lives there.

    EE, thank you! I really love a space that lives in time, in memories, as much as it does in the present.

    Arleen, I can’t blame you for trying to grow these beauties. Unless a curious person like you tries, how will the rest of us know if one of them might actually have a broad tolerance for conditions and actually thrive in unexpected places? My own current project is Ceanothus leucodermis, which really shouldn’t like it here near the coast, but I have two small plants still alive. Thanks for asking about the bog gardens. I’ve been meaning to do a post on them, and I hope to soon.

    Ruth, congrats on your flytrap flowers. I’ve read that they’re not the easiest carnivores to grow and I’ve been too timid to try them yet. Obviously you’re doing something right!

    Brad, I was thrilled when I spotted my first wild orchid in my county a couple decades ago. The flowers were about the size of grains of rice and about as spectacular, but I was thrilled with any orchid sighting at all here in the dry non-tropics.

  5. I am often surprised to see background noise in my photos…somehow my brain and eyeballs do their own editing and I see the scene as I wish it to be. Those flower stalks are so magnificent that your “junk” fades from sight, and I’ll bet I wouldn’t have noticed it had you not mentioned it.

  6. Wow, it must be a pretty cool sight to see those things in the wild like that! Definitley looks like it’d have the potential to be invasive though.

  7. What a captivating story! We live for moments like that, don’t we? Took a day trip from 168 to basically the middle of the valley (when the low growing cacti turned into Joshua trees we went a little farther and then turned back) and the magic of that experience still sticks.

  8. Ricki, sometimes with my photos I worry that I’m like the guy who listed a shiny teapot on eBay and took the photo while he was naked. By showing the garden and not paying enough attention to the backgrounds I worry that I’m exposing things I shouldn’t be!

    Wendy, I’d love to visit Tenerife in early summer to see these plants in their natural habitat. I think I’d remember that sight for decades.

    CM, it’s almost 20 years later and the memory still feels fresh.

    Christine, your story has that great element of surprise built in to the experience, going from one habitat into another so stunningly different. Even if you know what’s ahead the transitions can still be revelations, don’t you think?

  9. Hiya James,
    How’s about a washing line and a large sheet?
    You may even go so far as to paint a basic seascape on it. Take your studio out-of-doors.

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