Yankees’ gardens can beat us

Yankees’ gardens can beat us

Posted: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 9:25 pm
By: By JIMMY WILLIAMS Special to The Messenger

More than once I have noted that the level of ornamental garden appreciation as an art form here in redneck country is some several light years behind other parts of the nation. It’s not our fault. After all, while aristocrats in Philadelphia and Newport, for instance, were collecting silver, building mansions and planting (correction: having their gardeners plant) the latest in European introductions, our ancestors were fighting Cherokees and living in log huts. So, we started out several furlongs behind the leaders, and there we remain. Even Midwest gardeners, on average, exhibit more finesse and artistry in their gardens than we do. Note the “we” lest you unfairly accuse me of denigrating your garden. If I am doing any denigrating I am doing it to my own effort as an example. A few weeks ago my assistant and I had occasion to visit several gardens in Peoria, Ill., and Madison, Wis. Well, I had occasion to visit them. My assistant enjoyed reading a book while resting in the shade. At any rate, we were up there visiting friends Ron and Donna Dieter, who run the highly successful Sunnyfield Nursery and Gardens near Galva and Kewanee, Ill. They graciously agreed to spend some time showing us the gardens, four in Peoria and three private home gardens and a botanical garden in Madison. Several observations: The plant repertoire in the private gardens, particularly one in Peoria, where in only seven years the homeowners had planted up an acre or more with such an ebullience that the effect was of a much older garden. The palette included a great percentage of things not seen every day. This was the most expansive garden we visited, with well over an acre under extensive cultivation. Exquisite bluegrass lawns were broken up by island beds, several of which were bermed up to allow drainage for plants that particularly demand it. It was reminiscent of the world famous garden of Adrian Bloom in England. Then there was the garden of Dan Calahan, a tiny (compared to most gardens here) city plot almost in the inner part of Peoria, which, incidentally is sited in a bucolic setting of riverside and large trees, not at all what one would expect in “prairie land.” Dan’s garden surrounds a century-old Tudor revival house of great charm, half timbered and stuccoed. Dan pointed out that the whiskey barons who built many such houses in Peoria hired only builders who knew the secret of laying on stucco that would stand the area’s harsh winter weather. There was not a semblance of even a hairline crack in the original stucco. The back garden, which seemed no more than 50 feet wide and about as deep, was dominated by an eye-catcher of a fountain, the water burbling up through a couple of old stone capitals rescued from demolished buildings. Other architectural artifacts and relics were fitted into a winding path through deep shade so adeptly there was an ambience that can only be described as a high form of gardening art. Just off a terrace at the back of the shaded house was a pergola supported by five or so well-constructed columns which were square, not the more common round form. It seems to me the square construction offers a bit less formality and befits a gardenesque setting. All the gardens we visited were hosted by the owners, in most cases one and the same person as the gardener. They, without exception, exhibited plant expertise and cultural skill, not to speak of the artful placing of plant combinations that served to lift the gardens into the realm of art. In Madison we visited three private gardens and the public Olbrich Botanical Garden, where genial Jeff Epping, the garden’s director of horticulture, gave us the grand tour. The garden is young, as these things go. You would never know it, the growth is so lush. An allee of golden catalpa and sumac trees has almost grown together over a wide walk, creating a shady tunnel. I had visited the garden a few years ago, but a rose garden has been added in the meantime, the finest one I have ever seen. What makes it so special is that it is a true garden, not just a collection of roses. The roses, mostly shrubs and climbers, are woven into a tapestry of other supporting plants. Rosarian purists, Jeff said, have complained of the supporting cast. Apparently they believe a rose garden should be only of gawky hybrid tea and floribunda bushes which, when out of bloom, leave only the hideous framework upon which the admittedly superb blossoms are borne. Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column. Published in The Messenger 7.15.08

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