High Ground 13

Wayne Winterrowd and Joe Eck ask, What happened to my color scheme?

THE PERENNIAL GARDEN at North Hill began over a quarter century ago (make that 25-plus, which sounds less mortal) as a riot of color. It recalled the joke about the bride who wore “something borrowed, something blue … something pink, purple, yellow, orange, red….” But that bride may still have looked very pretty, and we thought our garden very fine. We were young gardeners then (relatively), and its youthful exuberance perfectly matched our own high spirits. We especially liked the way the early-summer colors of mauve and blue and pink gave way to orange and yellow and red as summer heated up. In autumn, they all mixed, for, in Vermont at least, the tawny scarlet and pumpkin gold of the woods makes the purples and pinks of the late asters and aconites positively vibrate. Autumn knows no clashes.

We were quite vain of this seasonal finesse. But if you plant any garden randomly with perennials, you end up with similarly suave results. Nature moves (mostly) from cool to hot. And though we knew we were in a vital partnership with her, and we the junior partners, we still took all the praise for this seasonal progression. For, generally, gardeners take all the credit for nature’s successes, just as they lay all the blame on her for their failures. Especially when they are young at their craft. She’s “mother” nature, after all.

For some years we continued in this way, and as we remember, the garden was not only beautiful but orderly, with drifts and “rhythm” plants and careful height management. We had all sorts of rules, which we applied rigorously to our own garden and preached to others. And when we look at the effect in old photographs and slides, we are far from sorry we did it that way in the beginning. It was a pretty garden.

But gardeners are restless people, always tampering with a good thing. So, loving the cool promise of early summer, we wondered whether we could prolong it into the dog days. We moved with a sort of inevitability toward pink and mauve and blue and purple, silver, and white, and we achieved a sort of opalescence throughout the season. But then somehow, we found ourselves in an even tighter orbit, of purple only. Why? Well, partly for the sheer sake of change. For no matter how beautiful a garden seems, the gardener must continue to experiment. But beyond that, color preferences seem keyed to one’s own development, one’s own place in life’s cycle, and we would say that purple suits our natures now, just as our initial, thrilling color mixes suited the teenagers—well, practically—that we were. So we have ended up with a Purple Garden, and garden visitors marvel at our restraint. Bear in mind, though, that purple is not a single color, any more than is white. No two purples are quite alike. One cannot say that, exactly, about yellow.

Oddly, also, somewhere along the way, we abandoned our diagrammatical planting schemes in favor of a much more spontaneous approach, in which tall plants push forward, smaller ones drift back, and self-seeders, such as Papaver somniferum ‘Lauren’s Grape’ or Nigella damascena, pop up everywhere. I suppose we simply got bored by the effort of keeping everything in its proper place. Or to put it another way, we outgrew our childish legalism. And the idea of purple was in any case discipline enough.

We did not set out to occupy the hoity-toity of gardening any more, we believe, than did Vita Sackville-West when she dreamed up her famous White Garden at Sissinghurst. And we are as lucky as she in possessing a quite large garden. So recently we have begun to develop a two-acre meadow as a yellow garden. Goldenrods were there, and to them we have added silphiums and heleniums and all the other glorious big yellow daisies of late summer. A shimmering, butter-yellow locust (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’) presides over the whole, which may be described as about as subtle as a yellow taxicab. It seems youthful to us, naive, even childlike, with all the planned wildness children love. Perhaps it will be the garden for our dotage. H

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