The Pleasure of Other People’s Gardens

Published 9:36 am Saturday, May 30, 2015

I worked in my garden just about every day last week. As usual, neighbors stopped to chat and comment on this year’s plants – the new sarracenias, old favorites, such as the peonies, that are particularly pretty this year, and especially the 20 year old gardenias that didn’t survive our very cold winter. Several people wanted to know what happened to the red roses that were all along the front wall last year (gone, never to return).  Another laughed when she found out that I haven’t planted any tomatoes yet and said that she expected her tomatoes to be ready to eat by July 4 and that they would be bigger and better than mine this year. All in good fun. I don’t think that either of us will have tomatoes by July 4, and I may not have any by Labor Day if I don’t plants some soon.

All of this banter was just the typical ongoing conversation that we gardening buddies have just about every day.  And then the conversations took a different twist. Several strangers stopped to ask about the plants with huge green leaves that are always in the front garden.  Oh, yes, the giant elephant ears. They are a tradition, and if I don’t plant them, well, all is not right in the garden or in the neighborhood. The elephant ears are late sprouting this year, and may be dead, apparently not an option. And then the mail man stopped to comment on the peonies and to say that the garden always makes him feel better whenever he walks by. He also wanted to know about those funny looking plants that stayed green all winter and had blooms in late February. (He meant the hellebores.) Would I be willing to share one or two plants with him? Who knew that casual acquaintances and strangers paid so much attention to what I plant or get rid of every year?

I suspect that all serious gardeners, and even those that only grow just one or two things, look at other people’s gardens and mentally collect ideas for their own. I know that I do. When friends planted Malabar spinach in their kitchen garden and made rustic arbors out of saplings, I started thinking about how I could do something similar. When I saw huge planters chock full of banana trees and every other plant imaginable in downtown Farmville last summer, well, I wanted banana trees too.

My most frequent source of inspiration, however, is Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond. It’s only about 30 years old, but looks as if it’s been there far longer. Best of all, there are many different types of gardens and garden rooms to explore. There’s a small new garden not far from the visitors center that has lots of plants with interesting textures. It’s an intimate space with low walls for seating that encourages visitors to sit, rest, and just absorb everything around them.  The bog garden has more varieties of pitcher plants than I ever imagined. And there are amazing planters everywhere. Think petunias are too trite to use in the garden? Not when combined with an unexpected plant or color combination. Think cannas with wildly stripped foliage and deep purple petunias. Have you been considering buying some native plants, but don’t really know what to do with them? Spend an afternoon exploring the woodland garden at Lewis Ginter, and you’ll leave with lots of ideas. Wild ginger makes a fabulous groundcover. So do wild geraniums.

As a public garden, Lewis Ginter is everyone’s garden. The mommie and me stroller brigade shows up every morning and lingers until noon. Seniors amble around the paths and stay for lunch. Painters settle into their favorite spots and try to capture their impressions of the garden. Most are quite happy for people to watch them work.

If you get a chance, take a break from the work in your own garden and visit someone else’s. Check out what your neighbors are doing. Are they planting repeat blooming irises or lots of Virginia natives? Don’t be afraid to ask questions about plants and designs. It’s fun. You’ll be surprised at how refreshed you’ll feel afterwards. Suddenly your own garden will reveal unthought-of of possibilities and seem far less like a never ending chore. If you have time, visit Lewis Ginter too, it’s like visiting several friends’ gardens all in one day. I bet you’ll go home with lots of new ideas and a fresh perspective on your own garden.

In the meantime, I’m off to plant some elephant ears. Lots of elephant ears.