Beautiful Despite Flaws, 5-24-16

This is a summary of today’s post.

  • A PERFECT GIFT IDEA FOR FATHERS’ DAY! Check out our first book, The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty by clicking here or pasting www.TheGardenInterior.com/Book into your browser.
  • Today we are reflecting that all beauty is flawed, and this is also true of garden beauty. Just think of the serious flaws in beauties such as roses, irises, orchids, lilacs, and even peonies. All have their strong and weak points, as with people. And as an added bonus today, we give our recipe for a really Spring Harvest Salad, a bumper crop of fresh green vegetables, with bacon, fried onions, and a lively vinaigrette dressing. You’ll love it!
  • Also, please check out the new photos posted in “Weekly Garden Photos” (button on right), for some bright new images of the spring garden as we move further into May.
  • And in the “Book Reviews” section (button on right), we are reviewing Green Metropolis, by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. This lovely book tells the story of six of the fantastic parks and open spaces of New York City, and should be read by anyone who loves the parks where they live or who thinks parks and open spaces in general are a good thing.
  • Meanwhile, I am also  reminiscing about a visit to the fabulous Huntington Library and Garden in San Marino California, and how I brought a huge bone across the country from chic Rodeo Drive for Cosimo, the Assistant Gardener.  Check it out, under the caption  “Personal Snapshot: Rodeo Drive Dog Bone” (button on right).

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Most Hollywood movies are about beautiful people with some serious flaws they have to either overcome or be undone by. As in Hollywood, so it is in my garden; there is so much beauty, but all beauty is flawed, no creature is perfect, each has its own drawbacks and problems. Surely you have noticed this?

Even though there is no such thing as a perfect flower, every gardener has favorites. I would be very hard-pressed to name a single variety as my overall favorite, just as I would be hard-pressed to name one favorite book, piece of music or superlative food. Most people would have roses, tulips, dahlias and irises on their short lists, but gardeners are funny and some are nuts for grasses, native species, even zinnias and marigolds, for heaven’s sake. Honestly, the zeal of some people for native species is sometimes rather alarming. They speak as if it is downright immoral to wish to grow something that may have come from somewhere else. I bow to the principle that we should honor what grows naturally where we live, but what a boring thing gardening would be if we were to limit ourselves to that. And our gardens would of course be full of weeds and other weed-like plants. Awful.

All garden beauty is flawed, even in fabulous gardens such as Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C., where  plants must constantly be replaced to keep the gardens looking so perfect.

All garden beauty is flawed, even in fabulous gardens such as Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C., where plants must constantly be replaced to keep the gardens looking so perfect.

And the didactic edge in people’s voices when they talk about natives can be rather alarming, have you noticed this? You have the feeling you are about to be drafted into their moral army to proselytize the Congo. Geologists tell us that most of our continents were fused together at one time in one great mass, with common plant species—this is certainly true of Africa, North and South America, Australia and Antarctica—so to suggest that now for some reason we all have to live and garden in our own botanical silos and resist the temptation of a broader palette of life and experience and world history…Well, to me that sounds absurd and smacks of bossiness, just the thing to put the stubborn gardener’s back up.

"A rose, for example...is notoriously greedy for nutrients, hogs the best sunny spaces in the garden, is very prone to pests and disease, and is covered in cruel thorns.

“A rose, for example…is notoriously greedy for nutrients, hogs the best sunny spaces in the garden, is very prone to pests and disease, and is covered in cruel thorns.”

But as I was saying, all flowers have their strong points and their flaws, as every gardener well knows, and learning to love them despite their flaws and to make allowances for their shortcomings is actually pretty good training for coping with the people one comes across in a long life. A rose, for example, despite its considerable virtues—gorgeous and copious blooms, wonderful scent, immense variety of color, and varied growing habits, and so on—is notoriously greedy for nutrients, hogs the best sunny spaces in the garden, is very prone to pests and disease, and is covered in cruel thorns.

Iris blooms rarely last longer than a day and many people affect not to like their leaves (a prejudice that I have never suffered from).

Iris blooms rarely last longer than a day and many people affect not to like their leaves (a prejudice that I have never suffered from).

An iris, to give another popular example, can tolerate xeric conditions; has long stalks with often a dozen huge, flamboyant, orchidaceous blooms; comes in a rainbow of amazing colors, each more envy-inducing than the next; is relatively pest-free (though some people have fatal trouble with borers which I, thank God, do not); and has leaves that are gorgeous all the time and add structural interest to the garden, even when the iris is not in flower. And yet some gardeners, proving once again that there is no pleasing some people, incomprehensibly affect to find the irises’ sword leaves ugly. Such folk are unwholesome influences in life and should generally be avoided as much as possible by the steadier sort of gardener.

I guess the iris comes closest to perfection in my mind, partly because of its inherent virtues and partly because I have been planting and enjoying this wonderful creature, man and boy, for oh, say, fifty years or so. But even they have not-inconsiderable faults: their individual blooms are relatively short-lived and every stalk soon has ugly blobs of slimy or shriveled (depending on how wet it has been) faded blooms on it, definitely disfiguring the general effect.

Many orchids are notoriously finnicky and difficult to grow, requiring precise growing conditions that are beyond many of us mere mortals.

Many orchids are notoriously finnicky and difficult to grow, requiring precise growing conditions that are beyond many of us mere mortals.

Orchids are a sealed book to me, as I have never lived in the tropics or been lucky enough to have a greenhouse, so I am painfully ignorant about them. But they strike me as being close to perfection in many ways: their blooms last an absurdly long time, they are extremely interesting to look at, they obviously come in a huge variety of colors and growing habits, and they do not even require soil. And yet, many of them are very difficult to grow and to get to flower. Still, they grow all across the world in the most amazing places. I remember as a boy tramping through the Australian bush, looking for these delightful beasts. They were very tiny there, but not hard to find if you looked down and really concentrated on their modest beauty.

The lilac's ratio of plant material to bloom is all wrong: far too much plant and far too little bloom!

The lilac’s ratio of plant material to bloom is all wrong: far too much plant and far too little bloom!

Lilacs are also a good illustration of my theme, because the virtues and flaws are both so pronounced in them. The blooms are so beautiful, simple, wholesome, traditional, and wonderfully perfumed, but the plant itself is far too large for the small amount of blossom it produces. Weedy natives and xeric flowers, while extremely hardy, are another example of the same flawed principle: a low proportion of bloom to plant material. Even peonies, with all their virtues, have this flaw, plus the drawback of being so top-heavy that they are ruined more years than not by the not-uncommon rains of May. But their flowers are so absurdly gorgeous that we devotees put up with these serious drawbacks for the sake of the occasional May when their magic is at its unspoiled peak and they weave their lifelong spell ever deeper into the tissue of the stuff the gardener is made of.

"I do have a special soft spot for our red peonies, I must admit, despite their being rather gaudy and highly susceptible to being ruined by spring rain showers."

“I do have a special soft spot for our red peonies, I must admit, despite their being rather gaudy and highly susceptible to being ruined by spring rain showers.”

I do have a special soft spot for our red peonies, I must admit, despite their being rather gaudy and highly susceptible to being ruined by spring rain showers. I am pretty sure they are the variety known as ‘Lowell Thomas,’ named for the travel adventurer and news broadcaster of that famous name, who was a boyhood hero of mine. I once, as a student, got to meet him. I was waiting in the outer office of the University of Denver’s great chancellor, Maurice Mitchell, one day on some frippery of student government business, when the door to the chancellor’s office opened and out came the charismatic chancellor and, to my very great amazement, the legendary Lowell Thomas. It was he who popularized the phenomenal exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, and his name is synonymous with news broadcasting. Mitchell introduced me to him and I was, of course, enthralled. So I grow his eponymous flower as a dutiful and happy tribute.

As I was saying, reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of plants makes us mindful and tolerant of the strengths and weaknesses of all our fellow creatures; even people, when we are being especially broad-minded, and possibly even of ourselves, if we are being scrupulously fair and generous. And thinking of the vicissitudes of life in the garden teaches us much about anticipating, accepting, and enduring the vicissitudes of life generally. These last especially, acceptance and endurance, are two of the great teachings of the garden for the gardener, and the gardener would do well to study the example so patiently, so modestly, and so beautifully spread before him by the plants who have chosen to befriend him.

Before I close, I can’t resist giving one recipe with which to capture the bounty of the spring season. We are presently engulfed in green, our eyes are surfeited with it, and of course we rejoice in it. Now is the time to gather up all the fresh green produce you can and make this tasty and exuberantly healthy Spring Harvest Salad.

Spring Harvest Salad

spring harvest salad (2)For the vinaigrette:

8 Tbsp. olive oil

2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar

1 tsp. sugar

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

6 Tbsp. freshly grated parmigiano reggiano

2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

For the salad:

2/3 cup chicken stock, divided

1 clove garlic, finely minced

11-13 oz. fresh baby spinach leaves

1 bunch of asparagus

1 lb. Brussels sprouts

½ cup vinaigrette

1 cup thawed frozen fava or lima beans

1 cup thawed frozen peas

1 large shallot (or 2 smaller ones), sliced as thinly as possible

Searing flour (or regular flour)

1/3 cup olive oil

4 slices bacon

2 Tbsp. chopped chives

Combine the ingredients for the dressing in a jar and shake well to combine. Put aside. Combine half of the stock and all the garlic in a covered saucepan and cook over a medium heat until the garlic is tender. Add the spinach leaves to the pan and cook, tossing occasionally, until it is just tender; do not overcook, a minute is plenty. Remove spinach from the hot pan and put it in the bottom of a large salad dish or platter. Cut off the bottom ends of the asparagus spears if they are woody and then cook the asparagus in the saucepan with the other half of the stock until just tender. Remove the asparagus spears and arrange them on top of the bed of spinach.

Heat oven to 425. Cut the white ends off the Brussels sprouts and split each in half. Throw the halves, including any loose leaves, into a mixing bowl and toss with half the vinaigrette. Place the sprouts on a rimmed baking sheet and roast them until they turn brown and are slightly caramelized, about 25-30 minutes. Then add them to the dish with the spinach and the asparagus.

While the sprouts are cooking, prepare the beans and peas according to the packet instructions. You can of course use fresh peas and beans if you can get them, simmering them in 1-2 cups of water until they are tender. Add the beans and peas to the salad, arranging the vegetables so that some of each can be seen. Pick apart the sliced shallot, into delicate onion rings if possible. Dredge them in the flour to coat them, then fry them in the hot olive oil until they are crispy, and put them aside to drain. Cook the bacon until it is crispy, then drain the bacon as well. Chop the bacon into small bits. Spoon the remaining half of the vinaigrette over the salad, then garnish it with the fried onions, bacon, and chives. The onions and bacon make this a surprisingly hearty-tasting salad, bursting with green goodness.

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