Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A post in which Russell Page goes to Keukenhof, and by which Newton is elevated above his station

Today, a grab-bag post, which all ties together at the end

Part 1: Russell Page
Russell Page was one of those odd Englishmen, a "serious amateur." He accepted garden design commissions from royalty and plebes, and designed well-thought-of gardens in a mass-planting sort of way. In his famous book "The Education of a Gardener," he talks about what his own garden would look like, if he ever had one.  To my recollection, one fantasy feature would be apple trees, underplanted with spring bulbs.  Whether I correctly remember this passage or no, this image has stuck with me through all the twenty or more years since I read the book.

Part 2: Keukenhof Gardens
Keukenhof gardens in Holland is a real Dutch phenomena--a calculated mix of gardening prowess and serious commercialism. Each serious bulb grower in the land gets a little plot to show off the best of their best.  These little plots are all crammed together in the remains of a once-elegant parkland, along with rented swans and trays of rollmops.  The sound-track is an ever-running steam calliope by the main gate, the smell-track is flowers mingled with innumerable tiny pancakes frying, the population is busloads and trainloads of tourists.  Yet rising, nay, soaring above these potentially fatal annoyances, Keukenhof Gardens stand as a mecca for bulb lovers--millions upon millions of bulbs in a perfection unearthly to behold

One of the unifying features of the garden, a feature which draws together its disparate little plots, is an unbelievable number of grape hyacinths planted  into a "river" between the trees of an allée which runs lengthwise down one axis of the garden--not in the actual allée itself, but at the tail end of it, where it runs off into a sort of naturalistic woods.  The deep purple river twisting through the dappled shade is one of the most enchanting things I ever saw.

Part 3: Newton, the worthless apple tree
In my garden stands an old, gnarled, worthless apple tree.  Its main use in life has not been to provide apples, no, for these, though plentiful, are mealy and bruise easily.  Rather, its purpose has been to irk--to pelt the unwary passing below with apples in all stages, from tiny springtime green to autumnal wasp-infested brown--we call the tree "Newton" for this reason. Worse yet, Newton harbors mosquitoes, which congregate in unholy numbers under his broad, moist, shady canopy. Fortunately for Newton's continued existence, he is just the sort of decayed tree beloved of chickadees and other small cavity-dwelling birds, thus utterly refuting all arguments of the gardener eying him with malice, saw in hand.  Yet, despite his sacrosanct nature, his no-go domination has become unbearable.

Last fall, determination hardened.  I conceived the idea of cutting out those of his sound branches the old fellow could spare, while preserving nearly all of his decayed, yet nest-bearing limbs.  The idea was to lighten up the canopy, allow sun and wind through to dispel the mosquitoes and permit creation of a planting bed.

(As an aside, never were there more confused workers than the tree guys called in to do the work. By training and inclination, they wanted to cut out the decayed wood and save the sound limbs. However, being the one with the checkbook, and being on hand to point and insist, it got done the way I thought it ought--sound limbs out, rotten branches kept!)

Part 4: Newton (conceptually, at least) is elevated far above his station
Inspired by Page, the vision was to plant spring bulbs in the newly-made bed around Newton's trunk. Yet, a bunch of random bulbs under so large a hulk as Newton? An absurd spectacle! Page undoubtedly had in mind charming young trees, in size-proportion to their underplantings, yet tulips the size of bushes would be needed to compete with Newton. Then it came to me: not just clumps of bulbs, but how about a little grape hyacinth river of my very own, to wind between them?

So, profiting from our late, beautiful autumn last year, and armed with boxes and bags of half-off bulbs from the big-box store, I planted a river and some clumps while lofty thoughts of Page and Keukenhoff danced in my head. The bobcat operator and his helpers, working in a different part of the garden, worked hard to suppress their mirth at the spectacle of me, an ungainly middle-aged spider, crawling under an backward-pruned tree, raising an army of popsicle sticks by which to mark the location of this future cut-rate masterpiece.

And do you know? As absurd as the whole thing really was--this melding of worthless apple tree and fine gardening and sale-price bulbs--it worked!  See for yourself...


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