The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Yesterday I went on a wonderful walking tour of the “oldest suburb” of Fredericksburg, Va. The Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, along with Hallowed Ground Tours, hosts tours every Saturday of the historic downtown area, and then on a monthly basis hosts a tour of one of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The FAMCC newsletter described yesterday’s tour: “Established as Fredericksburg’s ‘First Suburb’ in the 1760s by Roger Dixon, Lower Caroline Street residences and homes are some of the City’s oldest and most historic.  Closely connected with the riverfront activities one block away, the neighborhood has stories of merchants, future presidents, and abolition. From its 18th-century founding, to a community of Patriots, to its growth as one of Fredericksburg’s most prosperous and elegant neighborhoods, this tour will explore the history and architecture of one of America’s classic streetscapes.”

It was a fascinating tour, and our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the area. I had no idea I regularly walked my dog past a house where James Monroe once lived, and I’d never stopped to study the architectural details of the house that bears its date of construction – 1764 – proudly painted near its roof line. As our guide shared stories of residents of yore, I could almost picture the windows opening to another time.

But what does this have to do with gardening? Well, although I am an avid history buff, I must admit that I was in part motivated to participate in the tour because of my desire to stare unabashedly at some of the most beautiful gardens in town. These are houses that have been here several hundred years and, although the landscaping has obviously changed over decades, these residents have had some time to get it right.

And boy did my visit pay off (although I regret to say I didn’t take a single photo – you’ll have to plan your own visit!). Hydrangeas were in full bloom and lilies were finally opening. Everything was on perfect display, set to inspire passersby into a swoon from sweet scents (although any “swooning” would more likely have been because summer officially started yesterday with a thermometer-shattering fury). My husband, as usual, was drawn to gardens hidden behind stone walls, with lush hydrangeas bordering crushed shell paths; the sight of a stone wall alone is enough to remind him of happy childhood visits to the small seaside town in France where his grandparents lived.

For my part, I began to realize I was most frequently drawn to one style in particular, a style I’ve decided to call “ordered chaos.” The perfectly trimmed horseshoe-shaped hedges were too fussy, the wild roses climbing where they would a bit too messy. Time and again I returned to the yards that featured neat circles of monkey (or mondo) grass surrounding wildly explosive lilies and astilbe. The most successful (in my opinion) orderly gardens were also most interesting because the potential for monotony was always broken up by one unique detail – an unusual rose, a small gurgling fountain, a pretty stone.

It was rather surprising to learn after all this time that, while I don’t mind getting messy, I like my resulting gardens neat. I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been more of a “this spot looks good, let’s shove this one here and then find another hole for the next plant” kind of gardener. Now that I’m starting to plan more long-term projects, in a house I plan to live in for more than another year or two, I’m more interested in creating borders that will stand through the winter months, and coloring within those lines.

The perfect case in point would be a relatively new bed in the front of the house. First, a look at the house when we first moved in:

It’s okay. Nothing too exciting, but at least there’s something going on out front. I yanked out those azaleas almost right away and moved them to another part of the yard. Nothing against azaleas, I was just looking for something a little darker in color to complement the holly, and with a more regular shape.

This picture taken this morning shows a little bit of where I’m going. Not quite there yet, but I’ve got nandinas adding some height at regular intervals, inkberry hollies that some day will grow into a regular round shape, sad little golden barberries that (if they make it through the summer; they’re a new addition) will pick up the golden colors in the new nandina leaves and add some visual interest, and my beloved candytufts filling up the bottom with their cheery white blooms and rich texture. It’s getting there.

On the other side of the front step is take one at a new addition, and it’s this I’m aiming to rein in:

I love this little plot. It makes me grin every time I walk up to my front door because of all the color. But it is a mess. It’s changed direction three times, and painfully shows it. I’ve managed to hide most of the disaster under a crush of petunias and million bells, but I know come fall I’ll be stuck with a lopsided array of too-tall roses (how can I prune something that won’t stop blooming?!) and a single oddly pruned shrub.

This daylily greets me every morning with a smile.

I have ideas. And after this weekend’s tour, I know that I’m on the right track. A neat ring of dwarf boxwoods bordered by roses, holding in the spray of petunia and purple-blooming lemon balm. Ordered chaos. That grass dipping into the bed is an eyesore; I’m looking at border ideas that will add definition and improve edging. That non-blooming lily is going to move to a side bed where she’ll be much happier…although I think that bloomer by the front post is going to stay. It’s just too much of a pleasure to have a lily sitting by the newel post waiting to shake my hand when I come out in the morning. One surprising detail, I learned, can make a bed.

I recall my high school English teacher telling our class, in the context of teaching Shakespeare, that good writers borrow while the great writers steal. The only thing more exciting than stealing ideas from some truly great gardens is borrowing some plants from them. In this case, my mom might as well leave a shovel next to her half-hidden dwarf boxwoods as I’m just about ready to give them center stage.

Stay tuned for an update  in the near future on this bed. And in the meantime, take a walk through your neighborhood and see how your neighbors are making creative use of the same soil and shade that you have in your yard.

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One response to “The Sincerest Form of Flattery

  1. Pingback: Happy Independence Day! | Blooming Oasis

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