Nature scatters a thousand seeds that one might reach mature planthood, and gardeners are usually wise to copy Mother. It is in willful defiance of this time-tested evolutionary strategy that we break out the Accelerated Propagation System (APS) seed-starting kits with the special wicking properties and coddle seedlings like infants. But then Nature must chuckle and sigh over many of our human follies.
Among the ambitious seeds currently germinating in my APS kits are tomatoes 'San Marzano' and 'Costoluto Genovese,' and eggplant 'Rosa Bianca.' Because I trust the Italians on flavor. For beauty, I turn to the French. I get obsessed with particular French plant variety names, like 'Comtesse de Bouchard,' a pink clematis I've yet to grow, and 'Merveille des Quatre Saisons,' a red-tinged crisphead lettuce I've grown to marvelous effect, though not in all four seasons.
This spring I've welcomed another longtime French fantasy, 'Cécile Brunner.' I'm a tad embarrassed to admit that Cécile is a rose.
YOU SEE, my favorite gardens look natural, hiding the blood, sweat, tears and APS systems (preferably in a darling greenhouse). And I tend to reserve my toil for edible plants, on whom it is more readily justified. I've sneered at rose gardeners with their dainty shears and ridiculous wide-brimmed hats and elbow-length gloves undefiled by dirt. They pour on the water and chemicals in exchange for some garish splotches of yellow and hot pink that are at once snobbish and uncouth, like the ladies off one of those Real Housewives of ________ shows.
Cool gardener that I am, I just scatter a few annual seeds in fall and when I head out for my spring labor at the edibles, there to surprise me is the unassuming beauty of larkspurs, Nigella, cornflowers, Gilia tricolor, and, of course, plenty of California poppies to set off all those blues.
This is myth, however. In reality, not even the poppies can be counted upon, and while Gilia is reputed to readily reseed--it's a California native wildflower, after all--spring invariably finds me searching the ground in vain, and then scouring every nursery for those finely-cut leaves that will bear the pale blue and surprisingly complex flowers which are my favorite.
Still, it was quite a leap from $2.99 for Gilia (better get two, sake of symmetry, so $5.98) to $30 for Cécile. She'll demand investments of others kinds as well. Unlike my hippie annuals, she cares about soil type and moisture, will faint at the sight of aphids, expects timely pruning, and hopes for 5-10-10. (Keep hoping, honey.)
My investment in Cécile marks the end of a long awakening process. Roses came to my attention from a gardening perspective when I read Second Nature some years ago. Imaginary Uncle Michael has quite the hard-on for his fifteenth-century vintage 'Maiden's Blush':
Her petals are more loosely arrayed than Madame Hardy's; less done up, almost unbuttoned. Her petals are larger, too, and they flush with the palest pink toward the center, which itself is elusive, concealed in the multiplication of her labial folds.(Yeah. He used to be so cool. Now it's all gastropolitical sermons all the time. I think to distract him we should change the French name for 'Maiden's Blush' from 'Cuisse de Nymphe' to 'Reveille Mouillé de Boomer Chauve.')
Such written rose reveries are common, and I rolled my eyes, quite sure it couldn't happen to me. I was just not that into roses. My easy stereotypes labeled them arrogant and cantankerous. Such cliched beauty--a dozen, red, in a vase. And even if you got past that, to the old-fashioned fragrant climbers, in classy cream whites and pale pinks...well...their attractiveness was so obvious as to be obnoxious.
ANY MAJOR plant acquisition is preceded by an onanistic research phase. That involves some Google image searches, sure, but--garden nerd that I am--I really get off on the fine print. I was keen to learn, for example, that although Cécile is technically a hybrid tea, she is a venerable sort, not the trashy newfangled kind. (Growing the latter invites the scorn of any garden sophisticate.) And while Céciles do grow in bush form, the plant I purchased is the descendant of a 'climbing sport'--a freak of nature who climbed instead of standing still, from whom climbing progeny were then bred.
By the by, the garden pr0n images that please me most are not flowery; they feature army rows of vegetables, diverse but segregated. Whispy carrot row, rotund cabbage row, beets distinguished by their red leaf midribs, slender onion tops in a hectic mass. A spray of sweet peas climbing behind is the sole permissible ornamental flourish.
Anyway. Pretending amnesia for all my nerdlicious study, I then show up at Berkeley Hort and fake an impulse buy. Makes me feel spontaneous.
I aspire to be more like garden guru Pat Lanza, who finds grapevines on sale one spring, buys three when she hasn't space enough for one, plants them nine inches apart (!), and in so doing remarks, "There's something to be said for my kind of blind faith. I rush in and plant while others stew over the what-ifs." From Lanza I also learned about Dreaming & Planning, which is what gardeners do in winter. (I try to instill this concept in my garden class kids, because in their corner of the world some D & P is warranted.)
Of the two, Planning seems vastly more acceptable. Dreaming overmuch is just gross. Whenever I start in picturing how lovely the fence would look draped in rose blooms, how lovely the warm spring air scented with same, I smack myself and consult the Jew Manual, which decrees that such wistfulness be swiftly undercut by gloomy ruminations and self-deprecatory quips.
I PLANTED the rose in what was a sizable wooden container and now passes as a mini cylindrical raised bed. Before its bottom rotted, it contained, for several seemingly successful years, my dwarf Braeburn apple, a plant acquired amid a similar frenzy of earnest research mixed with blind hopes (albeit at a more innocent point in my gardening career), and a plant which, despite my sincere devotions and because of my myriad mistakes, as they say 'failed to thrive.' It did bloom beautifully, and gave me some apples before its decline. But I let the little tree languish, probably for too long.
Cécile will probably perish within weeks herself, says the inner Eeyore. Barring that, she may prove to be a pain in the ass. But then again: ease of cultivation is not a recommendation in and of itself. There are as many easy to grow plants as there are thirsty dudes in the city of Oakland. Doesn't mean you want them seeding in your yard. If you want an easy plant, I've got ten thousand oxalis bulbs for you, free of charge.
While planting I was viscerally reminded that roses also, famously, have thorns. This is quite hostile. One gets resentful, always having to wear those elbow-length gloves. But thorns served their evolutionary purpose, before we humans became the natural selector protectors, and they ought to persist. A rose de-thorned would be wrong. The thorns remind us about something, likely to do with beauty and pain. Seeking the one, encountering the other.
Thus far Cécile is contemptuous, or at best inscrutable. My Italian tomatoes are but spindly sprouts. The winter peas have been chewed down by some creature, probably one whom I feed expensive kibbles. The nurseries have no Gilia. I've done a lot of renovations, and it looks bare. But spring is come and the hens are laying and we can all photosynthesize again. One ought to be optimistic, even if such is not justified by the facts on the ground.