Round Robin: Garden Sing-A-Long

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DENVER, Colorado—I’m slightly relieved by the close of the active gardening season. This summer, I felt like a tour guide. The feeling was partly my own fault as I opened my garden for several charities. The largest tour was to benefit our local PBS station. Seven hundred people in the garden in one afternoon was a little overwhelming. The visitors were extremely courteous and respectful of the plants, I must say, but at times I had to go inside and chill out. I considered having a good belt of scotch but decided against it. I probably would have started a group sing-along.

At one point, I was surrounded by a solid circle of bodies, all with pads and pens in their hands and questions on their lips. It flashed through my mind that President Clinton has to endure this every day, although he doesn’t have to remember the Latin name of every single plant in his garden, where he got it, and how to propagate it. “Let’s all join hands,” I wanted to say, “and do a rousing chorus of ‘Kumbaya’.”

One of the biggest stars in the garden last summer was Knautia macedonica. Try spelling that out loud a couple of hundred times in one afternoon. This plant (it has no common name to my knowledge) resembles a scabiosa in most respects, except that its pincushion flowers are beet red. It bloomed all summer, and it’s a showstopper, especially with a skirt of deep red carnations and a Blackie sweet potato twining through. Behind the knautia bloomed spikes of purple monkshood and red orach (Atriplex hortensis ‘Rubra’), which has dark maroon leaves. Lest anyone accuse me of restraint, I had also planted the purple-leaf form of garden sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’) with this grouping. It takes a while to explain all this, since some of these plants are not well known. It’s part of being a good tour guide, but it wears me out.

I hosted various other tours, all small by comparison, during the course of the season. I have to be on my toes because I’m inevitably asked the name of some obscure rarity. These tours are usually fun, and because they’re scheduled ahead of time, I can make sure I’ve shaved and brushed my teeth beforehand.

It’s the drop-in visitors who are bothersome. I can forgive friends but not strangers. Once, the doorbell woke me from a nap. By the time I got downstairs, there were two women in the backyard snapping away with their instant cameras. It’s times like that when I wish I had an automatic sprinkler system that could be activated from inside the house.

One of my neighbors across the street is a nun. She’s a lovely person, always welcome in the garden, but sometimes—when she drops in unexpectedly—she scares me. Several times I’ve been on the patio early in the morning in my pajamas when she’s come around the corner of the house behind me and said, “I’m not here.” This can get enough adrenaline flowing that I don’t need a cup of tea to wake up.

I’ve taken to calling my friend Lauren Springer “Greta”. She’s the Garbo of gardening: she wants to be left alone. Her truly fabulous garden is in a small town, and its location leaked out when she wrote a book. Now Denver gardeners make pilgrimages to it. She is inundated with the uninvited.

A caller demanding a tour was surprised when Lauren said no. “But since you wrote your gardening book,” the stranger argued, “you have to expect the public will want to see your garden.” Does Julia Child have to put up with people peeking into her kitchen? Do strangers ring Stephen King’s bell and ask to poke around his belfry?

Lauren’s making plans to move to a remote area in the foothills. I hope she’s prepared for the helicopter tours.