Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Off With Their Heads!

"I’ve been dickering with garden trickery ever since my husband sprayed the crabgrass with weed killer and turned my little patch of paradise prairie-brown just in time for a dinner party. “Well,” he grumped,“ How was I to know this was all a bunch of weeds?” To compensate, I hung a chandelier from a tree branch and spray painted the brittle mess green. It was a little crunchy, but between the candlelight and a few bottles of wine, the guests never knew the difference."

And so began my first article for the Washington Post and my realization that what delights in the garden needn't be flowers. In fact, when the flowers keel over, sometimes the real fun begins.

Now, back to the candlelight, the wine, and the crunchy garden....

A Fan of Faux Flowers
For The Washington Post Home Section
August 20, 1998


Spray painted grass, less than tasteful you snort? Consider garden shows, those heralds of spring, those triumphs of make-believe. In my garden, and no doubt yours, by the time the roses peak, all that’s left of the daffodils is a bunch of soggy leaves. Ah, but at the shows, the daffodils wave their pretty heads amid stands of hollyhock, the crocus have gone mad, and fall’s chrysanthemums are at their peak. It makes me leafy green with envy, even knowing it’s all the work of garden magicians. All I’m doing is borrowing a leaf from the showmen, and planting an illusion.

Enter my late-summer garden and the iris still bloom by the pond. Six-foot lily stems which should be stretching their boring green necks to the sun are capped with huge orange blossoms. The astilbe which, theoretically peaked in June, is still waving hot pink fronds, and for dinner parties, clumps of pastel tulips magically appear. There’s a lot less here than meets the eye. The lilies are silk as are the iris, the tulips are fresh from the hothouse, and the astilbe is…. spray painted. Does it fool anyone? It fools everyone. It even fools me. Whenever I remind myself to remember how this masterpiece was created, I get a surrealistic giggle.

Look, once spring’s kaput, so is my garden. By July, the sun is struggling through the branches of the Apricot tree that shades three quarters of my little plot, and the mountainous wisteria on the carriage house roof takes care of the rest. I get direct rays for maybe two hours a day in any one spot. Oh, the impatiens and begonias are busy enough, and the hosta seems to be doing well, but now most of my garden time is spent battling black spot and hacking back vines.

You’ll pardon me, but busying myself with a lot of maintenance so I can sit around appreciating various leaf textures and subtle shades of green is not my idea of enjoying a summer garden. Nor do I much care for squinting at the miserly little blooms of shade dwellers. If I can’t have natural razzle dazzle, I’m happy to fake it. In a city where illusion is often all, so be it in the garden as well. Believe me, I’m not the only one.

Though garden designer Mark Holler says, “my customers would be appalled if I showed up with a can of spray paint and went after the astilbe,” he agrees that such effects can be remarkably realistic, never mind fun. Holler mentions a man he saw early one morning on elegant East Capitol Street. The guy sneaked out the door with a can of spray paint in hand and greened up the pair of dead boxwood that flank his front door. The plant man said if he hadn’t seen it, he wouldn’t have known the difference.

Oehme and van Sweden, the firm famous for their use of native plants and massed grasses, doesn’t resort to tricks either. But, Eric Groft, a landscape architect with the firm, knows of one customer who paints her grasses for the winter. Each clump’s a different shade, and spots ignite them in the evening. Groft sent me scurrying for a word with the National Park Service when he said that they’re known to spray paint browned yews and dye the water in many of our reflecting pools.

“Untrue!” says Park Service spokesman Rob DeFeo about the yews, then quickly follows up his flat-out denial with the following little tap dance, “I can’t verify it, and it’s certainly not policy, but it wouldn’t surprise me.” For the record, DeFeo admits that they do dye the weed killer that’s used to clear areas for new plantings. Coloring the stuff lets them see where they’ve sprayed, and when the grass dies it doesn’t look so bad. DeFeo also admits that they tint the water in some ponds blue-black. The dark color “reflects the sunlight and makes the water look deeper.” He adds that it also hides the algae, and trash tossed in by thoughtless pedestrians.

By the way, Defeo’s the man who reminded me that garden shows are pure fantasy, and turned me on to the tulip trick. He says he’s quick to jazz up his late summer spread with store bought blooms on special eveningsthe more out of season the better. .

JK Homer, garden and floral designer, and owner of Capitol Hill’s Through the Grapevine, is not in the least bashful about garden wizardry. Culling accessories from his wee shop crammed full of fantastic lawn furniture, pots and garden ornaments, he makes momentary magic in some of this town’s barest spaces. For parties he’ll bower a spent rose bush with new blooms, line garden paths with out-of-season blossoms, build extraordinary arrangements of flowers and fruits, and let an abundance of candles enhance the fantasy. He loves doing it, and the guests love seeing it.

My artist friend Jeannie employs several neat tricks. The stone walls of her garden are covered with ivy and hung with several massively- framed thrift shop mirrors, cleverly placed to endlessly reflect the flowers and light. Her faux brick walk is another enviable flight of fantasy. She cut a quick cardboard template and stenciled the concrete with mahogany stain. The cracks and heaves in the old path only add to the effect. Oh, and then there’s that welter of phone lines that crisscross the yard. These are strewn with strands of moss, giving the whole an air of Savannah.

As for me, I’ve added a new trick this year. I’ve buried my little white Christmas lights in the ground cover. It’s as if hundreds of fireflies have come to join the party.

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