The Spiritual Gardener: Where Perfection Lies

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Late May and early June is the peak iris season. And the gardener asks himself: Is it possible to have too many purple irises? Well, er, yes technically.

But first you would have to have more than I saw recently on a visit to western Colorado, on this otherwise unassuming small farm, where thousands upon thousands of purple irises were massed in a long, broad row, and backed by lovely silver-gray-leaved Russian olives. The conventional view is that Vincent van Gogh was driven mad by a combination of schizophrenia, syphilis and absinthe, but I think otherwise. It was the irises.

I am rousted from my warm bed at 4:30 on this rather chilly morning, plagued by the wakeful worries that disturb the rest of anxious parents, juggling complicated lives, everywhere and at all times. Usually I sleep well; I fall asleep in about thirty seconds and sleep deeply until I awake, refreshed, and what a great gift this is, I fully appreciate.  It’s really my one great talent.

But sometimes life just becomes too much for me as it does for everyone and my mind starts churning through its catalog of problems, and soon I am wide awake against my will, abroad in a world of worry. And then I turn to the garden for consolation. The only higher remedy is a resort to scripture, and that is usually for when I wake in the middle of the night and cannot sleep and it is much too early to get up. Then, I will slip quietly downstairs with my surprised and puzzled canine companion, and read for a while.

It almost does not matter where I begin, and sometimes a random selection is better than an intentional one, but lately the Pauline letters have been absorbing my attention, profitably I hope.  This clears the mind, and centers and restores my spirit.  I find I can usually go back to bed and sleep again after half an hour or perhaps an hour of reading, in the long watches of the night.

But today, the consolation of the garden is enough.

It is almost too early for coffee, but I make some anyway, milky and hot.  I go outside and the sky is just getting light. No one else is awake or outside in our neighborhood and I have the fresh beauty of this June morning all to myself.  I like that.  I go about, looking at everything in its great glory of the year, fresh with the early summer dew.  If Mr. Emerson was right in his famous dictum that “The earth laughs in flowers”, then the earth would seem to be decidedly mirthful just at this time of year.

I collect materials for two bouquets.  One combines the white, cone-shaped florets of hydrangea quercifolia with the white snowballs of its ordinary hydrangea cousin, set off by huge variegated hosta leaves, with their fresh light green and creamy white.

Into this I insert four or five very tall stalks of white hosta flowers that look like large freesias and have the pleasing scent that is very close to gardenia.  It is a beautiful bouquet of white flowers, with a little bit of light green to set it off.

The second is a large batch of freshly cut and just opening lavender flowers of diverse kinds, set off with a lot of apricot-colored daylilies, also just opening.  To these I add a lot of peony leaves for greenery, because I like their fresh, incised, dark green leaves and use them a lot in cut flower arrangements, especially in midsummer and later, when they tend to get a bit bushy and floppy.

Other favorite greenery for cutting and using in bouquets: hornbeam leaves, yew branches, ivy and vinca, holly.

And thinking of leaves, sometimes it seems to me we should think of ourselves more as leaf gardeners, rather than flower gardeners, for a plant’s leaves are with us for six months and more, while their flowers are with us only for a few weeks, normally.

We should think more than we do about the colors of leaves and plants, their textures and shapes and subtleties in the garden and how they bulk and grow and drop their leaves during the season.

In all the really great gardens, it is the structure of the garden and the structure of its main trees and plants that define it and make it remarkable; the flowers are just ephemeral ornaments, really. This is not to minimize them; they are of course wonderful.  But how much more wonderful they are when they adorn orderly structures and organic and inorganic masses that have been carefully thought out and assembled.  That is where perfection lies.

Well short of perfection, but still rather wonderful, is a really satisfying meal to sink your teeth into.

Our family is addicted to Chipotle’s famous burritos, dating to the time the now-ubiquitous burrito food chain was a one-restaurant start-up that began its life in Denver and spread out from there. My son and I are particularly fond of their deliciously fresh burritos and have formed a sort of self-help addiction group.

That is, the group meets regularly to help itself to burritos.  One day, I had made a simple fried rice for dinner and we started talking about how great that would be as the starting point of a burrito, but in an Asian-fusion style. In no time, pots and pans were flying around the kitchen and ingredients were being taken down from the pantry. After a few attempts (even the “mistakes” were pretty darned good), we perfected a fusion burrito that is out of this world.


The Fusion Burrito

The Fusion Burrito: fresh, worldly and delicious!

For the slaw:

1 ½ cups shredded cabbage

1 ½ cups finely chopped bok choy

2 Tbsp. toasted sesame seeds

3 green onions, chopped

½ cup cilantro, chopped

3 Tbsp. sesame oil

1 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar

1 tsp. Szechuan spice

½ tsp. sugar

¼ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. pepper

For the beans:

2 15.55-ounce cans of black beans (preferably Goya)

2 Tbsp. olive oil

4 green onions, chopped

One small to medium jalapeno pepper

½ cup chicken stock

½ cup hoisin sauce

For the rice:

2 ½ cups chicken stock

2 Tbsp. chicken base

1 ½ cups instant brown rice

1 Tbsp. sesame oil

1 Tbsp. olive oil

4 eggs, whisked

2 4-ounce tins of shrimps

One package of large flour tortillas

Make the slaw.  Toss the first five ingredients in a large bowl.  Put the next six ingredients in a small jar and shake to combine.  Combine with the mixed vegetables and toss.  Cover and refrigerate.

Make the beans.  Rinse and drain the beans.  Put the olive oil and green onion in a saucepan.  Add the jalapeno pepper after removing its stem, seeds and white interior pulp, using rubber gloves to avoid getting pepper oil on your fingers.  Cook the onion and pepper until tender.  Add the chicken stock and the beans; cook 10-15 minutes over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, until beans are tender.  Add the hoisin sauce; stir to combine, cover, and put aside.  One taste of this, and you will never want to eat beans without hoisin sauce again.  My son and I taste-tested these beans at the same time and simultaneously exclaimed: “Wow!” then broke up laughing.  Just think to what heights the nation of Mexico, already justly famous for their history, culture and cuisine, might further rise if they could only learn to mix hoisin sauce with their frijoles negros.

Make the rice.  In a medium saucepan, combine the first four ingredients and bring to a boil; cover and cook over a low-medium heat for about 15 minutes, until the stock has been absorbed.  While this is cooking, put the olive oil in a large skillet and add the eggs.  Cook the eggs as a large flat omelet, almost like a crepe, that you flip once.  Transfer the omelet to a cutting board and chop it into small pieces.  Put the chopped egg in a large mixing bowl; add the shrimp.  When the rice is done, add the rice too and combine.

The rice, slaw and beans before final assembly.

Final assembly.  Put 6-8 large flour tortillas in a clean, damp dish towel and microwave on high for about a minute.  Serve the tortillas and the burrito makings – beans, rice and slaw and let guests make their own burritos.  Serve with corn chips and guacamole, the recipes for which we have already given.  Serves 4-6.


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.