The Spiritual Gardener: Pontifex Maximus

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It is just getting light today at 6 a.m., cool and dark and wet after last night’s hard rain.  My wife and the kids are in Colorado and I am up early with Cosimo, having gone to bed early in an effort to shake off the cold that kept me home yesterday, feeling woozy and miserable with a head like a watermelon and enough antihistamine in me to make me feel like a meth addict.

I just had to get out into the garden, and get some exercise and fresh air to clear my head. I cut down all the dead iris flower stalks (finally, in August, the shame of it!), likewise the day lilies and the hostas, so the garden looks a lot less unkempt than formerly.

Hummingbirds, and I, can’t get enough of red flowers in the garden (pictured above) and they can make the hot mid-summer garden look very attractive, as with these daylilies, monarda and echinacea.

The rose mallows are looking great, just about the only thing in the garden that is, and their enormous clear white hibiscus blossoms look so fresh and cool in the hot garden, especially against the red hot pokers of the cannas, which are also I should say in fairness to them, going quite strong. Of course, the hotter and more humid it is, the more they like it.

I also weeded out our ratty-looking street gutter with a knife. Our city does a poor job of street sweeping up all the winter sand, and then of course weeds thrive in the lovely damp sand and luxuriously fill in all the cracks. Must I even weed the city streets? Good grief, it is difficult to have high standards in these troubled times. My mother says it’s really very simple, darling, you just lower your standards like everyone else has to. But I can’t bring myself to that yet.

I washed out the patio fountain and put it on bricks to raise it above the level of the flourishing impatiens that were quietly overwhelming it. Also, trimmed and trained the wisteria and hung a string of blue lights, which our nephew gave us, in the patio dogwood. My mind is a bit of a grasshopper in the garden today, so I must hop around a bit. The roses are in their second rally; perhaps the heat killed the black spot or fungus or whatever was plaguing them because I will not hose them down with chemicals. Most have now re-clothed themselves decently with leaves, and a few are even blooming, preparatory to a strong September flourish.

I also pulled out all the helianthus in the oval bed; they never did well there in partial shade and only made the whole bed look uncared-for, like impecunious and dowdy old age pensioners lowering the chic tone of the esplanade at Nice.  I have a plan forming in my brain to redesign that area (the oval bed, not the esplanade at Nice) with things that do well in shade and thus stop torturing sun-loving plants there so mindlessly.  Duh, it only takes me eight summers to get the point at last.


I plan to put a baby holly, a small yew and a tiny ponderosa, which I am rescuing from places in the hedgerow where they will never have enough room when they are bigger, in the back of the oval bed.  Then three silver buffalo berries (already on order from a nursery supply company in New Mexico) for their gray foliage to contrast against the future backing wall of dark green.  Then some light blue buddleias and, in front and on on the house side, hydrangeas with white roses to fill in.  I need to move the roses from back by the arch bed, where they are languishing in far too much shade.  Anyway, that is the idea – black green and gray in back, with white and cool light blues in front.  A soothing, cooling palette.  Most of this will happen in dormancy, early next spring I guess.

And speaking of soothing, cooling palettes, look how the fresh white of an iceberg rose cools down the over-heated garden.

Last weekend while my wife and daughter were in Florida, my son and I tackled a long-planned project.  One of the few things I was really bitter about leaving in my last garden in the West was a charming redwood footbridge I made to cross the (usually) dry streambed (arroyos they are called there) in front of our house.  So, shortly before we moved, I ordered a load of redwood and sawed it all to make a new, duplicate bridge, and then the wood was moved out to New Jersey with the rest of our belongings.  The sawn lumber has been sitting in the basement until we hauled it out last week, brushed off the cobwebs, assembled it and installed it in the far corner of the yard.

How great it looks there, all the fresh pink redwood with its finial ornaments, set off against the dark green of the distant garden.  And though is it is bridge to nowhere, it provides a lovely visual focal point in the garden and suggests there is a lovely water feature there that I do not have to pay for or care for, because it is an illusion entirely.  It proves once more that objects in the distance in a garden give the garden depth and direct the eye in interesting ways.  Without the ornament, the back garden was just a vast green bowl but now it seems more organized, interesting and purposeful.  Large design lessons in there.


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.