(Background: this essay was one of several columns commissioned for the magazine Gothic Beauty between 2009 and 2011. Since the magazine hasn’t published a new issue in years, it’s time to drag up a few of these old columns so they can find a new readership.)
Previously published in Gothic Beauty #28
Just for a second, think about the two words “gothic gardening.” Just for a second. Did you get images of an overgrown cemetery or abandoned park, festooned with creepers and dead branches? Do you have images of an herb garden where everything therein is medicinal or poisonous? How about antique Wardian cases full of ferns, club mosses, and other antediluvian remnants of past life? A pond overrun with water lilies amidst a half-sunken fountain? Statuary and gravestones? Topiaries? A greenhouse full of orchids and Borneo pitcher plants? Roses? Lilies? Angel trumpets and moonflowers? Nightshade and privet, or Venus flytraps and butterworts? Stark white marble ground cover to reflect the full moon, or narrow pathways between pumpkin patches and rosemary bushes?
Yes, you can see the problem. No matter how inclusive one wants to get, any definition of what constitutes gothic gardening depends upon individual tastes, attitudes, climate and soil restrictions, and available free time. Someone with independent wealth and time could reconstruct a scale Neolithic monolith site and festoon the area with raspberry bushes, but it’s no more or no less valid than the apartment dweller with a Vanda orchid that encircles a compact fluorescent fixture. Just as how gothic fashion has plenty of room for variation and experimentation, gothic gardening offers plenty of opportunities to explore the darker side of horticulture.
Since we could argue all day about the particulars of gothic gardening, let’s start with a basic assumptive definition. For our purposes, gothic gardening is any gardening style that emphasizes entropy, or at least more chaos than what’s normally found in a controlled garden area. Japanese gardens tend to emphasize the natural while subtly emphasizing the harmony of the scene: gothic gardening should emphasize the slightly unnatural, distorted, or disturbing. Good gothic gardens are beautiful, yes, but they should also be subtly uncomfortable.
One of the great ironies of gothic gardening is that it requires the heliophobic to acknowledge the sun. Without access to lanterns, there will be times where peeking out at the yellow hurty thing in the sky is unavoidable. Speaking as someone who does a very good impersonation of Bill Paxton from the film Near Dark when exposed to direct sunlight, I suggest three options for the seriously sun-sensitive: raise shade-loving plants underneath mature trees or along high walls, plant to do all of your work at dusk and dawn, or work indoors. Greenhouses are perfect for this, as both glass and most plastic greenhouse glazings absorb ultraviolet light, thereby protecting the contents of the greenhouse from the worst of the sun’s wrath. Likewise, many fascinating plants can be raised in sunny windowsills and removed at night in order to appreciate them, and many orchid and fern enthusiasts bring plants out for display in common areas well away from windows, returning them to the window before they wilt or fade and replacing them with fresh plants. If worse comes to worst, while the term “terrarium” invokes cheesy grade-school accumulations of plants in old mayonaisse jars, the art is staging a comeback thanks to improvements in enclosures, lighting, and varieties of plant available.
The first question that should always be asked when embarking on any gardening project, even more than “Do I have the time to do this right?”, is “What do I want to accomplish?” That may be a stumper for a while, but take your time. Think about it for a while. Look at your available area, and feel free to abandon the usual Better Homes & Gardens gibberish. Some of the best gardens I’ve ever seen used back spaces behind former industrial sites to produce an impressive combination of post-apocalyptic and lost civilization motifs. Don’t worry about having to spend a lot to get your dream garden, either: some of those after-The-Bomb gardens cost less than $50 to pull off.
When considering what you want to accomplish, let’s start with a few possibilities:
- Utility: Is this a garden purely for your pleasure, or is it going to have to earn its living? Are you wanting a cooking and medicinal herb garden? How about garden for producing floral extracts, such as roses or lavender? Do you live in a locale where you can grow exotic fruits and vegetables outdoors, or will these need to stay indoors for most of the year? Do you want plants that provide habitat and feeding areas for your favorite animals (owls, lizards, opossums), or do you want vines and spines to keep everybody out?
- Variety: Do particular plants draw you more than others? Are antique and graveyard roses a particular passion, or are orchids more your speed? Do you want a bog garden full of carnivorous plants and bog orchids, or do you want a craggy rock garden? Which works better for you: bamboo, cactus, or moss?
- Features: Does your area have a particular aspect, such as a pond or a perpetually shady space, that automatically draws the eye? A fence that needs covering, or a window that needs enhancement? Is the area so overgrown and rugged that it may require everything to be razed and replanted, or is it so bare that anything would be an improvement? Do you already have stone, statuary, or water features that only need accents, or will you have to bring them in from elsewhere? Do you really want a Japanese garden, or do you only want to steal some of the techniques and take them somewhere new?
- Seasonality: Let’s face it. What looks spectacular in the middle of summer is going to look threadbare or neglected in winter, and vice versa. Do you want a garden that only reaches its peak for two or three months, or one that continues to show new aspects of its personality all year round?
- Time: Most gardening guides presume that we gardeners have nothing but free time to keep working on improving our sites. Realistically, though, most of us have real jobs (and those who don’t can stop flaunting it, thank you very much), so the only time available for improvements are weekends and the occasional holiday off from work. Do you want flora that look impressive but require a lot of babying, especially if it’s not quite appropriate for the area? Or do you want nearly indestructible plants that only need to be planted and established and they do the rest of the work for themselves?
Think about these for a little while, and consider the below references for guidelines. The important thing to remember is that gardening is supposed to be enjoyable: if you aren’t getting pleasure from the experience, you probably need to go in a new direction.
Plantwatching: How Plants Live Feel and Work by Malcolm Wilkins (McMillan, 1988, ISBN 0-333-44503-1). More of a general guide to the plant kingdom than anything else, Plantwatching goes into the details of plant physiology and what distinguishes different orders of plant from each other. It’s much more readable than a standard botany textbook, and it goes into quite a bit of detail on oddball varieties neglected in a world of carnations and hostas.
You Grow Girl by Gayla Trail (Fireside, 2005, ISBN 0-7432-7014-2). An extension of the famed www.yougrowgirl.com site, this is pretty much THE guide for urban gardening of all sorts, and it gives tips on everything from tips on propagating seed to making your own garden gear. The highest compliment I can pay to this book is that I snag every copy I can find from used bookstores and give them to friends for birthday gifts. Anyone at a loss with what to do with their back yard or apartment balcony needs a copy on the bookshelf.
Gardens of Obsession: Eccentric and Extravagant Visions by Gordon Taylor and Guy Cooper (Seven Dials, Cassell & Co., 2000, ISBN 1841880930). Making basic decisions about what to do with your garden depend sometimes on seeing what others have done with theirs, and Gardens of Obsession catalogues particularly bizarre or fascinating gardens around the world. Any book that catalogues Portmeirion in Wales (the shooting location for the Sixties-era television series The Prisoner) and notes its horticultural wealth is particularly deserving of attention.
Gardens of New Orleans: Exquisite Excess by Lake Douglas and Jeannette Hardy (Chronicle Books, 2001, ISBN 0-8118-2421-7). Sometimes it’s easy to become overwhelmed with all of the garden accoutrements and styles, and a new perspective is needed. This book is heartbreaking when you realize that almost all of the gardens described therein were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, but it’s also affirming in that most of these were done with little or no money in the first place, and that the people of New Orleans are building new gardens to replace what had been lost in the hurricane. The next time you tell yourself “I can’t afford to do this,” tale a look at the gardens of the Ninth Ward and understand that it’s the drive, not the money, that makes a memorable garden.
“Sidenote: The Starter”
It’s the universal question faced by anyone wanting to start gardening. “But what should I get that I won’t kill?” That’s one of the best questions you can ask, and it’s one of the hardest to answer.
One of the reasons why it’s so hard to answer is that short of sending someone to your house or garden and evaluating soil conditions, light, temperature, and the likelihood that you’ll have the time to keep up with your new charges, there’s no telling for sure. Those with more knowledge may give recommendations based on their own experiences, but advice on plants that do their best in Miami is almost worthless to Seattle gardeners.
This gets particularly touchy when it comes to intrusive species, which are plants and animals that grow out of control when introduced to new areas where they face no competition. The more famous intrusive include the mongoose and coqui frog in Hawaii and the cane toad in Queensland, but plant intrusive can be even more damaging or dangerous. For instance, Bermudagrass is one of the only varieties of lawn grass that can survive a typical Dallas summer, but it’s such a tenacious intrusive that deliberately bringing it elsewhere outside of its range is justification for fines, imprisonment, and the occasional savage beating by Customs and agriculture officials. Before bringing in something new, check with your local agricultural division or ministry and ask if the plant you just fell in love with is the local Public Enemy Number One. They’ll thank you later.
That said, picking a good starter plant for someone unsure about gardening ability spreads throughout the plant kingdom, and discussing the perfect starter plant among serious horticulture enthusiasts is a great way to turn a party into a recreation of the end of an Akira Kurosawa and/or George Romero film. However, I can make one really good suggestion as a place to start, because it’s where I started.
The genus Kalanchoe is a member of the crassula family, which includes the suitably alien jade plant Crassula ovata, and includes about 125 species in various stages of cultivation. The kalanchoes have the advantage of being very tough: besides being succulents, they thrive in poor soils and with lots of benign neglect, and they’re extremely easy to propagate. I currently have a community grown from a single broken leaf I scavenged from an old office, and K. daigremoniana is known as “Mother of Thousands” and “Pregnant Plant” because it grows new shoots from serrations in its leaves. Most only need watering once per month and low levels of fertilizer, thrive under standard morning or evening sun, grow in standard pots without issue, and produce spectacular blooms. They also grow in any number of disturbing forms, and many can be shaped, very gently, into bonsai, Under the right conditions, the question won’t be “Can I keep my plant alive?”, but instead “Do I have any friends who want to take my surplus?”
WARNING: many kalanchoes are toxic in leaves or stems, although some varieties are used in their native habitats to treat medical maladies. For this reason, research your species or variety for possible poisoning issues with pets and children.