“What does a house want to be?”
—Louis Kahn, 20th-century architect
I started my garden 25 years ago, and I’m still learning what manner of thing it is. I should have known this would be the case. A painter, I understand that my job is to have an idea, to set to with paints and brushes on the canvas, and then to see where it goes. This approach applies to rearing children, too, as most parents eventually learn, and to writing fiction and music, to all sorts of creative endeavors.
You don’t know at the outset what your creations will grow to be. You pay close attention all along the way. You shelter, you feed, you prune, you edit, you prod, you erase, you hope, you pray, but the created has a spirit of its own whose nature is revealed, if you are receptive to it, over time. You are in the story, but you are not the hero.
My garden, according to me, was supposed, at first, to be a kind of English garden, with lawns and deep mixed borders. The palette I chose for the borders was undistinguished: cool colors in the spring and hot colors in the summer, the formula for English gardens and their imitators everywhere. But my lawn sprouted circles of black fungus every August. My dog got sick from the chemicals I had reluctantly agreed to use in a futile grab for grassy space. So, no. No English garden for me in Piedmont, North Carolina—not responsibly and not without heartbreak.
Next, I was sure it was going to be a courtyard garden, a little slice of Charleston, where I had spent important time in my 20s. But, no, again. I have a space too big for courtyard intimacy and no shade anywhere. A courtyard garden wants some protection from sun and a feeling of enclosure. We didn’t have those.
Things spiraled down after my daughter’s early June 2007 wedding in the garden. I had installed a loose river rock terrace for guests to stand on during the ceremony and added paths of Chapel Hill pea gravel, along with beds of many, many flowers. A certain amount of floriferousness is good for a wedding, but, oh, I got carried away, planting flowers and frills everywhere after the wedding, for lack of knowing what else to do! Without an overarching design, the paths and the terrace didn’t relate. My garden was not happy and I wasn’t either. We were a mess.
After a few years of such waywardness on my part, my garden showed me, via an article in Elle Decor, where I should go for lessons: a garden in Normandy—les Jardins Agapanthe in Grigneuseville. There, garden designer Alexandre Thomas has given formal garden elements a playful and fresh spirit. His garden is large, with many charming, interconnected garden rooms. I fell hard for Thomas’ use of stolid topiary shapes, arranged with casual asymmetry and leavened by sky-reaching verticals of allium and agapanthus.
Standing in that Norman garden in May seven years ago, I recognized my own garden’s desire to have structure and limits: parterre beds, stone terrace and paths, boxwood topiaries, a restricted palette, shot through with a lightness of spirit.
Once I gave my garden the structures it asked for and its foundational team of boxwoods and frothy plants, I had to wait to see what else would grow in this half floodprone, half drought-tending piece of land.
The answers to that puzzle appeared over time and mistakes. My garden wanted silvery leaves interwoven with green; it wanted a cool palette of pinks and mauves and whites; it wanted a mix of perennials and annuals, but mostly perennials. It wanted no end of emphatic evergreens.
To complement my new collection of boxwood topiaries, I followed Thomas’ lead with a choice of deep purple alliums and some exuberantly shaped flowering plants, including cleome, that whirling dervish lookalike, and wild petunia, with its slender, oval, glossy leaves arching upward in a gesture of perpetual hallelujah.
Planted. Flourished. Done.
Lately, though, I think I’m sensing another shift in spirit. Is my garden telling me its days of sporting a restrained and airy color palette are numbered? I seem to hear a call for oranges, yellows and more saturated pinks amid all the whites and greens and lavenders.
If I’m reading it right, my garden is asking for spice. It wants verve. In my mind’s eye, I’m seeing my boxwoods animated by copper-colored irises in April and shimmery orange dahlias in August. I’m imagining vibrant yellow hibiscus standards in large clay pots, and in shallow bowl-shaped ones, pink and yellow lantana paired with trailing Helichrysum.
But I know my limits and I know who’s boss.
I’ve got the hands, the feet, the muscles, the means, the ears and the eyes. My garden has the voice, and I listen to it.
Laura Murphy Frankstone, painter, gardener and rabid traveler, illustrates for Charleston Style & Design magazine and other publications. She shares her artwork and her adventures at laurelines.com.