"Mary, Mary Quite Contrary - How Does Your Garden Grow?"
Mary Gilbert, Roslyn, N.Y.

Reprinted from New York Chapter Newsletter

To sum it up very quickly - "I Did It My Way" with a great deal of guidance I never knew I was getting.

As a child I remember resenting the fact that you weren't allowed to touch all that beauty! And I remember in my teens going to a nursery and finding the nurseryman chewed tobacco - I had never seen anyone do this before, so I kept buying delphiniums and he kept chewing. I don't know what died first - my fascination with his chewing tobacco or the delphiniums, but die it did!

My - ahem - natural gardening talents didn't surface again until we bought our home eight years ago. The house came complete with a planting of azaleas in front (still lush and still unidentified) one 'Coral Bells' azalea, one beautiful viburnum, one hydrangea (which I moved twelve times just hoping it wouldn't survive, but that was one hardy hydrangea let me tell you), and few other run of the mill shrubs. By no stretch of the imagination could any of the area surrounding my house be called a garden!

Our lovely neighbors welcomed us to the neighborhood with a potted geranium and an invitation to visit their garden at any time. This lovely lady person told me her hobby was "propagating ericaceous plants." I nodded cautiously when she said this and quickly changed the subject. After all, if it was illegal or immoral, I wanted no part of it or her. After they left I did some quick research and found that she had just been telling me she was a rhododendron buff! Sue Stevens, forgive me for doubting you. I immediately took her up on her offer to tour her garden and that did it. You know the commandment that says thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's rhododendrons? I broke it fifty two times that afternoon alone. I'm sure Sue was unaware of the temptation she was throwing in my face. She would tell me the names of her azaleas and rhododendrons and I would go back to my area and feel depressed. To make it worse, she'd come back from plant sales with stuff that drove me green with envy. She would fling names around with abandon, "that came from Frank Arsen, Betty Hager propagated that, Byron Neff took first prize with such and such, Sid and Clara Burns say." Well, I tell you, my nerves were close to shattering. Not for me the antics of Jackie Onassis - I'd wait avidly to hear what Gay Arsen and Jane McKay did. The names Bruno Kaelin, Henry and Julie Dumper, Fran and Allison Fuqua, completely enthralled me. Surely I couldn't continue on the fringe of such glamour, and reasoning that if you can't fight them, you join them, I turned the first of many spadefuls of earth.

I was so proud of my first rhododendron 'Scintillation'. I'm sure Jim thought I had flipped when I asked for a rhododendron for my birthday, but since it was cheaper (but not by much) than furs or jewels, I got that rhododendron very quickly!

I was so proud of that bush, I took its picture with Jim standing next to it. I look at that picture today and laugh - the plant reached halfway between Jim's ankles and knees and was surrounded by nothing but dirt...but it was right where I could see it when I did dishes, and I loved it and my garden was born.

More plants followed, and once again Sue was right on hand to further my addiction by bringing over choice little goodies, the earth still clinging to their roots that she "just had to remove to make room." Oh sure, Sue, I see now that it was just part of your plan. You hooked me but good!

Now most people would be happy to give you advice, "not there stupid, it needs more sun" or "you're biting off more than you can chew, Mary" or "keep a crisp edge to your beds, Mary." I can't manage that in the bedroom, no less the garden, but that was not Sue's way. Sue would come and watch and admire, but never would she discourage me from doing something my way. And that must surely have been a trial, because I did some really dumb things, and in my choice of plants, it was often just a matter of time until instead of planting them, I interred them! Sue would slip in a little hint like telling me that so and so had such lovely flowing curves to their flower beds and sometimes I listened and applied what I heard. Other times I played dumb, very naturally.

And that's what it's all about. I gradually came to realize that my garden is an expression of myself and the only person that garden really must satisfy is me! I am now a matured gardener. I need no one's approval on what I do or what I plan to do. By nature I am not a neat person. My garden is not always too neat either. As a Gemini, I blow hot and cold. Today I can talk about nothing but my garden and such and such a plant that is in bloom. Tomorrow I may ignore it, but then I'm a firm believer in benign neglect. Sure I still over buy on plants, and not every plant will make its way into a garden bed, but instead pass its somewhat shortened life span on my patio (in its container), but that too is part of my garden.

My garden pleases me (and a few other people have been heard to say they like it too). My sister tells me all my plants are "blah" - too many pastels. To me it's a night garden. Those pastel colors show up much better in the moonlight than intense vivid colors. Some people offer me sympathy for the plant that hasn't recovered from last winter, but I know that's a weeping Norwegian Spruce, and it's supposed to drape gracefully towards the ground.

Through the knowledge I have gleaned from the ARS meetings, from a little cautious eavesdropping and from a few judiciously placed elbows at plant sale time, I have a collection of azaleas and rhododendrons that give me great pleasure. I have met all those names that sounded so alluring and everyone of them have met my expectations. Sue and I have visiting rights to each other's gardens, and from April through September a tour is made, at least once a day. I'm still learning from Sue; and don't tell her I said so, but I can grow clematis better than she can. If you are a beginner and you want to make a garden, remember two things:

1.  Make your garden to please yourself.

2.  Pick your neighbors carefully - get yourself a Sue.