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During a class last week, one of the students asked me what I considered an elegant garden. Elegance is, of course, in the eyes and mind of the individual. I have visions of graceful Japanese maples, stacked-stone retaining walls, fountains and outdoor kitchens with enough BTU’s to make Lucifer envious.
All that Architectural Digest stuff is nice, but I’m a good, old southern boy who was raised way back up in the woods where the dancing was square and the harvest gold “cook stove” was inside the house. So, I started thinking about what a garden would look like done in “redneck chic.” That may sound like an oxymoron, but we may just start a new garden trend in Beverly Hills and Boca.
Nothing says “redneck style” like a petunia bed encompassed in the remnants of a rear tire from your favorite John Deere, Ford or farm tractor. The fading rubber resists the ravages of even the most poorly operated Snapper or weed whacker. Show your patriotism by painting the garden edging red, white and blue in summer. Red and green is a nice touch during the holiday season.
It’s still all about the plants, though. You’ll have to bring in the high-organic matter soil, get the pH right and use the slow-release fertilizers to keep the annual flowers happy. Show your classic taste by making sure the flower color palette doesn’t clash with the current colors of your tractor tire.
No garden for those of us who are perennially lacking in sophistication is complete without multiple references to those former dirt-track demons of NASCAR. Mark the driveway entrance with a “Dale Earnhardt Way” street sign. Soften the harsh vertical element by planting a Chinese wisteria vine at its base so you can enjoy the fragrant purple flowers in spring. After several years of growth, the wisteria will bring even more pleasure when you can break out the chain saw and beat it back into submission.
If you can’t get the chain saw started, just let the wisteria keep growing. It will provide great cover for that rusting hulk of Monte Carlo in the front yard. And, since it loses its leaves in winter, you’ll be able to take advantage of seasonal dynamics in your landscape design. Spring will be awash in flowers. Thick, green foliage will dominate in summer. As fall turns to winter, you’ll have the wonderful textural play of twisting, gray stems embracing the rotting, Fisher Body sheet metal.
Trees are a must in any garden design. Southern chic demands the incorporation of at least one Chinaberry. That’s Melia azedarach, if the Latin stuff turns you on. Bi-pinnately compound leaves might suggest a somewhat tropical look—especially if you’ve already had a beer or 12. There is even a variegated leaf form, but you’ll have to prune it heavily each year to keep if from reverting to the regular green leaves. The hard, bony seeds that persist through the winter are unrivaled as “wrist rocket” ammunition.
Whether your idea of elegance is a complex cabernet or getting that perfect 1-inch of head on a draft Bud, I hope you agree we take ourselves way too seriously these days. Laugh a little. It won’t bring back your 401K, but it will make you feel better.