Cross Words

by Norman Todd

This is true. Every week I tackle the New York Times crossword puzzle in the Times Colonist. Most weeks I can’t get it finished. But the other week - "Eureka" – all the boxes were filled in. The great mystery in this was that all the main clues – the theme of the puzzle – were incomprehensible to me. So it was a red-letter day in terms of the result but one that was attained with a deficient knowledge and a smidgen of intuition.

I think a lot of gardening is like that too. If we win a plant in the raffle we usually find a place to put it, not on the basis of some great master plan but on the very practical matter of where there is a small, unused snippet of soil. Occasionally, this does have some upsetting consequences – but not too often. However, one recent event that was somewhat unpleasant, comes to mind. I was trying to satisfy a difficult-to-please customer. She did not have a paint colour chip with her although I have had her ilk in the past who insist the chip is necessary to get that perfect match. Even though the sellers of paint have a marvellous command of English, the words themselves do not do much to give the precision my difficult customer demanded. In struggling to remember the names given to paints, my attempts at poetic tincturesque vocabulary were clearly inadequate. In semi-desperation I admitted that I did not give great attention to what went next to what in my garden. At which point she hit me with a verbal KO – and it still smarts – "Yes," she said, "but you are not an artist."

We settled on a yakushimanum, which has to be the safest rhododendron to put in any garden. It is an easy doer, always looks neat and as my customer agreed, the flowers could be removed when they overstepped the limit set by those blest with taste. Such super-sensitivity to art versus nature reached its vituperative nadir, in my reading experience, with Germaine Greer in her ‘Revolting Garden’ column in a British publication. She spits her revulsion for rhododendrons with "…(they have) bloated heads of rubbery blooms of knicker-pink, dildo-cream and gingivitis-red." Obviously the paint companies are missing a trick by not having Ms. Greer do their colour descriptions. As counter argument to the rectitude of those who know what is pleasing, Brent Elliott remarks in ‘Rhododendrons in British Gardens: a Short History’, "…as usual, it is unwise to assume that the taste of the general public corresponds closely to the recommendations of critics and designers in the horticultural press." Amen.

Having therefore demonstrated my lack of aesthetic credentials, there are a couple of plant groupings that give me a lift. They may be in the pop art category and do not possess much subtlety but they make me stop, look and admire. (Andy Warhol made the big time too.) Currently blooming at the end of March are the rich double purple blossoms of ‘April Rose’ – little dark Gardenias of perfection. This has ‘Snow Lady’ as a white foil and King Alfred daffodils as a yellow one. It is so eye-catching a statement (of what – is up to you) that it would cause the most unobservant to pause. A bonus of this grouping is that the colours do not change or fade (for once the paint chips work). It’s a set piece of a month. Perhaps the Society would like to give a prize for the most Germaine (not Harold – although no stranger to hyperbole) Greerish description of that grouping.

Another grouping that pleases me is a mass of ten or twelve Williamsianum varieties. This needs more space than most of our developed gardens now have and only looks 100% when all the plants are old enough to fill the space. Then for an early start to the season choose ‘Maureen’ (pink), followed by ‘Moonstone’ (cream), next to ‘Point Fosdick’ (a shocking colour – fuschia plum, the catalogues say. One that the sensitive will shun.) The effect of a bigger leaf can be obtained with ‘Rothenburg’ (light yellow) or ‘Gartendirektor Rieger’ of the same hue. The white ‘Olympic Lady’ could complete the planting. Spring bulbs and Asiatic lilies can be used to fill the spaces in early and mid season. Begonias, fuchsias and annuals can add the bright tones of summer. This won’t win an award at the Seattle show but people like me who want texture and colour in their garden will find it pleasing. Many alternatives to the rhododendrons mentioned can be found and the use of a colour wheel is not necessary.

For a third planting – again, coincidentally, without a Gingivitis Red – try using plants of the Triflora tribe. The season could be started in March with the Meddlesome Yellow of lutescens. As good a harbinger, I claim, of the busy Technicolor inter-solstice times as is Forsythia – a plant not to be despised at all with its arching shafts of Diaper Ochre. There would be some overlap of this flaxen bloom with the Knicker Pink of davidsonianum. Then the Vestal (how am I doing, paint companies?) White of rigidum, the Denim Blue of augustinii, and last, in late May, the Bumbleberry Purple of tricanthum.

I didn’t get very far with the latest New York Times crossword puzzle and it could be that there is a message in that. I would like to be known as a sensible person of taste but one must recognize one’s limitations and you know what George Bernard Shaw said about those sorts: "(He was)…a man of great common sense and good taste, - meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage" and probably not very good at crosswords either.