Enjoy the yin yang of a garden

Garden Muse

My friend Martha gave me a bulb that she bought at Portland's Lan Su Chinese Garden.

Intriguingly named the Chinese Crab Claw Narcissus (Shui Xian), it's a hefty bulb with several segments. The instructions said to immerse it in a bowl with water, and change the water daily. Pebbles to keep it in place were optional.

I found a bowl that fit the bulb's width perfectly, so that it stood up with the lower half submerged in water. The bulb itself looked like a giant daffodil with a mother and baby bulbs connected to each other.

I set the green ceramic bowl on the kitchen countertop and hoped the cats wouldn't nibble on it. The bulb was not a pretty sight, and I was skeptical about the flowers that would arise from it.

Still, in the spirit of adventure, I faithfully changed the water every day and waited. Soon, white roots grew from the base, becoming thicker and longer each day. The bulb itself stayed firm and vital. After a couple of weeks, green stems sprouted from the top. Each day they grew taller.

By the second week in January buds formed at the tip of one stem. Great excitement! By the third week, six flowering stems stood ready to pop. When the first tiny blossom opened, pale yellow and fragrant, spring entered the kitchen.

From then on, more flowers bloomed, each small blossom emitting delicious perfume. My husband Tom and I admired them daily. He was struck by the contrast of the gnarly bulb below and the delicate flowers above. It seemed the epitome of yin yang - opposite forces giving rise to each other in a flowing, interconnected process. It's like this with so many plants.

Take roses, for example. Prickly stiff canes defy you to prune them without getting stabbed. Then stems sprout and buds form, and the most inviting flowers bloom - just the opposite of the hostile branches. Or clematis: In winter there is nothing but a tangle of wiry stems like bundling twine, but after a while, out burst green shoots, buds and flowers that remind me of velvet and satin.

Even soil has opposite qualities that dance together. It's dark, dense and apparently solid. Yet it's also permeable to rain, to roots, and to our spades. It looks inert, but in fact dirt is home to billions of microorganisms that are vibrantly alive.

Balancing opposites in the garden

The best gardens reflect the yin yang principle of inseparable opposites flowing together continuously to make a harmonious whole.

Take the amount of empty space in contrast to solid masses of plant life, hardscape and structures. Without enough space, a garden feels cluttered and claustrophobic. If you've ever navigated a skimpy path, overhung with shrubbery, you know how uncomfortable it feels. With too much space, a garden lacks boundaries and intimacy. Room to breathe is as important as being held in a green embrace.

Soft and hard are two opposites that help each other out in the best gardens. Many of my garden's plants are soft and billowing. Stronger forms of a hut, greenhouse, grape arbor, sculpture, benches and birdbaths give balance.

Undulating and straight shapes are two more pairs to consider. Curved paths might call for a rectangular patio; arched arbors can be complemented by paths with straight lines.

Dark and light flow through the garden, as sunlight and shade, as well as daylight and moonlight, take their turns. Dark saturated colors are balanced by paler pastels. Even foliage and texture reflect yin yang. Broad-leaved evergreens and conifers with dense foliage contrast with deciduous shrubs with more open branching patterns that admit light and air. A good balance between these opposites keeps the garden interesting.

Small and large, bold strokes and fine details are two more pairs. Imagine a site with nothing but large trees and you will see a forest, not a garden. Small bulbs and perennials without the benefit of canopy and understory will lack dimension.

Even the way a garden unfolds and declines shows that the same pairing of opposites lives at the heart of existence. Why struggle so hard to keep the garden looking perfect when it's impossible - the process before us is changing every second. We're chasing an illusion. Instead of thinking tidy or messy, alive or dead, perfect or sloppy, how would it be to love it all? Why not embrace the yin yang of gardening?

Coming events

• 65th Annual Orchid Show and Sale, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., March 6, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., March 7, Doubletree Lloyd Center, 1000 N.E. Multnomah St., Portland. Admission $7. For more information, check the Web site, www.OregonOrchidSociety.org .