I grew up in New York City with two well-meaning but strict parents, from the old-fashioned school. Mistakes were not allowed. I was supposed to be a good girl - get the best grades, always behave well, and keep my clothes immaculate. Those were the days when children were meant to be seen but not heard.
No surprise that I became very quiet, serious and careful. Life wasn't about having fun, it was about accomplishment. And yes, that was great for developing excellent study habits, but it wasn't until I discovered gardening that I experienced a real childhood.
Here was a place where I could play in the dirt, get seeds in my hair, wear grungy clothing and revel in experimenting. Mistakes were allowed here - actually they were necessary. How else can a gardener learn? After all, every garden is different, with a set of challenges and conditions that beg you to try things out.
Oh, this was so healing! No pressure for me to perform, look good, or be the best. I could play in my garden to my heart's content, with no one judging me, grading me or bossing me around.
Learning to take chances
Mistakes in the garden are just the baby steps we gardeners take as we learn the nature of our plants, our soils, the light and shade situations, the drainage. We appreciate what grows well - and what fails gives us a chance to improve the conditions, or move the plant, or, gasp, get rid of it!
Take 'Cornelia,' for example. It's a fragrant rose I planted decades ago, with coral buds that open to a paler peach. I figured she'd be the size of a hybrid tea, but 'Cornelia' is a voluptuous hybrid musk, with arching canes that spread like a wide skirt. Easily six feet across, she needs room to billow. I moved her twice before she had enough breathing space. No harm done. I learned that roses transplant easily.
The garden taught me to be bold and take chances. Why not try growing Chaste tree (Vitex agnes castus) after seeing it for only a few minutes on a visit with my father to Wave Hill in Riverdale, N.Y.?
That August afternoon, the shrub was loaded with lavender spikes that gave me goosebumps. Bees and butterflies danced through it. No research followed - just a passionate craving to grow it in my own garden. It took a while to find one and I planted it immediately. Years later, I still have a little piece of Wave Hill in my garden.
Another memory of Wave Hill lives on in the form of six Idesia trees along my driveway. They caught my eye on a freezing cold February day when chains of orange fruit dangled from their bare branches. I asked for a handful of seeds, and once home, I planted them in a few flats. As the seedlings grew taller, I repotted them several times.
On a visit to Lee Neff's garden in Seattle, I discovered she had an Idesia grove. She said you need boys and girls for them to fruit. Stretching her arms out to illustrate, she showed me how boys spread their branches at an upward angle, while girls spread their branches horizontally. I planted three of each, and patted myself on the back for getting this vital information.
Despite all this, my trees bloom, but never set fruit. Maybe the birds or the squirrels eat the flowers. Some experiments can be disappointing. Still, the Idesias are beautiful, with large tropical-looking leaves. In the best of moods, I picture the fruit in my imagination, remembering that winter day at Wave Hill.
A steady supply of toys
The garden has a certain amount of constance. Most perennials return year after year, a source of amazement when their foliage springs up once more, freshly green. Their winter absence lets us greet them anew and appreciate their awakening. 'Mutabilis' rose is leafing out right now and I can hardly wait for the flowers to return, their colors a medley of peach, pink and pale yellow.
Each spring also brings new eye candy, thanks to ingenious hybridizers. Kudos to Darrell Probst, who hybridized the Big Bang series of hardy coreopsis.
Last year, I received a gift of 'Redshift' and was delighted with its long bloom period. The froth of pale yellow flowers, splashed with red at the center, make a color echo with red daylilies. Now I can't wait to get 'Cosmic Eye' coreopsis, Chianti red, with bright yellow edges.
I feel like a kid in a playground with an endless supply of toys.
• Lan Su Classical Chinese Garden hosts a spring plant sale, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., March 20 and 21, featuring 20 specialty nurseries. Admission free. Vendors will be in the parking lot just north of the garden, which is located at Northwest Third and Everett.
The garden's Festival of Fragrance takes place 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., March 20-31 with a camellia display and ongoing lectures. Admission is: $8.50 adults; $7.50 seniors (62 and over); $6.50 students: and free for children 5 and under. For details, visit www.lansugarden.org or contact 503-228-8131.