MAPLES, DOGWOODS and now the oaks are in fall color, and while the display is fleeting, it is repeated every 49 weeks.
Too often the gardener defeats himself by searching always for things that go on forever. All this accomplishes is a field of marigolds. Big deal. I never heard of anybody who was not thoroughly sick of marigolds by the time a good freeze shut them up.
I would not myself bother with a garden if it were not for the things that come and go. Everything lasts long enough as it is, and while one enjoys shouting rhetorically to the heavens that "Cardinal de Richelieu" (a purplish rose of the last century) is too fleeting, still 10 days is better than nothing.
One tremendous error is to judge plants only for their effect at the moment of their greatest glory.
The Glenn Dale azalea, "Treasure," for example, is of course grown for its great burst of white flowers in April. There are two general ways of regarding that plant - as a factory for the production of a white billow for 10 days or so, or as something quite different.
The gardener, if not the architects, knows as much about the white billows as anybody, but does not value "Treasure" merely for that. In the throat of its flowers are soft fawn-madder dots, and the gardener never fails to admire them. About half the leaves of this azalea drop in the fall, and before they do, they may turn soft chartreuse. If you view them against the leaves of Viburnum tomentosum 'Mariesii' - a complicated range of green-bronze-tawny-ochre-umber - they are pleasant to see, especially when tremendous cascades of red maple (in yellow, chartreuse, scarlet, tomato and green) fall from the sky above them.
What I am saying is that nobody would plant "Treasure" or the viburnum for the fall color effect.
I am not sure I have ever mentioned, or heard anyone else mention, the yellow-green leaves of the azalea in early November, and yet thousands of gardeners must have noticed them over the years and been pleased by them.
In the same way certain water lilies have fascinating colors in the leaves when they start sprouting below the water in March, reaching the surface in April. One does not choose water lilies for the appearance of the leaves underwater in March, yet every March the gardener instinctively peers down to see how they are coming on, and every March is enchanted anew with what he sees.
There are moments when the green stems of the kerrias are especially bright and fine, even though the plant is not in bloom.There are days when the akebia vine - not in flower - adds just that reminder of well-fed sober richness (though it is nothing but green leaves) that the gardener admires.
When we plant an akebia vine, or a kerria or an azalea or any of these other things, we are not usually thinking of Nov. 1.
Nevertheless, there the plants are at that time. Sitting there. And forming tufts and spikes and barks, etc., that are part of the picture seen by the gardener's eye.
I value the akebia most, I think, for that brief moment in late winter when there are few leaves out, and the vine is as nubbly as a terry cloth with tiny new leaves.
If nothing happened in the garden except that one block of color were followed by another block of color a few months later, then who would fool with gardening?
From time to time I see lists of trees that are "desirable" and "undesirable" for a city, and I used to speculate what manner of imbecile put the list together.Any tree of great beauty - the red oak, the red maple, the willow, the beech, the Virginia red cedar, the dogwood, persimmon, sourwood, ginkgo, and so on - is sure to be excluded from the "desirable" list. Presumably on the grounds of their great beauty. Any tree that looks like absolutely nothing is likely to be favored.
It is part of the prevailing and increasing tenor of our century that the cruddier the material is (in architecture, painting, music, language) the more useful it is. White concrete and clear plastic is about as close as we are allowed to come to elegance in a building, and although statistics show that a lot of people have had a lot of years of education, you have only to look at Union Station to see the collapsed soul of both architecture and government. This sort of thing could not have happened in a society where anybody gave a good fried damn about anything, or ever learned to read and count.
But the world of plants, praise God, descends from an age before jackasses were exalted into high fashion. The whole range of common trees and common flowers might remind us that richness, variety, splendor, subtlety, is the natural order of creation.
Nature is essentially baroque, flamboyant, burgeoning, extravagant and ingenious. Nature is never simple, plain, economical.
Any city that is "wrong" for willows is itself wrong. Any urban planning that cannot encampass the gorgeousness and richness of nature is planning conducted by anesthetized loons.
Learning nowadays means going to an inferior school and halfway learning an inferior subject, so that one can burden the poor planet with wires, computers and two-inch-thick reports that nobody can or will read.
But when minor technologies burn out, and the last puffed-up nothing has let its last foolish servitor down, the rich action of a flower will yet sustain human life and ennoble it.
Schools that teach nothing will fail and arts that mean nothing will retreat to the status of Henry Tudor's chamber pot - there will of course always be some to collect them, but few will say they are glories of human accomplishment.
But there was, a garden before anything else, because it is the correct environment of God and man. With plenty of willows, I imagine. And it is well for gardeners to keep in mind that they, and no others, are the mainstream of life. So much for the red maples.