CULTURE

Eccentricities let loose upon the garden

Talking to plants to help them grow is seen by some gardeners as completely natural and obvious and by others as just plain weird, but growing huge tomatoes by playing them Frank Sinatra songs must be hard to beat as a bizarre gardening method. That is just one of the unusual practices reported by American writer Robin Chotzinoff in her classic book «People with Dirty Hands: The Passion of Gardening» (Macmillan Reference, USA, 1996) which focuses on the obsessions of American gardeners, most of whom live in California. Chotzinoff’s book and another by Gordon Taylor and Guy Cooper are collections of some of the world’s more unusual gardening methods and and styles that make for diverting reading, and not just for gardeners, who might even find some of the suggestions entertaining enough to try out themselves. Take for example Chotzinoff’s tale of the «Texas rose rustlers,» a group of ladies who roam the land looking for vigorous old strains of roses that can survive in the wild, or the man who makes a living collecting and selling live ladybirds (avid aphid predators) to gardeners. Then there is Angel, an expert on the subject of chilies who grows over 100 different varieties which he sells in over 40 states through his mail-order company. Chotzinoff, a contributor to Garden Design magazine, has collected a number of entertaining interviews with what appear to be kindred spirits – she herself lives in a log cabin outside Denver and says in the introduction to the book that she hopes to «age ungracefully until I become an old woman in a small garden, doing whatever the hell I want. There was a time when this would have sounded unfulfilling to me, if not downright depressing, but now I look forward to it.» Poison garden England, as the traditional home of the true eccentric, has more than its fair share of obsessed gardeners. An advertisement for the Duchess of Northumberland’s Poison Garden in centuries-old Alnwich Garden, on a site designed by Belgian Peter Wirtz, reports that it contains dozens of dangerous and potentially lethal plants laid out in beds in the shape of flickering flames. (Visitors are escorted around the walled garden by marshals.) Cannabis and magic mushrooms (grown with the permission of the Home Office), opium poppies and coca – the source of cocaine – are all here, as are poisonous foxglove, tobacco and wild lettuce, which can be used as a tranquillizer. «Drugs are a major concern across the country and an emotive issue,» said the duchess after the opening. «The garden will offer a new avenue, outside the classroom, to get people talking about the misuse of drugs – most of which grow in nature.» Dubbed the «shotgun gardener,» Reginald Farrer from Clapham in North Yorkshire used what must be one of the most bizarre methods ever employed to plant seeds, according to a report on the BBC in June 2003. He loaded a shotgun with seeds he had collected while traveling abroad and fired them into a rock cliff and gorge in his native North Yorkshire. The result was an amazing display of plants from the Himalayas which today grow in a wild display around Ingleborough. Bizarre garden design ideas have been around since antiquity. The aging Emperor Augustus created a park filled with what the historian Suetonius calls «monster bones,» probably fossils or the skeletons of whales and giant pachyderms. Diversity For more unique stories from England and around the world, try the beautifully illustrated «Gardens of Obsession: Eccentric and Extravagant Visions» by Gordon Taylor and Guy Cooper (1999, Orion Publishing Co). The authors found more than 150 gardens from places as diverse as the jungles of Mexico and a Czech castle, a fertility sculpture garden in Bangkok and a topiary cemetery in Ecuador. The gardens range from the visionary to the surrealist and just plain kitsch (rocks shaped by Prince Orsini in the 16th century to 20th-century plastic flowers floating on green corrugated sheeting). Some were designed around ancient myths, others are collections of a single type of plant or surrealist topiary. Among the collections are examples of great creativity and imagination, where eccentricity has gone hand in hand with wit and good taste. It is an entertaining change from the usual fare of gardening manuals and coffee-table garden books.