The Garden as Autobiography

What inspires a man to pursue the perfect lawn? To cultivate heirloom roses? Or, to grow humongous pumpkins?

Thomas Jefferson was infatuated with indigenous flora and exotic specimens, sweeping landscapes and intimate kitchen gardens, boxwoods and fruit trees — so perfect for a man of great contradictions. Henry Francis du Pont was a believer in color coordination. His plantings at Winterthur often echoed his décor inside.

I’d like to say my Rehoboth garden is inspired by Jefferson or a du Pont. But it’s not. My inspirations are more haphazard. One summer everything was psychedelic yellows, oranges, and pinks. Another time, the garden was motivated by an unusual tomato called Mr. Stripey, which led to the planting of Big Boys and Big Girls, some Roma and Cherry tomatoes, a Beefsteak, and, naturally, five different basils and three types of eggplants. I think back on it as my ratatouille garden. One year, I planted uber-masculine plants. Giant alliums, King Alfred daffodils, Russian Mammoth sunflowers, foxgloves, hollyhocks – things with manly names, turgid stalks, and phallic spires. The next year, I was all about “salvaging” flowers from yards where houses have been torn down and lots leveled. I can never predict what’s going to happen.

This year my garden has a very distinct theme, inspired by none other than dear old Governor Ruth Ann Minner. Let me explain…

Ruth Ann is a traditional downstate Democrat, but with a progressive edge. She’s passed a smoking ban, runs a fiscally-sound government, has pushed a program to keep farmland out of development, favors equal rights for gay folk, and gives a damn about the environment. She’s made cameo appearances in campy promos for the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival. And, seriously, what other governor do you know who would don a flowered bathing suit, white tennis shoes, and wade into Rehoboth Bay as part of an effort to draw attention to the health of the Bay?

Ruth Ann is a bit old fashioned, sensible, colorful, and not overly-styled. Just like my garden this summer with its ox-eye daisies, gladiolas, snapdragons, carnations, zinnias, coleus, musk melons, and lillies. I’ve got bosomy phlox and hydrangeas, and hanging baskets evocative of the blue and white gingham check pantsuits the Governors favors during summertime fundraising events. Cutting flowers, they are, and the perfect accompaniment to a screened porch supper of fried chicken, soft shell crabs, succotash, and cold white wine.

My garden this summer also features lots and lots of petunias, and not the trendy, no-maintenance, wave petunias that Lowe’s and Home Depot sells and that decorate every outlet mall. Oh no. I insist on the classic velvet petunias, the red, white, and blue striped striped ones that release the most wonderful scent around cocktail hour. Petunias that you have to pinch off and tend to. I’ve paired them in pots with a cutting-edge gardenia that’s been bred to flourish this far north.

It’s all so very Ruth Ann, don’t you think?

I notice more and more people around Rehoboth spending more and more time in their gardens. Gardening is becoming a passion for a lot of people in Rehoboth. There’s just as much cruising going on at Tomato Sunshine as there is on Poodle Beach. Rehoboth is blessed with a great climate for gardening and the town recently has been stepping up its landscaping. Heck, even Dewey Beach this summer has put out wooden planters of flowers on every street corner, and I don’t think the motivation is to provide people a charming place to vomit.

As you wander around town this summer, stop and take a look at people’s gardens. Don’t worry, they won’t mind, else they wouldn’t have planted anything. It’s like muscular boys at the gym. You know they want you to look at them. Try to figure out what they’re saying, what’s inspiring them. Sometimes I think I know, but who really knows what motivates a man to garden? Is it to dig in the soil and satisfy our psyches – to put us back in touch with nature? To prove mastery over nature? To compete? To create beauty? To create value?

They say that a garden is autobiographical. If that’s the case, then either I’m fickle, or I’m becoming a downstater, or I have desire to wear a woman’s flowered bathing suit. You decide.

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