A tribute to eccentrics

Our garden writer shares why those who refuse to follow the herd can best teach us.
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Our garden writer shares why those who refuse to follow the herd can best teach us.

One of the great pleasures of this Zen life has been encounters with eccentrics. A nun in the mountains of Korea who communicates so well with wild animals that she can call them to her. A monk with green skin from living on pine needle tea. Another monk, this one in Los Angeles, who weaves unlikely words together into songs, plays, and poems so throbbing with life that it is hard to breathe when he performs. Each meeting has been a gift pushing me right past my understanding of how life works. Like Zen, gardening has a way of birthing eccentrics. I first noticed this working at a nursery. A woman living on an estate who insisted that her flowering plants only have white blooms, forcing me to find new ones I hadn't known about. A man with a yard covered in gravel except for three plants. He taught me how lovely gravel gardens can be. Another woman who only planted fire red geraniums in her yard proved that gardens don't have to be pricey to be beautiful. Eccentrics make life fun for the rest of us. They offer us the gifts of seeing and experiencing things in new ways. They introduce us to plants we'd never otherwise meet, or to placing familiar plants in novel spots. For example, I now plant sedums in massive clusters on the top of ledges and walls thanks to Tom Hobbes and his Vancouver, B.C., garden. Hobbes' stucco house in the Point Grey neighborhood above English Bay is so full of ideas that I have kept photographs of it from a ten-year-old article (written by Seattle's own Valerie Easton) to stare at whenever I'm at a loss for ideas. Hobbes had the tenacity to fill a yard with palm trees, a hedge of euphorbia (euphorbia!) and trailing sedums in an era of "azaleas and sleek lawns." He convinced me to think Mediterranean as I stare at the four-foot-by-twelve-foot long blank spot between the house and the back fence. A Chilean fire bush might work, or I could check out some cannas. Hobbes also taught me that when I grow plants in tones that harmonize with the almost-peach sides of my house, they pop. The yard becomes a painting. So I watch for salmon and corral flowers. Inexpensive coral bells can change the whole look of the back porch. Next up will be Lem's Cameo, a rhododendron with peach apricot flowers that look more like pastel versions of flowers than the real thing. Then there's Paghat the Rat Girl and Granny Artemis, who live in the old Charleston neighborhood overlooking Puget Sound's Sinclair Inlet. These two fearlessly combine trees, hardscapes, and plants in ways that make my heart sing. Ferns. Heucheras. Monkshoods. Brassbuttons for ground cover, teeny ferns I never knew existed. One way into their treasure trove of ideas is through www.paghat.com. You won't be disappointed. If I had to pick a favorite garden eccentric, though, it would be Ellen Willmott. The woman needs to be a movie. Willmott was a wealthy Englishwoman who lived from 1858 to 1934. She was known for her gardens and was a good friend to all things royal. Entertaining in the extreme, at least until she turned crotchety in her old age, Willmott was a much sought after guest at parties throughout Europe. Rumor has it that her favorite plant was a sea holly, Eryngium giganteum bieberstein. This blue-green plant has to be one of the funkiest plants on the planet. It grows to about four feet with electric blue branches topped off by blue bishop's caps surrounded by thin, pointed-blue "capes." A complete wow. Sea holly can grow in the Northwest. In fact, since they are thistle family members, they grow so well that you'll want to cut them to the ground every fall if you plant some. And compost what you cut down. Otherwise they have a tendency to be greedy for more acreage than allotted. Willmott loved this sea holly so much that she would secretly scatter its little fruitlets whenever she toured someone else's garden. The plants that were allowed to grow did so well that they are now a common flower, at least in Britain. People who like it call it Miss Willmott's ghost. People who don't call it a weed. Either way, like a good, juicy eccentric, sea holly is never dull.


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