Expounding on last week’s master class (literally, Linda is a feng shui master) on feng shui in the garden, this week we delve a little deeper into the realm of the White Tiger, celestial doyenne of feminine and nurturing energy. Whereas the Green Dragon (more on him to come) dictates the use of specific evergreen plants in his area of the garden, the White Tiger’s needs are met with softness and quietude.
And who shall silence all the airs and madrigals, that whisper softness in the chambers?
– John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644
One of the most difficult yet important challenges in creating a space – whether interior or exterior – is to engage all of the senses. One of the crucial points on my design checklist is to ensure that a space is a sensuous one, and over the next few weeks, we’ll look at each of the senses separately. In honor of the White Tiger, we begin by investigating touch, the most nebulous and difficult of the senses to define but the most instinctive and innate to experience.
The skin is the largest organ – 20 square feet of it in all, that’s kind of gross – and it is brimming with receptors that send neutral messages to the brain which then interprets them into feelings: pain, pleasure, ticklishness, itchiness, etc. I am operating way above my pay grade here, by the way, so please ask no questions. In his utterly glorious book The Sensuous Garden, Monty Don proclaims that “the closest we can get to any garden is only skin deep. Of all the senses, touch understands least, knows most.” Think of feet on cool grass on a hot day; fingers oozing through mud to make an appallingly glorious mud pie (I have sons); piercing a finger on a rose or cactus thorn – pleasant or not, these deeply experienced moments are an integral part of being outside.
In the same way that my baby son knows intuitively how to erase the banking information from my iPhone (thank you, Apple), my little boys are without fail drawn straight to the Stachys byzantina (Lambs’ ears) growing in my garden. They know instinctively what feels interesting and inviting. Horticulturally, stachys is thought of as an excellent all-rounder and background player, but kid-wise, it’s a star player. My son giggles uncontrollably each time he picks a leaf, and then he ceremoniously presents it to me as some kind of offering. I can remember being irresistibly drawn to pussy willow (Salix discolor) when I was little, and yes, I know that now all of my male readers are also giggling uncontrollably.
Stachys’s fuzzy, silver foliage makes it resilient to heat and deer and allows it to conserve water – the little hairs reduce transpiration, if you really want to know, and render it unappealing to deer, in a hungover-tongue kind of way. That said, I find it does tolerate shade better than most of the silver-leafed plants. (Senecio and artemisia, for instance, will not thank you for planting them under your sprawling shade trees.) There isn’t much that doesn’t look better set off by lambs’ ears – even the name is evocative – but especially good companions are ‘Konigin Charlotte’ Japanese anemones and purple-flowered salvias, such as S. leucantha ‘Midnight.’ If you’re more of a furry than a fuzzy – does anyone else remember than Vanity Fair article in the ‘90s? I’ll never forget my friend Logan explaining the difference to me – take a look at Meconopsis paniculata, whose foliage looks straight outta Sesame Street.
Another softy (furry? fuzzy? Now I can’t remember the difference between the two) is bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare purpureum, how’s that for a mouthful) who grows to a whopping 6’ and spreads its seeds all about at the end of the season, generally September or October. Most gardeners and gardening books complain about this propensity to self-sow, but honestly I am firmly in the camp of lazy gardeners who can’t see this as anything but a bonus. Anyone who knows me will tell you that my only control issues are that I generally don’t have any, so there’s your caveat if you like things tightly in check, but I am so often asked for ways to save money while not comprimising the garden, and I can’t see how self-seeders aren’t the perfect answer here. Buy a few plants now, watch your collection expand each year! And when you don’t want to add any more to your name, you can either cut the flower heads off before they go to seed, or pull up the new seedlings before they hit full height. Anyway, there you have Lindsay’s quick and dirty, laissez-faire take on cheap gardening.
Back to the White Tiger and her quest for softness: bronze fennel is excellent in a herb garden and as a companion to purple or pink-flowering shrubs, particularly roses, as it can cut their saccharine quality. Fennel is an umbelliferous plant – meaning what your eye sees as a flower is actually an ‘umbel,’ zillions of tiny flowers in an upturned platter shape – and consequently, butterflies love it. If you live somewhere along their migratory path, you’re sure to see their fat and psychedelic little caterpillars chomping away on its delicate, ferny fronds. Please don’t flick them away or spray chemicals all over your garden! You’ll have six feet worth of fennel for them to chew; surely we can share? If we don’t allow caterpillars to munch our leaves, we can’t expect to see their glorious adult incarnations flitting about our skies.
‘Giant Bronze’ is the cultivar best liked by the master plantsman and designer Piet Oudolf. He uses it as a screen effect, only lightly obscuring the plants behind it, and couples it with Echinacea, Echinops, Monarda and Stipa. Cut the old, thick fennel stalks down to the ground at the end of each winter to allow new growth and prevent bulkiness. Before you do so, collect the seeds from the umbels and use them in your kitchen; this is exactly what you’re getting when you buy fennel seed for your spice rack, though the vegetable fennel is a different beast altogether.
There are numerous grasses to choose from if you want softness for the garden; my (and Piet’s) top choices are Molinia caerula ssp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’ (Purple Moor Grass) and Stipa tenuissima (Mexican feather grass). Try either alongside Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain.’ Both grasses have an ephemeral, feathery lightness to them that belies their lack of maintenance needs.
And finally, for the softest, most tactile kind of garden, I can think of none more nurturing or inspiring than the gardens of Saihō-ji Temple in Kyoto. Known more commonly as Kokedera, or Moss Temple, the gardens of this 14th-century Buddhist temple incorporate 120 different varieties of moss and have influenced Japnese garden design for centuries. When visiting Kokedera, visitors are asked to observe the rituals of kito and shakyo (chanting and copying of the sutra) before wandering the meandering paths of the moss gardens. Surely this is the model of softness and meditativeness to which the White Tiger would have us aspire?