Only a gardener could truly appreciate the possibilities inherent in a discarded bathtub, a tree stump and a large rock fragment.
We gardeners were the first recyclers. We saw seedlings emerge from rotting leaves and reasoned that the leaves must have something the seedlings needed. We used cow manure for fertilizer and leftover alfalfa hay for mulch. We took yesterday’s newspaper and spread it between our tomato plants to keep out the weeds.
I once had a student who sank an old bathtub into the ground and filled it with water. Horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) in a few one-gallon containers were lowered in, and tiny floating ferns (Azolla filiculoides) were sprinkled over the surface. Just like that there was a water garden.
Around the tub, a variety of winter blooming perennials were placed, and they have provided color every January since then.
Dominating the scene is a shrub marigold (Tagetes lemmonii). This remarkable evergreen plant has a spicy fragrance found nowhere else. It is 4 feet tall and covered with hundreds of small, orange daisy-shaped flowers. Its sea-green leaves are finely cut. The shrub marigold, unlike the common marigold used for annual color, should not be planted in full-day sun. I once did this and grew a plant with plenty of foliage but not a single flower. Full exposure to the morning sun is perfect; plant it under a tall tree if it faces south or west.
At the base of the shrub marigold is Bergenia crassifolia, known as Siberian tea for the drink made from its leaves. Although this plant survives with a minimum of water, it needs regular irrigation to reveal its true beauty, described by 8-inch cabbage leaves and flowers of pink. The bergenia forms rhizomes, which may be lifted and transplanted after flowers fade.
On the other side of the water, echoing the orange of the marigold, is a bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia reginae). This plant is the city flower of Los Angeles, although it seems to bloom a lot more in West Los Angeles than in the San Fernando Valley. Like the gardenia and the fuchsia, it belongs to that category of problematic plants that crave light but suffer from desiccating heat. I defy anyone to grow a bird-of-paradise without leaves that turn crispy brown around the edges. Yet the spectacular orange and blue flowers it yields each winter definitely make it worth the effort. Crowded containerized plants seem to bloom the most, and the flowers are famous for their effect in vase arrangements.
To reach the tub pond, you tread upon a gravel path. Alongside is a bed of Sedum confusum, through which clumps of Senecio manraliscae are growing. This Senecio is a succulent plant with distinctive blue fingers for leaves. It contrasts well with the pale jade green of the sedum.
The piece de resistance of this winter garden is a cymbidium orchid – planted in a mound of fir bark – which rests in the large scooped-out fragment of a volcanic rock. This rock is mounted on a tree stump about 2 feet tall. The leaves and flowers of the orchid arch over the water, adding a touch of the exotic. This should be a great year for cymbidiums – which may bloom for as long as three months – considering the cold winter we have experienced. Cold brings out the floriferous best in cymbidiums, as it does in almost every other plant that flowers in the winter or spring.
Some may argue that the above garden is too busy, that one or two types of plants would have been more elegant than the mixture used here. This complaint about busyness is old and distinguished. Yet the student who made this garden grew up in equatorial Asia; its design is a reflection of the natural tropical landscape. The variety of plants growing in the tropics is considerably greater than that found in our own temperate continent. In the tropics, the number of different plants native to a single area is overwhelming. The tropical garden style is that of the botanical garden, a melange of many different species.
Variety in a garden also may have salubrious effects. Diverse plants attract a diversity of insects, including predaceous insects that devour insect pests. The pond is also helpful in this respect. Where you have water, you will have birds – and their voracious appetite for insects.
Photo credit: Lynn Friedman / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND