The importance of flowers

A few years ago my husband asked, casually, how many different flowers we were growing in our gardens. I laughed and laughed. I am more right brained than he is, and it hadn’t occurred to me to use numbers to assess our plants. Also, we have so many, too many to count.

I’m thinking about them now, as I cut back the dead stuff, mulch, and put up bunny fences to help my posies make it through the winter. It is sad to see the frost-blackened remains, and to know that it will be six months or so before we see blooms again.

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For woodland wild flowers, we have: trillium, wild ginger, Solomon’s-seal, Jacob’s-ladder, Virginia cowslip, blue phlox.

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We’ve lived at our house for seventeen years, and still, each spring I add more flowers. We have an average-sized city lot, so you’d think that at some point we’d reach our limit and be all set, but no. These days I rarely establish a new bed, but as plants spread or die back, they need to be dug up and replaced or moved.  

And a gardener’s tastes and style change over time. As I shape my gardens, I, in turn, am being worked on. I learn what I most enjoy growing and what each type of plant likes and needs. I watch to see if they are happy. I want to make them happy.

When it comes to general types of plants, my garden’s proportions have evolved. Years ago I began with an old-fashioned annuals/perennials mix and have been steadily moving toward less of that and more wetland and prairie natives, edibles and herbs.

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Our wetland natives: Cup-plant, swamp milkweed, Joe-Pye-weed. Our prairie natives: gray-headed coneflower, leadplant, prairie smoke, button blazing star. Our edibles in the flowerbeds: strawberries, rhubarb, bush cherries, black currents. Our herbs: lemon balm, lavender, lemon and lime thyme, anise hyssop.

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Each week, from May to October, we pick flowers we have grown ourselves. We bring them in, put them in a vase, and set it on our dining room hutch. I walk by them countless times each day and admire them. I’ve been trying to figure out why this makes me so happy, but this I know: seeing our garden flowers in the house improves my quality of life. I can’t say it any more plainly than that.

I am responding to their beauty, sure. I feel the satisfaction of accomplishment, as if I’d made them myself. I appreciate that they are lovely extras, and I like the whimsy of my helter/skelter arrangements that include everything from luscious roses or lilies to dried seedpods and stalks of weeds or shrubs.

But there is more to it than that. I walked around this summer thinking, “The earth is so gorgeous. We live in paradise.” Seeing my flowers every day reminds me of that. It nurtures my sensibilities.

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Because they make such good cut flowers we still plant a few classic annuals, including zinnias and snapdragons. And it is hard to do without some of those old timey garden perennials like peonies, delphiniums, and iris. For late season color you can’t beat gladiolas.

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Of course the flowers are not lovely extras to the bees and butterflies. To them they are essentials. The lack of bees in our yard during this past spring and early summer alarmed me, but then their numbers increased. I carefully worked around them when I was weeding and watering, trying not to disturb them. Butterflies were in short supply at first, too. I eventually saw the occasional monarch. Each one was a small sign that something positive was happening.

What did the bees and butterflies favor in our flower gardens? With a few exceptions, zinnias being one, I almost always saw them collecting pollen or nectar on the native plants.

We gardeners like to experiment, and this year a new plant I tried looked good in cut flower arrangements. It is called hummingbird mint. I liked its name, so I bought it. I set it in the ground near where I normally hang my hummingbird feeder. I kept meaning to fill that thing and get it out in the garden, but I never got around to it.

I wondered, as it grew bushier and taller, and bloomed without ceasing for months, if, indeed, hummingbirds liked it. Then one day in September, while I was watering a bed nearby, I saw that iridescent flying being (that looks like a little green flying fish) hovering in mid-air near the plant. It then moved up and down the long stems probing each tiny, orange, tubular flower with its long bill, sipping a drop of nectar from each one.

Like I said, we live in paradise.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.