In the movie, Cluny Brown, once it becomes clear Elizabeth will marry Lady Carmel’s son, Lady Carmel tells her they will have a long talk in the morning, “especially about the gardens because they’re all planned three years ahead.” Gardens are the marquee headliner in their upcoming talk—not wedding plans or financial settlements or living arrangements.
The movie is set in England just before World War II consumes Europe. Lord and Lady Carmel have an English estate in the countryside. Their gardens are immense and sumptuous, the kind that need planning and a bevy of gardeners. Even the shore along their lake is landscaped. Lady Carmel probably has a rose named after her. She probably enters a flower arrangement every year in the village garden show and, no doubt, wins.
Lady Carmel would’ve been disappointed to have me as a daughter-in-law. My idea of planning gardens? Go to the farmer’s market, see what’s being offered, and decide if I have a place to plant it. This is an ongoing slice of my summer, with the heaviest impromptu gardening happening between the end of May and the middle of June.
My gardens present a challenge—I need plants that can stand the shade. I have lots of shade: complete shade, almost all shade, mostly almost all shade, some sun but still a lot of shade, and a few good hours of morning sun then lots of shade. I need plants with sunglasses, wide brimmed hats, and slathers of sunblock on their leaves, begging to be lodged in shade.
I’m giddy when I discover flora that blooms in the shade. Last weekend as I paid a vendor at the farmer’s market for a hanging basket and some painted rocks, I spotted a plant at the back of her stand. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a pot with a dowel to which a picture was taped.
The vendor rattled off a name, which I promptly forgot. “Does it like shade?” I asked.
“It loves shade,” she said.
“Complete shade?” I needed her to know the sunlessness of my empty garden spot.
“It doesn’t care if it ever sees the sun,” she said.
“Does it bloom?” I asked because most plants seem to want some sun if they’re going to bloom.
“Yes, it gets lots of little heart-shaped flowers.”
“I’ll take it.” My feet tapped eight to the bar.
I imagined Lady Carmel standing next to me, saying, We can’t buy that. It’s not on the three-year plan.
Lighten up, Lady Carmel, I’d say. Do you know how hard it is to find a plant that loves shade and blooms?
Near the beginning of Cluny Brown, Lord Carmel tells a house guest that the gardens are Lady Carmel’s empire. He figuratively implies the sun never sets on the grounds that she rules. My gardens are like a small unincorporated township. But Lady Carmel and I would both agree that no matter the size, our gardens are our dominions.
Every morning, afternoon, and evening, I tour my gardens, meandering around my house then behind the shed where a small, full-sun planting bed exists, my only one. I gauge the needs of my flowers and plants, pulling a few weeds, deadheading, and watering the thirsty.
My gardens are humble, but they’re mine, and like Lady Carmel, I feel rather noble after returning from a tour of my blossoms and greenery.
I do have a three-year plan now, but it involves the garden spaces, not the plants in the them. This year I’m getting new vinyl-clad basement windows. Next year I’m having the stucco around the foundation fixed. The following year I’m increasing the size of my gardens and having new borders installed. Lady Carmel might think there’s hope for me, but I will still buy my plants on the fly.