Come to the Dark Side

In gardening, as in life, a little quirkiness is a good thing. I love visiting a well-planned French garden where everything is laid out in geometric perfection, but even as a spectator, they make me nervous. There’s too much pressure to keep things a certain height, shape, and most importantly, alive. A few dead boxwoods in a knot garden make the same impression as a dentist missing a few front teeth. I picture the poor groundskeeper lurking in a nearby bush, a giant mug of coffee in one hand, insecticide in the other, foot tapping nervously. Their eyes constantly scanned the garden for the slightest bit of yellow, ears straining to hear the soft purr of Japanese beetles on the wing. Gardening should be taken seriously, but not that seriously.
Clients occasionally asked me for gardening tips, and over the years I’ve narrowed it down to four things. First, plants like sun or shade, so that should determine where you place them, not where you think they’ll be cute. Second, dig a generous hole and amend the soil. Third, keep them watered until they are established. Finally, some of your little darlings will go to their eternal rest prematurely, despite your tender loving care, or in some cases because of it. Learn from their passing, review tips one through three, and move on. Gardening is a life-or-death pastime.
This Spring I decided to embrace that concept more enthusiastically and started to work on a goth garden in my backyard. A gothic, or goth garden goes back to the Victorian Romanticism idea that any artistic expression should be complex and emotional. Victorian gardens were filled with elements of death and decay, including “ruins” that were new structures made to look old and derelict. Goth gardens can also be filled with medicinal herbs, old stones and moss, and winding paths leading to secluded, tryst-worthy spaces. 
Most of us don’t have the space or budget to install a crumbling stone gazebo or a forgotten courtyard, but you can create a high-impact area in a small space. In my case I zeroed in on a four by six food section of my back border that was so boring I had to speed up every time I walked by so I wouldn’t fall asleep on the spot. I started with a focal point, in this case, an old French garden statue of a girl reading a book, and flanked her with some pieris japonica to soften her shape, and because the strings of blooms on the pieris have a Victorian look. 
Surrounding her are plants with black, or very dark, flowers and leaves. To the front are the black flowered hellebore, New York Night, to the sides are Black Pearl coral bell plants, and mixed in are Black Scallop ajuga. I’m still waiting for black mondo grass to hit the nurseries and the ground to warm up enough to plant some black dahlias and a voodoo lily. (For the uninitiated, the voodoo lily has a beautiful exotic flower with a terrible scent since it’s designed to be fertilized by houseflies.)
To design your goth garden, start with a hardscape focal point to set your tone. This can range from an old gate, salvaged stone, cast iron, an urn or weathered container, or a reflecting pool. Then design your garden around the plants that fit your mood and your space. Try to avoid using straight lines, and use materials that have a worn look to them. The goal is to make it look like it’s been around for a while. If you are a fan of moss like I am, you can speed up the process by applying moss milk to the area to create a moss garden. To make moss milk, add two cups of water and two cups of buttermilk to a blender, fill to the top with moss, then blend until smooth. Poor or spray it where you want it, and keep the area damp for a week or two. 
My goth garden has a dark side, but I’ll argue that any garden space that stirs up an emotion is a goth garden. Have fond memories of the annuals in one of your favorite person’s yards when you were a kid? Make a sunny little garden with those old-fashioned plants. If you are a rock hound and have some favorite stones from a favorite place, make a small raised bed with them in the middle, then surround them with dwarf mondo grass. Instant zen garden. Just remember, if you’re not having fun putting it together, it’s not gardening, it’s just digging holes.

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