A field trip on a drizzly day last spring to the Cloisters Museum and Gardens in Upper Manhattan has kept me busy all summer. The Cloisters, devoted to the art and architecture of Medieval Europe, is surrounded by walled gardens of medicinal plants (deadly nightshade, anyone?), magical plants, and plants mentioned in the Bible, such as the mandrakes that had a famously aphrodisiac effect in the book of Genesis. (In case you’ve forgotten, barren Rachel persuades her nephew Reuben to give her the mandrakes he’d collected for his mother Leah, who already has four sons. In exchange, Leah gets to spend an extra night with Jacob, husband to both, during which Leah conceives her next son. Soon thereafter, Rachel gives birth to Joseph and Jacob. And thus is born the tribe of Israel.) Luckily, the signs at the Cloisters politely request “do not touch the plants.” The gardens also feature magnificently espaliered fruit trees, flowering ornamental shrubs, potted topiaries, and other wonderful things. You can read a lot more at the museum’s own garden blog.
But I must admit that the friends I toured the gardens with with that day, fellow members of the Garden Club of Irvington-on-Hudson, were most smitten by the handmade, teepee or obelisk-shaped twig tuteurs. I’ve never quite figured out the vertical gardening thing, and here was a way to add height and interesting shapes to the garden, grow flowering vines, create focal points, and have some fun.
The first thing I did upon arriving home from the Cloisters was scope out our garden and pick a spot that gets some sun. I stripped off the grass in a five-foot circle, dug out a wheelbarrow full of weeds and tree roots, and went to my favorite garden shop, Rosedale, in Hawthorne, where they stock a nice selection of wrought-iron tuteurs. I came home with a six-foot-tall obelisk with a ball on top, a blue-flowering Clematis ‘Ramona’ to climb up it, and two perennial geraniums (Geranium x ‘Rozanne’) to plant at the roots along with a few liriopes I dug out of the bed surrounding it.
The clematis had to be untangled and re-pinned up, but it did well, and glory be, after a few weeks began to bloom.
That was the beginning of my obsession. Wherever I went this summer, I looked for tuteurs and obelisks. In Vermont I picked up two cute black ones, one each square and round. At Kent Greenhouse and Gardens on Route 7 in Connecticut—one of my favorite nurseries—I found four bamboo ones on sale, $8 for the small and $12 for the medium. Into the car they went. Plus a whole flat of annual black-eyed susans, Thunbergia ‘Lemon Star,’ hugely overgrown, root-bound, tangled, and nearly dying, which they sold me for $5 so I could rescue them. “Just get them out of the pots,” demanded the nurserywoman. “They will bloom until frost.”
Rescue them I did, and here are two of the babies, lovingly untangled, trimmed, and clipped to wind up a bamboo tuteur in a plastic pot.
And, halleluyah, with roots as well as stems untangled, dead leaves trimmed, in fresh potting mix, surrounded by a few rooted cuttings of complementary plants—and after a week or two of care and sun—one of these creations is almost ready to be given as a birthday present to my friend Renee.
This is the kind of project in which God truly is in the details. I’m enjoying watching the relationship between each plant and its trellis and its neighbors. Thunbergia, I’m seeing, isn’t shy. When it’s happy, it goes crazy, wining and twining itself around everything that its fast-growing stems can reach.
Tuteurs and obelisks are excellent ornaments even without being planted. Here is one filling up a dark, empty space under the eave near our front door.
But the real joy is watching the plants bloom. On our deck, there are more flowers today than there were yesterday in this tall square pot that has been home for several years to an azalea that shows off white flowers for a week in the late spring. Now, with a black square tuteur hosting a thunbergia, it has a second life. And, they say, it will bloom until frost. That is, if it doesn’t take over the whole deck.