dan hinkley was here

Yes, that Dan Hinkley, he of the vast knowledge, storied reputation and fabulous gardens. Considering all this, I feared that his talk might be a bit over my head. Instead, he had his large audience of hortheads in stitches a good deal of the time, and the all-too-short presentation flew by.

Always, he has been known for his far-flung travels to discover rare and exotic plant life. He then painstakingly coaxed these treasures into production to offer to an eagerly awaiting audience. Many of us who fell hard for them lacked Dan’s skill at meeting their diva-like requirements and they languished in our own gardens. Here is an excerpt from the HPSO flier announcing his appearance:

Now, with the benefit of time and experimentation, he has drawn some conclusions about garden plants which, despite their novelty, exquisiteness or pampering, are bound to let us down, and those which, on account of their familiarity, subtlety or effortlessness, are often overlooked or ignored altogether, even though they unfailingly reward us.

Woohoo…this was to be a talk about plants we can all grow, a foolproof list of old reliables. I expected him to wax eloquent about Rhododendrons, but it was not to be. His comment about Richard’s beloved rhodys: “I just can’t do them. I have visions of growers sitting around speculating on ever more annoying colors to develop.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s pretty close). Well, he did throw in a good word for seeing them as foliage plants. We picked up on that approach some time ago, and always add to our growing collection based on leaf shape and size, with bloom color a distant second consideration (and there are some fetching colors to be had, as long as we steer clear of the gaudy neon shades).

One of the funniest sequences, complete with sound effects, dealt with Tetrapanax papyrifera, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. His experience saw it popping up everywhere. Given its daunting size, that could definitely pose a problem. Again, a disclaimer that ‘Steroid Giant’, the variety we proudly introduced to our landscape, is less thuggish than others of its clan.

Acacia pravissima (see my post of March 23, ’08), he offered up as a sure-fire hit. I agree that the spiky evergreen foliage is fascinating and elegant. When it blooms, as ours did for the first time in the spring of 2008, the fuzzy yellow blossoms are delightful. Contrary to Dan’s experience, our acacia was no match for the winter storms of 2008. That could well be because it suffered some damage when it iced up in 2007, and was a little worse for the wear and tear.

Dancing Oaks Nursery has impressive stands of Lobelia tupa. I double-dare you to set eyes on them there or in Dan’s slides without getting that familiar acquisitive feeling deep in the pit of your stomach. I gave them everything their little pistils are said to desire, only to have them disappear, never to be seen again.

Sooo…am I feeling discouraged just because every selection I happen to have personal experience with contradicts Hinkley’s perceptions? Not one whit. I am going to be on the lookout for a Hakea, charmed by its needle-like evergreen foliage and curly white blooms. My Western Garden Book lists it as hardy only to zone 9…will I never learn? I’ve not had much luck with Agapanthus, but am encouraged to try again, newly impressed by their beauty. The Yuccas and Nolinas are well worth a trip to Cistus, even if the latter pose a likely health risk (severed feet discovered beneath the Nolina must surely be an exaggeration, right?) I’ve been looking for something to plant beneath the cherry trees, and Cyclamen coum looks like just the ticket. The Mahonias seem like a sure bet. I was particularly taken with duclouxiana. Olearia mollis is a candidate for the evergreen border we are developing along our drive. Its mounding habit will enhance the textural mix, becoming a fragrant cloud when it blooms.

Despite any disparate experiences with individual species, many of us came away from Dan Hinkley’s presentation hankering after a long list of plants, and with a new appreciation of the man himself. His self-deprecating humor and playful approach to horticulture made for an entirely entertaining morning.

One last note (of admitted self-interest): his garden was punctuated by a number of banners much like my ‘Spinnakers’. I don’t quite know whether to feel gratified or threatened, but they did look smashing.

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