Get Growing: A tale of two pots

  • A painting by Mickey Rathbun’s son Nicholas Benfey. “What first drew me to the painting were the audacious colors, oranges and reds butting up against purples and greens,” she says. “He painted it on an abandoned canvas he found that had already been painted. His colors are layered on top, allowing some of the original painting to appear as a pattern in a woman’s dress. His pot is like a three-dimensional version of the  painting.” SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Mickey Rathbun’s son Nicholas Benfey, whom she asked to design a garden pot. She told him that she wouldn’t critique his plant choices, except to advise him about sun and shade preferences, she says: “He is an artist, after all. I knew I would have to bite my tongue, but I also knew how blessed I was to have an adult child volunteering to help with garden chores. I was determined not to be what my mother would have called a ‘heavy muffin’ and ruin the experience for him.” SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 6/17/2020 6:39:23 AM

One of my favorite gardening tasks of early summer is planting the two large round pots on the patio. I love to wander the aisles at Andrew’s Greenhouse, marveling at the felicitous color combinations of annuals on display. One table might be filled with whites, blues and lime-green, Another with lavender and yellow. No matter how incongruous-seeming the mixtures, they always look perfect. Every year I vow to replicate one of their striking color palettes, but somehow I always lose my nerve.

This year I had a helper with my pots. Our younger son, Nicholas, fled Brooklyn in late March and came home to stay with us. He is a painter and was finishing his second year of art school. His studio was closed and his classes were online. It was wonderful to have him home. Once the weather warmed up, he helped me tackle some gardening projects that involved tussling with blackberry vines and pulling out a nasty patch of winter creeper euonymus (Euonymus fortunei), a super-invasive, ground-hugging, tree-climbing vine that’s earned the dubious nickname “kudzu of the North.” Surely he deserved a break from those thankless tasks, and when I asked him if he would like to help me choose plants for the patio pots, he was game.

I am a bit of a control freak when it comes to gardening and cooking. My family would call that a gross understatement. But I told Nicholas that he could have one of the pots to design by himself, and that I would not say a single word about his plant choices, except to advise him about sun and shade preferences. He is an artist, after all. I knew I would have to bite my tongue, but I also knew how blessed I was to have an adult child volunteering to help with garden chores. I was determined not to be what my mother would have called a “heavy muffin” and ruin the experience for him.

I figured he would have fun with all the crazy begonias and coleuses, so I gave him the part-sun pot to design. While I filled my cart with the usual sun-loving suspects — white Angelonia, pink verbena, red and blue salvias — I pointed him in the direction of the Rex begonias, thinking he’d fall in love with some of the weirder ones that look like they came from the Addams family garden. But it was color he was after. He made a bee-line for a begonia called ‘I’ Conia Portofino Sunrise, covered with brilliant orangey-yellow double blossoms. His next choice was a “Whopper Red” begonia, with sumptuous, fire-engine red flowers and shiny green leaves. To this eye-catching pair he added a “Purple Magilla” perilla, whose green and magenta leaves I can only describe as lurid. (I later researched the perilla online and discovered that the “Purple Magilla” perilla has been reclassified as a coleus. If you’re interested in the painstaking work that goes into plant classification, you should check out this article: https://garden.org/ideas/view/rattlebox/2111/Perilla-Magilla-vs-Perilla-vs-Coleus/.)

He rounded out the collection with a trailing coleus with small green and red leaves (coleus “Great Falls Angel”), and a Rex Begonia “Zumba,” with spiny, pale green leaves veined with deep maroon. As we were headed to the checkout, a feathery, deep-blue lobelia caught his eye. “Wow, do you think there’s room for this?” he asked me. “Why not?” I replied.

That evening, as we ate dinner on the patio, we admired our newly planted pots. Mine was a demure blend of pink and lavender pastels with a couple of pops of red and blue and a pale-green trailing sweet potato — tame and predictable. His was a riot of colors I never would have chosen. He said, “I think I did kind of a ‘beginner’ pot.” I laughed and asked him what he meant. He said he just picked all the brightest colors that caught his eye, without thinking about how they would work together. But the thing is, his pot looks fabulous. The colors assert themselves unapologetically; they get along because they don’t try to.

When I stepped into the house after dinner, the first thing I saw was a painting by Nicholas that my husband and I bought from a show of his last summer. I loved the painting from the moment I saw it. It shows a random group of people in a room, men and women, old and young, some sitting and standing. It’s not clear why they’re together, but they seem to be engaged in some common purpose. What first drew me to the painting were the audacious colors, oranges and reds butting up against purples and greens. He painted it on an abandoned canvas he found that had already been painted. His colors are layered on top, allowing some of the original painting to appear as a pattern in a woman’s dress. His pot is like a three-dimensional version of the painting.

Nicholas headed back to Brooklyn last week, eager to catch up on his life there. In the meantime, his older brother, Tommy, has joined us. He’s biding his time until he can travel to the U.K. to start a postdoctoral fellowship in early Persian culture. I’m thinking it might be time to get Tommy his own patio pot to design. I’m curious to see what his plant choices would be.

Despite the many hardships of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been lovely to have our kids back in our orbit. And Nicholas’s colorful pot is a welcome reminder to me to be bold. No one ever died from too much color.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy