There is good reason that the practice of growing plants is associated with witchcraft and the arcane. The simple act of bringing the sleeping seed into a state of vibrant life lends an air of power and mystery to one who learns to excel at it.
Walpurgisnacht, known more commonly as the night before May Day or Beltane, is second only to Samhain in the witches’ wheel of the year. In many European communities the mundane masses avoided venturing out of their homes on this night for fear of witches. As Rudyard Kipling famously wrote:
Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But we shall be out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
So, as we eagerly peruse the flood of seed catalogs that come to our mailboxes this time of year, both virtual and physical, let’s ruminate on the necessary steps to make our botanical refuges magickal and magnificent.
The Good Earth
There aren’t many places where a gardener will find perfect soil. If you scoop up a handful and squeeze it in your fist, you’ll most often find that it will crumble apart when you release it, which means you have excessively sandy conditions. Or it may hold together in a tight, dense ball. That means you’ve got clay. You lucky few whose soil forms a loose, friable handful that is midnight black and smells a little like fresh mushrooms? You have loam on your hands, and you should take a moment to thank the horticultural god of your choice for your good fortune.
The rest of us should take a deep breath, and remember that all soils have their strong points. Sand is light on nutrients, but offers excellent drainage, which many plants need just as urgently. Clay soil is the bane of many a gardener, but its advantage is the many essential minerals that make up that heavy, sticky stuff. All we need is to loosen things up a bit. In either case, lots and lots of well rotted compost or other organic materials will both add nutrients, and make some space in your soil for root growth, and the many microorganisms that will make or break your garden success. Check out this guide for more about soil amendment.
Fire and Water
Next to soil, it is most important to consider the resources of sun and water. Sadly for us heliophobes, most plants thrive in full sun. If your garden has a lot of southern exposure, your plant choices are so vast as to be daunting. You might refer to my previous article on black plants, or just peruse a nursery for flowers and foliage to fit your preferred color palette.
If your plot is as shady as your black, black heart you’ll be a bit more limited in your options, but there’s no reason to despair. Shade gardens can be among the most darkly beautiful, and often take a bit less maintenance once established.
Moss is happiest in dim light, and adding it around other plants, or to stones or concrete objects can evoke ruined cathedrals or the occluded home of unseelie faeries.
Lacy, ethereal ferns are another favorite of shade gardeners. These are among the most ancient of foliage plants, with some varieties appearing in fossil records 360 million years old. They possess an added appeal to darklings because it was once quite popular for tombstones to bear the image of a fern.
The queen of the shade garden is often reckoned to be the bleeding heart. It is most often seen in shades of pink, but strains with dark red and purple petals aren’t too hard to come by. Perhaps the most lovely is the white variety whose burst of blood red inner petals offer a shocking contrast to their porcelain pallor.
If you live in an arid climate, or have dry and sandy soil, you will want to consider plants with low water needs. Let me introduce you to the horticultural practice of xeriscaping, which is notable both as a water-conservation method, and as a secret weapon for your next Scrabble night.
Some perennial flowers are fairly drought tolerant, as are a few annuals, including a favorite of mine, the lantana. The real workhorse of the xeriscape however is the succulent. There is a dizzying array of succulents available, and nearly all are low maintenance and gorgeous to boot. Even so, there is one that could have been designed for the nerdy goths among us.
Feast your eyes on the alien looking, blood-colored Zwartkop. This plant is so easy to care for, and so exotic in appearance it fairly begs for a place in your garden. It would be inhospitable of us to deny it.
When your garden muse fails you
It can be overwhelming to have to do all the design work as well as putting in all the practical labor. There may come a time when a little guidance might help jumpstart your creativity. Pre-planned gardens are available from many plant catalogs. The plants have already been selected and laid out with consideration to factors such as sun needs and plant height. You are likely to want to swap their varietals for plants with darker hues, but it can be a good place to start.
The practice of container gardening offers still more inventive ways to add little pops of interest around a landscape that feels too ordinary. Baskets. Wheelbarrows. Claw-foot bathtubs. Those venerable Doc Martens which, let’s face it, you are never going to have resoled.
In the final analysis, a dark garden is a unique garden by definition. Let your wild, iconoclastic spirit guide your hand, and your plantings will always be full of character and gothic appeal.