On a gray, windy, not-quite-spring-yet Sunday afternoon, a capacity crowd packed into Bridge Gardens Trust in Bridgehampton to contemplate summer.
The attendees were there for the latest installment of the Bridge Gardens/Madoo Conservancy winter lecture series, a talk on “Objects in the Summer Garden: Bulbs, Tubers and Tropicals,” given by well-known garden stylist, maven and author Dianne Benson, known professionally as “Dianne B.”
Bridge Gardens Manager Rick Bogusch introduced Ms. Benson, noting that after a successful career in fashion, she began to focus on her own East End garden. That garden, located at her home in East Hampton, has become a destination spot, which is frequently open to visitors. Additionally, Ms. B. shares information on tools and other garden necessities for discriminating (“very discriminating,” she emphasized) gardeners through her website diannebbest.com.
At Bridge Gardens, Ms. B.’s subject was plants—specifically bulbous plants—as objects in summer gardens. To Ms. B., plants aren’t just growing things; they can be as visually compelling as art or architecture in the garden.
“They are to me as good as any object in the garden can be,” she said. “They’re distinctive, and they divert you.”
To the gratification of her audience, Ms. B. said she would not be speaking about “anything that you should have already planted, because that’s rather depressing.” Instead, she discussed and showed examples of bulbs (and tubers, rhizomes, corms and other bulbous plants) that can still be ordered from catalogs and websites and planted in this year’s garden. “You can have them this summer,” she promised.
To aid in acquisitions, she distributed a list of her favorite bulb sources and catalogs from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (brentandbecky’sbulbs.com), which has a long history growing and selling bulbs for planting and as cut flowers. For local nurseries, she recommended that gardeners look for the Hot Plants line grown by LandCraft Environments in Mattituck.
Ms. B. began her talk with arisaemas, known as “jack-in-the-pulpits” by many. This genus is an obsession of hers, she said.
“Maybe if I had to choose a favorite plant this would be one of them,” she said, adding that arisaemas can be expensive. “But look at that!” she exclaimed, pointing to a photo of the dramatic arisaema sikokianum—its pure white spadix (the jack in its pulpit) in its hoodlike purple-brown spathe stands amid compound green leaves in spring.
Ms. B. reported that she has found these plants to be hardy and reliable, as well as excellent choices for shady locations. Other species she grows include cobra lily, arisaema consanguineum, whose greenish flower has a dramatic black snakehead structure. A special treasure in her garden is black mambo, arisaema ringens, a glossy-leaved beauty that thrives and blooms in the deep shade beneath an evergreen tree.
Next up were some members of the aroid family, which most associate with jungles. Or houseplants. These tropical plants can’t ordinarily survive winters this far north, though the Italian arum, arum Italicum, is hardy. And voodoo lily, sauromatum venosum, has beaten the odds in her garden.
Most of the rest, including elephant’s ears—alocasia and colocasia—xanthosoma, dracunculus and the classic white calla lily, zantedeschia aethiopica, must be dug and stored indoors over winter or grown as annuals and purchased anew each spring.
Ms. B. showed several stunning examples of the family, but she noted that two in particular are close to her heart. One of them, a colocasia variety called “mojito,” is usually described as having green leaves splashed with black. But the plant in her garden had bolder coloration. Some leaves were chartreuse, some were all black and others split right down the middle, with one half being chartreuse and the other half black.
“It was,” she declared, “the most fashionable living thing I have ever seen.”
This kind of variation is what keeps so many gardeners hooked, Ms. B. said. “You never know what you might get,” is how she summed up that urge to keep experimenting with new plants.
Her other favorite aroid, which has become a signature plant in her garden, is the voodoo lily, sauromatum venosum. She reported that every fall she digs up some bulbs, lest they succumb to winter cold. But so far, the plants have always come back in spring. She also noted that a single large leaf on its tall stem in a vase makes for a striking table decoration indoors.