© Janet Davis


Alliums? I’ve grown alliums, and while they’re quite lovely in the late spring and early summer garden, I have fond memories of the two summers I turned alliums into art.


I’m not exactly sure when the impulse hit the first time. Maybe I’d had a tad too much wine, or maybe it was in the spirit of conservation — you  know, reuse, recycle and redecorate. Whatever.  Anyway, I was strolling around the garden that warm late June evening, checking out what was in bloom, but my eyes kept wandering to the dead, brown blossoms of dozens of Allium aflatunense. Tall ornamental onions that had been spectacular purple starbursts in May alongside the tulips, they were now refusing to lie down and disappear. They had about them the look of aging screen stars insisting on staying at the party. Nevertheless, the stems still stood straight, and I knew from previous summers that the spherical seedheads would often hold their shape for months.


Before I knew it, I was in the basement rummaging through boxes filled with the tools of the trade of a young, once-errant "aerosol artist" of very close acquaintance, now reformed and highly regarded, among his peers, as an accomplished "legal" muralist.


Armed with tins of spray enamel in various shocking hues, I headed back to the garden, this time looking on the alliums not as dead things ready for the compost, but as live art looking for a place to happen. I carefully considered the question of colour, feeling torn between the school of tasteful décor and the little devil inside my head whispering, "They’re gonna look weird anyway, so go crazy!"


I was very careful to isolate the flowerheads in sheets of plastic as I sprayed them, since the tiniest drift of paint onto the foliage of nearby plants could prove fatal. My only concern was that somehow the bulbs in the ground would suffer, even though the alliums tops had ceased communicating with the roots weeks before. (That fear proved unfounded the following spring, when the new flowers emerged, not only hale-and-hearty, but multiplying as they should).


Thirty minutes later, the borders were filled with multi-coloured balls, their wiry stems swaying in the wind like psychedelic sputniks. In shades of ochre, turquoise, purple and orange, they poked through the peach and yellow daylilies, nudged up against the purple coneflower and canoodled with the pink hydrangea.   Decked out in these party colors, they were even more fetching than they had been au naturel.   


My daughter, who was a teenager at the time, thought it was all perversely unnatural, spraying dead flowers with paint, but I assured her that no honeybees were going to be tricked by spray paint. Besides, there’s no law that says you can’t have the odd (very odd) giggle in the garden.


The next season, I decided on a more understated approach to my painted alliums, au naturel purple. So that summer, (with apologies to those 1960s one-hit wonders Nino Tempo and April Stevens), I had "deep purple balls under sleepy garden walls"   -- all summer long!


Adapted from a column that appeared originally in the Toronto Sun


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