This post is dedicated to Grandma Bluma, my diminutive but very formidable Eastern European grandmother who lived to be 91. In her later years, if you were to ask her how she was, she would invariably reply, "Still alive, thanks God."
Never were four simple words more open to multiple interpretations. They might mean, "As long as I am alive, everything else is trivial, so I'm grateful." Or they could mean, "I'm absolutely horrible. The only thing that can be said about my condition is that I'm still breathing." My theory is that she meant both, simultaneously.
I've been thinking a lot about that phrase in connection with my garden. One year ago, it seemed a vast wasteland of dead or dying plants. If you remember, last summer was brutally hot - during one especially delightful interlude, we had temperatures above 100 degrees for 2 weeks straight - and my plants were not pleased. In June, my ajuga got crown rot, with swaths of it dying off in circular patches. In July, a previously healthy "David" phlox turned brown, wilted, and vanished, for still mysterious reasons. In September, one of my just-planted Vernonia lettermannii followed suit.
Then there were the 5 new phlox that I purchased from Bluestone Perennials. They came in those new, eco-friendly coir pots, which you pop directly in the ground. Now I love Bluestone Perennials, but to me, those coir pots are the New Coke of the botanical world. In my garden, they took their own sweet time bio-degrading, and in the meantime were stifling all root growth. Or at least that was my theory. By the end of last summer, their one-year anniversary in the ground, three of the phlox were basically the same size as they were the day I planted them. Two had disappeared completely.
You can see why I might have concluded that my plants were dead. I'm no scientist, but mid-season shriveling and vanishing means dead in my book - or rather, it used to mean dead in my book. Because today, to my great surprise, all my dead plants are "still alive." My ajuga is filling in after the crown rot debacle. Phlox "David" is also alive, in the Grandma Bluma sense that it came back and is breathing, so who's complaining. My Veronia lettermannii showed up this spring as if nothing untoward had happened and has been blooming for a few weeks now. And all 5 coir-bound phlox plants are present and accounted for.
From this experience, I have learned two things. One, that my plants are a lot tougher than they look. And two, that I am a very poor diagnostician. I really must remember not to dig up anything until I am certain that it is not still alive.
Which brings me to Dianthus barbatus "Heart Attack." It was billed as a biennial that acts like a perennial, or I would never have bought three for my garden earlier this year. Monrovia even claims that it is evergreen. Mine did beautifully, blooming like mad for about two months. Then this happened.
Behold "Heart Attack" in August, looking distinctly un-evergreen and behaving suspiciously like the biennial that it was not supposed to be. Will it be back next year? Or is it, as Grandma Bluma would say, "still alive"? Only time will tell.
It came from outer space. Or perhaps the sewer. It has all the neighbors talking.
So to answer your questions: yes, that is a giant squash plant growing by the side of the road next to my house and no, I did not plant it there. I'm not stupid.
My best guess is that Squashra was an accidental gift from a neighbor. The demon seed fluttered across the street, then landed in the ivy bed, where it settled in for what should have been a long, long rest. We're talking pure clay, partial shade, and a concrete roadway, not to mention competition for light and nutrients. I can barely get my daffodils to bloom there.
Oh the irony. For years, in an effort to protect the crops from deer and rabbits, I grew vegetables in containers on my elevated deck. Mostly I limited myself to tomatoes and peppers, but occasionally I branched out to Brussels sprouts or fennel. The results were decidedly unimpressive. One year we got a bumper crop of habenero peppers - so many that we ended up having to freeze most of them, since a little haberno goes a long way. The sweet peppers, Brussels sprouts, and fennel were flops. Sungold cherry tomatoes were the one and only things I could grow.
My foray into vegetable gardening came to an ignominious end last summer, when I finally conceded defeat at the hands of the squirrels. A 15 foot high deck is practically ground level for those brazen little beasts, and when the Sungolds were ripe they showed up in droves. I got sick of chasing them off the deck, sick of propping up broken plants, and sick of cleaning off half-eaten tomatoes from the railing. No mas.
But now Squashra has arrived and, without any assistance from me, in the worst possible location, is going gangbusters. I am studiously ignoring it. I refuse to get emotionally invested in whether it lives or dies, produces any fruit, or succumbs to rabbits or squash borers. I prefer to think of it as comic relief, a reminder - as if I needed one - that Man plans and God laughs.
Desperately Seeking Karl
When it comes to momentous, life-changing choices, I am nothing if not decisive. I had known my husband for precisely 5 months and 3 weeks when I married him. The decision to relocate to North Carolina took 30 minutes. We bought a house in two days.
Yet for some inexplicable reason, less earth-shaking decisions take me forever. A 15 minute run to the supermarket becomes an hour while I survey my options in the ice cream freezer. Deciding on a movie is an ordeal. But both of these pale in comparison to buying a plant.
I spent the better part of last fall and winter trying to make up my mind about 'Karl Foerster' feather reed grass. I knew I loved it, but should I buy it? That was the question.
I had read somewhere that 'Karl Foerster' did not like extreme heat and humidity. Maybe that's why it isn't as common in the Raleigh area as Miscanthus. Maybe it wouldn't work out, and I would have wasted precious time that I could have invested in a relationship with a more appropriate plant.
Nor was I certain it was the right design choice for my side garden, which, having crossed the line from "exuberant" to "sloppy," was in need of a remodel. I was in the market for a vertical element, and 'Karl Foerster' fit the bill. With an upright habit and a height of 6 feet in bloom, it would definitely provide some much-needed structure. Supposedly it maintains its form and looks fabulous for nine months out of the year, which is more than most of us can say.
But maybe 'Karl Foerster' would look too rigid in my garden. Maybe I already had my strong vertical element: the side of the house. Maybe I needed my sloppy sprawlers to soften the harsh backdrop of the house.
Maybe maybe maybe.
Once I do make up my mind, however, I become positively obsessed. So in early March, when I finally concluded that 'Karl Foerster' was indeed The One, I had to have it instantly. Nor would I be satisfied with a puny specimen from a mail order nursery. I wanted immediate gratification, which meant I had to get my hands on a blooming size plant, ASAP.
As late winter is not the best time to go plant hunting, this was easier said than done. Most of the local nurseries I called had no 'Karl Foerster' in stock; could I check back in mid-April? No, I most certainly could not check back in mid-April. Finally I hit pay dirt. Yes, they had some Karl Foersters left over from last season - still dormant, of course, but gallon sized. Yes, they would hold them. Yes, I wanted all four.
My grasses are blooming now. Would you like to see them?
The best laid plans of mice and men, yada yada yada. Instead of Karl Foerster's amber waves of grain, I am now the proud owner of four mystery fountain grasses - I'm guessing 'Hameln,' but who cares. I blame human error rather than foul play; dormant ornamental grasses look a lot alike, and tags can easily fall out and be placed back in the wrong container. But the fact remains that, far from being tall and upright, my new additions are short and floppy - not exactly what I had in mind.
Maybe I should take this sorry episode as a sign that 'Karl Foerster' and I were never meant to be. Maybe my new fountain grasses will work just as well. If they are really are 'Hameln,' they are supposed to turn a golden bronze in the fall. That could be nice. On the other hand, maybe I should just rip them out and find some Karl Foersters while there's still time to get a positive ID.
Maybe maybe maybe.
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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