This morning I spent 40 of the stupidest minutes of my life watering the sidewalk strip. In my neighborhood, as in so many others, the strip is owned by the city but the joy of maintaining it is all mine. Since it hasn't rained in what seems like an eternity, and since it's still toasty warm as fall arrives in central North Carolina (think 85 - 90 every day), I decided I'd better water. And when I water, I think. Today I thought, "Why?"
Why is watering grass so boring? Watering my garden is a zen-like experience, yet watering the grass is a bore and a chore. Why?
Speaking of chores, why am I out here watering the grass when I should really be inside vacuuming or, better yet, earning a living?
Why plant zoysia if you have to water it anyway? And why did I choose now to worry that the grass is dying? Why wasn't I out watering in July?
Why is it always so hot here?
Why do the neighbors keep planting fescue? It's guaranteed to fail. Why do people keep doing things they know will fail?
Why did I decide to leave the "Delta Snow" phlox in my garden this year? I pulled out everything else the deer eat, but left the phlox, which was duly eaten. Why did I do that?
Why did they line this street with oak trees? I can't go outside these days without being hit on the head with an acorn or dive-bombed by a caterpillar. Why couldn't they plant maples?
Why is my neighbor using a rider mower for his 10 x 30 lawn?
Why must everyone here use a leaf blower? Does no one own a rake? And why do all the landscapers show up just as I'm sitting down on my front porch? It's "Gentlemen, Start Your Engines" from 5 - 7 on this block. Why can't I enjoy conversation and a glass of wine on my front porch without being bombarded by noise and pollution? Is that too much to ask? Why doesn't the world revolve around me? Why?
Where was I? Oh yes. I was watering. Watering and thinking.
Peggy Martin, a rose for our time
Peggy Martin has found her voice and she's not afraid to use it.
No, Peggy Martin is not the new cast member in the latest Real Housewives franchise. She's a climbing rose, and she means business.
For the uninitiated, Peggy Martin is an incredibly tough, not to say indestructible, climber who came to fame after surviving 2 weeks under water following Hurricane Katrina. Her reputation for strength is what drew me to her, but of course it didn't hurt that she was gorgeous. I loved her when I met her and I love her now. But lately, all we do is argue.
Things were fine in the beginning. Quart-sized Peggy was so sweet and innocent when I brought her home, kind of like the pollywog in Stranger Things. I had just installed a shiny new trellis and with her help I was going to make the cover of some English garden magazine. Peggy couldn't have been more obliging, obediently threading her way up the lattice and bursting into sensational bloom in spring. She was refined. She was elegant. She was my gardening dream come true.
Those were the days. Today, Peggy is no longer interested in being a prop in my twisted English garden magazine fantasies. On the contrary, she seems to be showing, if I may borrow a phrase from Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, "an abominable sort of conceited independence." Nobody tells her what to do.
Yes, Peggy has her own agenda and it does not involve sitting politely with her hands folded. Peggy has lately informed me in no uncertain terms that she is sick of refined and has no interest in elegant. Further: she can no longer squeeze into a size 6 and deeply resents being told she should. And while we are on the subject, it was not she who chose such a pathetically small trellis in the first place. Bottom line: Peggy needs to be her "authentic self."
At first I tried reasoning with her. I understand, I said. You feel demeaned, objectified. You are tired of being defined by the reductionist patriarchal view of your role in this garden. But you're a rose, for heaven's sake. It's your job to be ornamental. (OK, now I was lecturing her.) We live in a society, I continued. You can't just do whatever you want. Do you see me walking the dog in my pajamas? No you don't. And it's not because I don't want to.
Powerful arguments, but Peggy was unimpressed. So I reached for the loppers. Strike 2. Severe pruning got me less than nowhere (not for nothing is it also called "rejuvenation" pruning). The effect lasted about a month, after which Peggy looked like Alice in Wonderland after the "Drink Me" episode.
So for now there's a standoff. Peggy demands respect; I want the old Peggy back. Peggy is the Madwoman in the Attic; I am a horticultural lookist. We can't go on like this. We're running out of room.
I vowed never to write another post about deer and rabbit damage in my yard. Oh well. Here's another one. This one's about systemic animal repellents, whose existence I stumbled upon late last year. Several online reviewers called them a waste of time, but the majority deemed them a godsend. Since I was in the market for a good miracle, in early spring I tore down my useless fishing line barrier and gave them a try.
A recap for those who tuned in late: My neighborhood is overrun with deer and rabbits. I am an idiot who refuses to give up Asiatic lilies and phlox. I have tried almost every repellent in the book. Sprays, the shock treatment, dog hair, and netting didn't do the job, so in desperation I added a fishing line barrier to the garden. It was supposed to be unobtrusive but instead it was an eyesore. Plus it didn't work.
I was this close to digging out all the plants that get eaten (i.e., pretty much everything) and coming to terms with a garden composed entirely of salvia and ornamental grasses when I read about systemic repellents. Finally, a glimmer of hope. I decided to hold off for one more season before throwing Lilium Pearl Jennifer and her over-appetizing amigos into the compost bin of history.
Let me state for the record that I am generally opposed to systemics (although Prozac is very nice). But I did my research and these seemed okay from an ecological standpoint. Repellex, the brand sold in the U.S., states that its product is "made from natural ingredients that are completely safe and humane... there are no harmful poisons or pesticides..." The active ingredient is capsaicin; it is taken up through the roots and makes the plant taste hot. Repellex adds that the product has "zero" impact on bees and other pollinators. Several online reviewers backed this up.
Systemic repellents have two big selling points: they are applied only once per season and they don't wash off. Apply when active growth begins in spring; in about 4 weeks, the magic formula is absorbed into the plant and a profusion of gloriously unpalatable blooms will commence.
Some reviewers deemed it a miracle, but if it worked in my garden "miracle" would be an understatement. It would be more like a super miracle, or a miracle squared. No more racing out with a bottle of Liquid Fence after the umpteenth summer downpour. No more disappearing daylily buds. No more heartache. No more rage.
So I tried it. I applied it to new growth beginning in late February (early spring in Raleigh, North Carolina). Now, as the daylily buds have showed their tempting little faces, the verdict is in. Can this garden be saved? I'll let the pictures tell the story.
May 28, 2018 and here's what's being eaten: asiatic lilies (no bulb protection, it seems), daylilies, sedum, aster, phlox, and lately, the monarda (yes, the deer eat my bee balm). On the plus side, the buttonbush has been nipped but should actually bloom for the first time ever. The heuchera and turtlehead have mostly been left alone and the vernonia is more in tact than it was in past years. Another positive: it looks as if the repellent has actually been pretty effective against rabbits, since most of the damage I'm seeing - even on the asters - is from deer.
So go ahead and try it - it may be the answer to your prayers. If you've been gardening for more than 10 minutes you understand that the repellent (systemic or otherwise) that works like a dream in Garden A. can be a flop in Garden B. Sadly, I have Garden B.
Southerners like to say that "you can't fix stupid," but I'm here to prove "Oh yes you can." Enough is enough. I surrender.
Here's the kicker (and I swear I am not making this up): Just after I made this decision, I got a bona fide Sign From On High, straight out of the Bible's Baby Moses story.
A newborn fawn spent yesterday hiding out in my perennial sunflower. Now when a mother deer thinks your garden is a good spot to leave her baby while she runs some errands, someone is trying to tell you something.
Salt lick, anyone?
I Give Up
I'm sick of my shtick.
That whole "galloping horses will never see it" and "imperfection is part of my charm" thing is getting old. Failure is no longer funny. I want a nice garden and I want it now.
It's been a challenging summer here in Raleigh, what with blazing heat, no rain, and a grasshopper/locust/chewing-insect-from-outer-space infestation. My garden is now at a whole new level of goddawful.
The sad thing is, I was feeling pretty good about the garden (and myself, by extension) when I went to DC in June for my very first Garden Bloggers Fling. I had a great time, except for the part where my self-esteem suffered a blow from which it has not yet recovered. "Is this inspirational or depressing?" a fellow blogger asked me as we surveyed an impossibly beautiful garden. "Depressing," I said. Inspirational is when something is within the realm of possibility.
I'd really like to be a gardener, but I'm not. At best I'm a grower. In a good year, that is. And this is not a good year.
Take my front yard (please). Since deliberately smothering the grass and ripping out the boring foundation hollies three years ago, I've been trying to create something that passers-by would actually see and think "garden." No luck. I have been unable to figure out what will grow in such a fiendish exposure - north facing but with morning shade and blazing hot afternoon sun, except for the parts closest to the house, which receive no light at all. Full sun plants don't flower well, partial shade plants fry. Oh, and the soil is lousy.
The summer has been an unmitigated disaster for this pathetic patch of property. In last two months, some mysterious leaf-devouring insect has decimated my Heucheras, turtlehead, and oregano "Aureum," making hash out of my latest foray into garden design. Then, on cue, came the demise of my dwarf weeping birch. It was a nice little tree and I commend the previous homeowner for his taste in planting it. But a white barked birch in boiling hot North Carolina? What could possibly go wrong?
I could tell the tree didn't have long for this world, but since its main role was to provide shade for my Ghost and Japanese Painted Ferns - just about the only plants that had been doing well in this Summer of Death - I was hoping it would have the courtesy to hang on until cooler weather. Of course it chose to drop dead in July, when the average temperature is 95 degrees and 100 isn't unusual. Finding instant shade for the ferns was imperative, triple-digit temperatures be damned.
Bear with me, I'm almost at the punchline.
My choices stank: kill the ferns by moving them in 95 degree heat, or kill them by leaving them to fry in their now much too sunny location. I chose Door Number 3 - give them 50-50 odds by planting a 5-gallon container-grown "Tonto" crape myrtle as a replacement for the birch. I derisively dubbed it my "I Give Up" tree, final proof that I was incapable of growing anything interesting or original and was reduced to planting the most overused tree in the south. Oh how the mighty are fallen, right? But it's pretty, fast-growing, practically indestructible and it adores the heat. At this stage I'll take it.
So last Saturday, I plopped Tonto into the hole lately occupied by the weeping birch. Then I prayed.
Today, as I write this, we are enjoying our fourth straight day of 95 degree-plus weather, with no end in sight. And guess what? Tonto objects.
I give up. I really, really, really give up.
Since I'm behind on everything these days, June seems like the perfect time for me to post about something that bloomed in March. It's Chinese Mayapple, and it's one of my favorite weird plants.
Chinese Mayapple (Podophyllum pleianthum, zones 5- 9) is getting more write-ups these days, but a few years ago no one was talking about it. I got mine as a pass-along from a fellow gardener I met in 2012 when we were both doing stints as seasonal workers at Plant Delights, the mail order nursery in Raleigh. No, there were no staff discounts, but it was still possible to end up with some great plants. Our job was cleaning up the plants in preparation for shipping; if in the process you had to snip off a ratty-looking stem, you were allowed to bring it home and try to root it. Then there was the "Reject Tree." Plants that for whatever reason were deemed not sellable were left under a tree near the parking lot, and on your way out at the end of the day you could grab some. I did only one season at Plant Delights, but the source of my Chinese Mayapple was in his gazillionth and between the ratty looking stems, the Reject Tree, and some actual purchases, his home garden was like a Plant Delights museum.
You can't help noticing Chinese Mayapple. The leaves are gigantic and sit perpendicular to the stalk, which makes the plant look like a green toadstool or something out of a fairy tale or Maurice Sendak story. In March it gets borderline-creepy dark red flowers that droop from underneath. And if you like this kind of thing, you're in luck, because unlike native Mayapple, the plant doesn't go dormant until September or so.
In my garden, Chinese Mayapple is a substitute for Hostas, which did not make the cut of plants I deem worth lying awake at night thinking of ways to save from being eaten by deer. One of Chinese Mayapple's best features is that it does not taste good to ravenous animals. It has similar growing conditions to Hosta (moist shade) and can serve the same design purpose (bold foliage, nice contrast with ferns).
But who am I kidding? One of my favorite things about Chinese Mayapple is that it's unusual. I can't deny it - I enjoy having plants no one else in the neighborhood has. It's not my most admirable quality but it's also not one of my worst, so I've decided to live with it.
I have a problem. I'm always falling for the wrong plants. Oriental lilies, phlox, heucheras - everything that deer and rabbits love, I love too. I've tried Liquid Fence, I Must Garden, Wireless Deer Fence, cayenne pepper, Schmoogie's hair, rabbit netting, wire cloches, and a fishing line fence, and still my heart gets broken. The garden smells like rotten eggs and the plants look like they are in jail. My friends and family think I'm nuts and my shrink gave me a copy of Oh Grow Up Already: How to Stop Lusting After Lilies and Learn to Love the Boring, Dependable Plants That Bambi Would Never Look Twice At.
I know it's messed up but I can't seem to stop. What do you think? Am I wrong to hold out for what I truly want? Should I settle for spirea?
Wretched in Raleigh
Imprisoning your garden in chicken wire and fishing line is perfectly normal behavior and a small price to pay for having an Asiatic Lily like Pearl Jennifer actually bloom, even with a few bites taken out.
Fire your shrink. With the money you save, you could have a real fence installed. That fishing line fence of yours is joke and there are buds on Pearl Jennifer.
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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