Please Don't Park on the Garden
I will be the first to admit that my dry shade garden by the side of the driveway is not the showiest. It consists mainly of Hellebores and Euphorbia robbiae, and their subdued palates are appreciated only by garden fanatics like me. Then there are those pesky bare spots. Even in spring, when it is at its best, it looks a little sparse.
I have been working at this particular section of the yard for years now. The Euphorbia robbiae is finally covering a good bit of territory and the Hellebores are filling out nicely, but all in all the garden still deserves the name I gave it long ago, The Valley of Death.
You can see that I am not delusional about my talents. This blog is called Galloping Horse Garden for a reason. Some of my gardens are pretty nice; others, like the Valley of Death, are not. And when we put our house on the market a few weeks ago, I certainly was under no illusions that my garden would help to sell the house. On the contrary: I assumed it would be at best a non-issue, at worst a liability. But I have admit that it never dawned on me that my garden - even my worst one - would be mistaken for a parking spot.
And yet a real estate agent actually pulled up to our house and decided to park her car not here:
So there you have it. Nine years of costly, backbreaking, but emotionally fulfilling labor to transform my wasteland of bad grass and hard clay into a garden, and someone thinks it's a parking spot. Could there be any more appropriate end to this Galloping Horse Garden?
Because yes, we're moving. The house sold, we bought another one in Raleigh, and Galloping Horse Garden: The Sequel will begin next month. The yard is small, but it's full sun and there's plenty of room. I envision an arbor, some shrubs, a few perennial beds, and maybe a car or two. Stay tuned.
Me and My Hyundai
Let us now praise the 2004 Hyundai Elantra, the best little pickup truck ever. Without it, my garden would be nowhere.
I didn't always love my car. Even as a teenager I was never wild about driving, and spending most of my adult life car-less in New York City only made things worse. Consequently, when we moved to North Carolina in 2005, the thought of getting behind the wheel again was positively horrifying. Alas, you need a car to do just about anything here. Ron, the master of Tough Love, was determined to make me as independent as I had been in New York City. So he bought me this car, with the crazy idea that I should drive it.
Week after week, month after month, Ron sat in the passenger seat while I did terrifying things like get on the highway at rush hour and drive to and from the airport. Trust me when I say that re-learning to drive in your 40s, when you have actually figured out that yes, you are going to die some day, is quite different from learning to drive when you are 16 and the possibility has never entered your mind. Exhibit A, pictured below: my steering wheel. I haven't been chewing it. I've been holding on for dear life.
But let's not dwell on past neuroses. In the intervening years, I conquered this particular fear (mostly), threw myself into gardening, and in doing so came to appreciate just how fabulous a cheap four-door sedan can be.
You wouldn't think it to look at it, but this unassuming hunk of metal holds 13 bags of soil in the trunk and another 9 in the back seat, provided you know the magic loading formula. If you push the front seats forward as far as they will go, you can fit a pair of 3-gallon shrubs on the floor behind them. You can also ram a young tree into the back seat if you turn the pot on its side and open the windows.
Then there's the really heavy stuff, the kind that would send normal people over to Home Depot's Rent-A-Truck. My little Elantra has hauled a patio's worth of bluestone, assorted concrete statues, and the 8-foot cedar rails for our backyard fence (put the back seat down, open the trunk, shove the rails in, and drive very, very slowly). Even that most annoying rite of spring, the annual lawnmower tune-up, is a piece of cake with this car. Yes, we do squeeze the lawnmower into the trunk. Granted, the top doesn't close, but as long as we tie it with some string, the lawnmower stays put and we don't get a ticket. Win-win.
So let's hear it for my Hyundai Elantra pickup. Next month my car and I celebrate our 9th anniversary, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's not a fancy car. It's not a cool car. But it's an incredibly tough car. Best of all, it's the kind of car that you don't mind getting filthy. Which is good, because the spring gardening season is here.
My Blog Ate My Garden
My garden is calling. My chronically under-performing acanthus is overdue for a move. The Louisiana irises need to be divided (again). There are beds to mulch, weeds to pull, and falling leaves to shred.
Am I doing any of these things? No. I am inside, at my computer, writing this post.
This blog takes time. A lot of time. I don't even post much, compared with many garden bloggers. It's a mystery how they manage to keep up their blogs, to say nothing of their real lives, without neglecting their gardens - which also happen to put mine to shame.
But enough about them; let's talk about me. It is astonishing how long it takes to compose one measly post. You would think I was writing the Great American Novel and not 500 words of fluff, the way I agonize. I spend days playing with word choice and sentence structure. Meanwhile, the weeds have taken over.
It's not just the writing, though. Blogging's technical challenges have swallowed entire weekends whole. Maybe that's because, from a technology standpoint, I am approximately 10 years behind. Of course I need to stay at least minimally plugged in if I expect to function in society, but I refuse to mechanize my entire life. I can turn on the lights myself, thank you very much. My cell phone is a pay-as-you-go job used strictly for travel; if you want to reach me, call my home phone. I don't text, I don't do Facebook, and I don't even like to use the word "tweet."
And yet I have a blog. No wonder, then, that countless afternoons have been wasted focusing not on my soil's pH but on blog's xml, html, and SEO. That ideal gardening days have been spent indoors peering at unintelligible software code. That after a year of obsessing about web stats, I still have no clue how many readers I have.
So where does this leave me? Gardening is easier than writing. Gardening is better exercise than writing. And when I spend an entire day in the garden, usually I have something to show for it. Then why write at all? I suppose it's because, as Dorothy Parker famously said, "I hate writing, but I love having written."
Of course, Dorothy Parker actually got published - and not by clicking a mouse, either.
See you next time.
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.
I would like to speak to someone in charge. I ordered this:
Instead, I got this:
The following rant is dedicated to the people who make a living making you feel bad, the authors of what I like to call the Fantasy genre of garden literature. They hold out the promise that if you simply do A, you will surely get B. They also have a warning: whatever you do, you must never do C.
For the past two months I have been suffering from a flea beetle epidemic. The trouble started, as usual, on my Rudbeckia, one of those "indestructible" natives you're supposed to plant to get that Snow White effect. If you think that flea beetles only like eggplant, think again. They adore Rudbeckia.
I wanted to give peaceful co-existence a chance, so first I tried flicking them off. But it turns out they are a very mean-spirited bunch and used my "walk softly" approach against me. If you drive them off one plant, they attack another. That is the nature of flea beetles.
Flea beetles are almost impossible to eradicate, unless you intend to pull a Monty Python and bring out the heavy artillery. But who thinks in terms of eradication? All I wanted to do is control them, and that's hard enough. For starters, they seem to be impervious to biological controls. I should know. I have more biological controls than you can shake a stick at. I've got bees buzzing, butterflies fluttering, and birds chirp-chirp-chirping. I have all kinds of beneficial insects, hundreds of frogs and lizards, and the occasional box turtle. Snow White has nothing on me.
Yet it turns out that even biological controls are subject to the Peter Principle. They are effective up to a point, but eventually they meet their match. In my case, their match was the flea beetle.
With the birds on strike, Nepeta (which is said to repel flea beetles) entirely useless, and soapy water a joke, it was time to step up the program. Neem, which supposedly makes the plants taste bad, held them at bay for a few days but had no long term effect. Dusting with diatomaceous earth helped with the Rudbeckia infestation. However, it did nothing to help my coral bark willow, where hundreds of beetles were massing along the branches last week, decimating the foliage and withering the stem tips.
There is an old Henny Youngman-style joke that goes something like this: if a husband speaks in the forest and his wife isn't there to hear him, is he still wrong? By the time I reached for the pyrethrin, I felt a lot like the husband in the forest. Whatever I did, I was going to be wrong.
The pyrethrin worked. The flea beetles are (mostly) gone. All that's left are an inferiority complex and a guilty conscience. Nice going.
Unusual Weather, As Usual
Unusual weather we're having, ain't it?
In North Carolina, spring has been unusually late in arriving, as winter temperatures stuck around a lot longer than usual. March was unusually cold. Last winter, though, was unusually warm. And last summer was unusually hot.
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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