They said it would happen, and now it's happening. My Daphne odora is dying.
Above, what it looks like today. Below, what it looked like when I wrote about it in January, when it was happily blooming its little head off. Note the perky foliage below. Note the droopy foliage above. I suspect root rot.
Do I know for a fact that it's root rot? No. I suspect it's root rot because it's not frostbite, it's not root disturbance (I tugged at the plant and it is still stuck firmly in the ground) and root rot is what They say usually kills Daphne odora. I have great faith in They.
They taught me everything I know about Daphne odora. From They, I learned that Daphne is finicky. That it is a plant that will thrive for years without a care in the world, then out of the blue will develop a fatal case of Something. That Something might be root rot, but that it doesn't really matter whether it is or it isn't, because when it comes to Daphne odora, Something is always fatal.
Alas, poor Daphne. She looks like hell, doesn't she? I'll miss her when she's gone, but at least I was psychologically prepared. They warned me. They were right. They know.
This Halloween, I decided to go the extra mile for the neighborhood kids and buy only old-time candies. The way I see it, when Trick or Treating is over and you dump the contents of your pillow case onto the bed, you really don't want to see 50 mini Snickers bars. You want variety. So this year, I picked up a stash of retro candy at the State Farmers Market. I got some of my childhood favorites - Banana Splits, Mary Janes, Bit 0 Honeys, Jawbreakers - along with some others that I don't remember but that Ron swears by. The leftovers should be fun.
I love sugar. When I was a kid, dressing up and trick-or-treating was merely a means to an end; for me, Halloween was all about the candy. Today I am a sucker for any plant that smells like candy and would happily add them all to my garden. But as far as I can tell, only two fit the bill. One is Chocolate Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus), which smells like a Hershey bar. The other is Magnolia figo (formerly
Michelia figo), aka banana shrub. It smells like Banana Splits.
First up, Chocolate Cosmos. What a disappointment. I tried it a few years ago and, while the plant was pretty enough, all in all it was nothing to write home about. I probably should have used it in a container, but instead I plopped it into the ground, where it looked a little scraggly. Worst of all, you had to squat down, get face to face with the flower, and inhale to get the aroma. It wasn't worth it. Unwrapping a Hershey bar was easier.
Magnolia figo, on the other hand, is definitely worth it. It may not be the showiest broadleaf evergreen for the South (that would be camellia), but it is definitely "handsome," as plant books like to say. It has attractive deep green foliage and dainty, cup-shaped flowers in either yellow or burgundy. It blooms heavily in March, April, and May, then repeats on and off through the summer and into the fall; mine has a few blooms now. It even gets random red berries if the flowers are pollinated.
But the main appeal of banana shrub is its aroma. To me, the scent is distinctly not banana; rather, it is unmistakably the smell of Banana Splits. In the warm months, when the plant is covered with flowers, the yard is filled with the gentle fragrance of cheap banana candy. It's delightful.
For those of you too young to remember, Banana Splits are little squares of extremely artificial-tasting banana taffy. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, I adored them. We ("we" being my sisters, brothers, and pretty much everyone attending Post Road elementary school) used to buy them at Collins' for a nickel a piece. Located just a few blocks from school, Collins' was a combination candy-newspaper-tobacco store and one of the bedrock institutions of my childhood. My weekly allowance was hardly princely, even by 1960s standards; my father started us at 5 cents, then raised us to 10 cents at some point, now forgotten. Collins' was where I spent what little I had -- which, come to think of it, is probably why we got only 5 or 10 cents. A father's wisdom reveals itself in time.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It's why, when I sneaked a Banana Split from the Halloween stash, it tasted good to me, although it's basically artificially flavored sweet rubber. It's why Ron prefers an Entenmann's chocolate cake to almost anything I can bake from scratch (and I'm a pretty good baker). And it's one of the reasons I am so devoted to my banana shrub. Until they make a plant that smells like Sour Grape gum, which I vastly prefer to Banana Splits, Magnolia figo will always have a place in my heart.
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.
Things are looking pretty good these days in my soggy backyard garden. All I can say is, it's about time. I've been at this long enough.
I know, I know: life's a journey, it's-not-the-destination-it's-the-ride, blah blah blah. Me? I'm an "Are we there yet?" kind of person. I like results.
But let's pretend I'm a different kind of person - the kind who gushes, without a hint of irony, "This has been the most incredible journey." So come along with me, if you will, on my incredible soggy garden journey.
Pictured above: the design challenge. When we moved to Cary in 2005, the back yard was basically a flood-prone expanse of grass. Behind it lies a forest and protected wetland. For the first few years, we wisely left it alone.
2007: the journey begins. We decided to install pavers in the driveway and extend them to a pathway around the house. A crew came in, excavated the dirt, then dumped it in the back of the yard. My pathetic remnants of a lawn were now gone. And since the contractors very kindly compacted all that excavated dirt, the flooding got worse. There was only one logical thing to do: make a garden.
My research (and my own two eyes) told me I had a fairly challenging situation on my hands. The bottom half of the yard is low lying, with two natural streams behind it. In a rainstorm, the water overflows the streams, floods the yard, and occasionally takes down a tree. Stage 1 is massive runoff; Stage 2, standing water. Even after amending the soil, I still wind up with only the underlying clay, since the topsoil and mulch invariably sail away downstream.
If I had half an ounce of brains and unlimited funds, I would have hired a landscaper, who would have built a French drain, hauled in truckloads of topsoil and edging materials, and created raised beds that somehow managed to look neat and natural at the same time. Since I have neither, Ron and I did it ourselves, piecemeal. It was pure idiocy, I know. But I figured that no matter how it turned out, it had to look better than it did before.
Below, summer bloomers in the soggy garden.
Little by little, year after year, we put down paper bags to kill the weeds, then covered them with compost and top soil, which we hauled in bag by bag. Then, armed with my list of wet-tolerant plants and some shredded pine bark to help with drainage, I started digging. I had no grand vision and no design scheme; plant placement was determined initially on a first-come, first-served basis. I'm still playing musical chairs with the plants.
Above, fall bloomers in the soggy garden.
As I continue adding to the wetland garden, aesthetics by necessity take a back seat to practicality. Can I sink my shovel into the ground without hitting too many tree roots in this spot? Good, I'll put something here. This area gets only filtered sun? Bring on the Turtlehead. Then there's the inconvenient fact that "wet tolerance" is not a one-size-fits-all definition. Some wetland plants can take days of standing water, some cannot. Very few can tolerate un-amended North Carolina clay. I "design" the garden accordingly.
I also had to accept the fact that while some wetland plants are quite ornamental, many are not. But beggars can't be choosers. Juncus has its uses, as does Winterberry holly. Ron once weed-whacked my tussock sedges, thinking they were weeds. Which, in a certain way, they are.
Rest assured that I lost many plants along the way, and will continue to lose them in the future. All of my Lobelias, for instance, decided to quit after a year in my soggy garden, so I am now Lobelia-less, despite its reputation as a moisture-lover that grows on stream banks.
All things considered, though, it's not looking too bad, if I do say so myself. It may not be garden-magazine good, but it's certainly better than it was before. And of course I learned a lot along the way.
Enough with the life lessons. Are we there yet?
Years ago I read a fascinating book called Learned Optimism, about the different ways in which optimists and pessimists see the world. The crux of the difference, according to the author, lies in their respective "explanatory styles" - what they tell themselves about events in their life, both good and bad. The author believes that you can learn to change your explanatory style and transform yourself from a pessimist to an optimist.
It will not be news to anyone reading this blog that my explanatory style, in the garden as elsewhere, tends toward the pessimistic. My Purple Dome aster divisions are thriving in their new location, but big deal. They are practically weeds; they'll grow anywhere. I can never get Salvia leucantha (Mexican bush sage) to overwinter in my garden; ergo, I must be incompetent.
Obviously it's been too long since I've read the book and I am in desperate need of a refresher. I must learn to say that my Purple Dome asters are doing well because I placed them in the perfect spot and gave them impeccable care. I must remind myself that Salvia leucantha is only borderline hardy here, and that with our wet winters, it's no wonder mine didn't come back.
It was to be expected that when my pyracantha began attracting woolly aphids a few weeks ago, I immediately decided that it was all my fault. Never mind exactly how - that's the beauty of pessimism. It's boo-hoo all day, every day. So imagine my relief when I noticed this alder tree growing in the woods adjacent to my house.
No, it's not snowing in September. Those are woolly aphids, and they mean business. I had never seen anything like it -the tree was completely covered in woolly aphids from top to bottom. That's the bad news. The good news is, I am off the hook. This is Not My Tree. And that means the woolly aphids are Not My Fault.
Then it dawned on me that Not My Fault does not equal Not My Problem ("today the alder, tomorrow the world," and all that). So I called the County Extension's office, which put me in touch with the North Carolina Forest Service. To my great surprise, the response was one big yawn. The Forest Service, it seems, has more pressing worries, and views woolly aphids as nothing to get worked up about.
Except I was worked up. For the sake of my own garden, I felt it was imperative to stop the aphid onslaught; besides, I felt sorry for the tree. So I put on a hat, dragged my hose down to the alder, and spent the next half hour under a cascade of water and falling aphids.
Did it work? Don't ask me; I'm still working on that optimism thing. I couldn't get to the top branches, which are still oh-so-poetically dusted with the snowflake impersonators. But overall, the tree looks much better. I feel much better. Let's not ask for the moon.
It's September, and the gardening word of the day is "eeew."
Exhibit A: my pyracantha 'Mohave,' which I discovered in the process of being defoliated by voracious caterpillars clustered together and wiggling and generally grossing me out. The perps have yellow and black vertical stripes, black heads, and orange knobs along their body. I couldn't get a positive ID from my various bug sources - my best guess is Datana perspicua - but I can tell you that they grow really, really fast. I left them alone for a few days hoping the birds would eat them, and when I came back they seem to have quadrupled in size. More to the point, they were making short work of the pyracantha's foliage. They had to go.
Out came the step ladder and the clippers. Navigating my wild, unpruned pyracantha took a little doing, but I managed to park the ladder so that I could ever-so-gingerly snip off the caterpillar-filled branches and dispose of them. And then I saw this.
Eeew eeew eeew. This one sent me straight inside to my favorite bug book, where I identified these guys as woolly aphids, a fairly common pest of pyracantha but (happily) entirely new to me. I spritzed the infested branches with insecticidal soap, then, to make sure I had left no aphid or caterpillar behind, blasted the entire shrub with a strong jet of water from the hose. Mission accomplished. I walked away.
But wait - what's that crawling in my shirt? Eeeeew. Really, really eeeeew.
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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