Call me? Please?
Before I was married I spent a fair amount of time staring at the telephone. I'm not proud of it, but since the dawn of the telephone millions of single women have done the same. Today they check their cell phones endlessly, but in the corded, landline days of the 80s and 90s, I would simply pull up a chair and wait. Periodically I would pick up the receiver to check for a dial tone. Pathetic.
I like to think that I have matured since then and gained a modicum of self-respect. However, for the past few weeks I have found myself staring obsessively at two conspicuous bare spots in my garden, hoping that Dianthus barbatus 'Heart Attack' will call me. Several times a day I make a thorough examination of the dirt, looking for anything new that may have poked up out of the ground in the 3 or 4 hours since I last checked. I know. Pathetic.
I planted 'Heart Attack' early last spring and fell madly in love with its deep red blooms. Everything seemed to be going fine and I was looking forward to years of happiness. Of course I knew that most Dianthus barbartus were biennial, but 'Heart Attack' (named by the famously offbeat Tony Avent of Plant Delights) was supposed to be a perennial. Tony says it comes back bigger and better each year. I have no doubt that it does - for him.
However, over in my yard, things were going downhill fast. By August, 'Heart Attack' was a shriveled up bundle of sticks. I cut away the dead stems and let the ruminations commence. What had I done wrong? Maybe nothing. It might have just gone dormant in the heat. Plenty of spring bloomers do that in North Carolina, so why not this? Bad sign - it's nearly April now. If it intends to bloom in May it had better hurry up and get out of the ground. Maybe I'm deluded. Maybe it's never coming back. Then again, it's been very cold this winter. It might just be behind schedule.
Call me? Please?
Well, I finally broke down and bought a Mahonia 'Soft Caress,' this year's Hot New Plant. I had been fighting the urge since last fall, when I stumbled upon it at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum. In full bloom and loaded with happily buzzing bees, it was quite a sight to behold. At the time I had no idea it was the Hot New Plant. I just liked the way it looked.
'Soft Caress' is a compact evergreen shrub that sports spiky yellow blooms in late fall and dark purple berries a bit later. Unlike the Mahonias with spiny, holly-like foliage, 'Soft Caress' has foliage that resembles a Nandina, and it's not prickly at all. It is billed as hardy from Zones 7 -9, and since it likes shade, I thought it would be perfect for the spot once occupied by my late-lamented Daphne odora. But was it still too new?
I swore I'd never again buy a Hot New Plant, having learned the hard way that, with plants as with people, familiarity breeds contempt. Take Raspberry Dazzle dwarf crape myrtle. Six years after its big splashy introduction, people finally got wise to the fact that it had no intention of ever blooming. Too bad I bought three and finally had to rip them all out. Ditto Verbena bonariensis, which gets powdery mildew, falls over, and generally looks like Who Did It and Ran by the end of the summer. I came to loathe it.
With 'Soft Caress,' I had the sense to restrain myself and buy only one. I confess I was considering getting three, but fortunately the plant was so expensive at a local ooh-la-la nursery (a whopping $45 for a 3-gallon pot) that I high-tailed it out of there and headed over to the downmarket alternative, where the temporary insanity passed. There the owner, quite a knowledgeable guy, told me they don't carry 'Soft Caress,' adding rather ominously that he had real doubts about its winter hardiness. Next stop: back to the Raulston Arboretum to see for myself what the shrub looked like after one of the coldest winters in a long time. Here is what I found.
Not particularly pretty, are they? The small one looks particularly pained. But hey, they just came off a pretty hard winter, and they are clearly Not Dead. So it was on to Nursery Number Three, which also being of the ooh-la-la school, was positively awash in Soft Caresses. Hedging my bets, I picked one in the half-gallon size. Heartbreak hurts less at $19.95.
So here I am again, jumping on the latest botanical bandwagon after vowing not to. Of course I feel like a sheep, which is kind of humiliating. I used to consider myself an independent thinker, unmoved by fads and cheap marketing ploys. Bah. Or should I say, Baaaaa.
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.
At some point in my schooling - I forget exactly when - I had to memorize Pippa Passes, by Robert Browning. Or more precisely, I had to memorize the most famous section of the poem. The chances are, you did too.
"The year's in the spring, The day's at the morn, Morning's at seven, The hillside's dew-pearled. The lark's on the wing, The snail's on the thorn, God's in His heaven, All's right with the world!"
Today, with apologies to Robert Browning, I present Pax Passes - Pax, of course, being the name bestowed upon our latest winter storm by the great minds at the Weather Channel.
My dogwood is icy,
My Edgeworthia's frost-bit.
My hollies are twerking,
The acuba leaf's curled.
My banana shrub's dicey,
The pine trees have split.
The power's still working -
All's right with the world!
Today, as the South gets ready for Winter Storm Leon and the Raleigh area cancellations start rolling in (prediction for my area: 2 to 4 inches), I ask: When did they start naming winter storms, and what on earth for? Are they trying to scare us? Do they want to cause a run on milk in the supermarket?
Sure, we are wimpy about snow in the South. We cancel school for a week when we get two inches. But denizens of colder climates have nothing to snicker about. I know all about Winter Storm Janus.
Ron and I were in New York last week when Janus, which dropped about 12 inches of snow, breezed through, and I can assure you that we saw plenty of Southern-style panic. Yes, a foot of snow is a lot, but come on. It's not the End of Days. From what I observed, though, many people - even tough Northerners - now think it is.
Maybe my memory is deceiving me, but I could swear we were all tougher before snowstorms had names and blizzards were dumbed down. I blame a spate of mild winters, decades of slip-and-fall lawsuits, and lives increasingly lived in technology Never Never Land for our new-found wimpiness. A few measly snowflakes, and officials warn us to hunker down and not venture out unless we absolutely have to. Airlines cancel every flight from here to eternity, and the federal government tells all non-essential workers to stay home. If they wrote PANIC in skywriting, they couldn't be more clear. No wonder people are freaking out.
I say all this not as tough ex-New Yorker who is afraid of nothing. On the contrary, I am the biggest chicken there is. I am unabashedly pro caution, especially when it comes to personal safety. I don't like driving at night. I don't like driving in rain or snow. I don't like flying in any weather. But it's gotten so that I just roll my eyes when I hear dire weather forecasts, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.
Unfortunately, one of these days the forecast is bound to be right. And when it is, all of us cynics, having rolled our eyes one time too many, will be in deep trouble: no milk, no snow shovel, and not a bag of sand in sight.
Today my blog received an email with the subject line, "Where are you?" The message was as follows:
Some of us regular readers are wondering when you will next post. I know it's winter and all, but even so.
Lest you think me wildly popular, I feel it only fair to inform you that the self-described fan is my sister. Still, if your own family won't read your blog, who will? And as this particular sister (I have four) is quite the literary critic, I am flattered that she asked. Here is what I answered: I have nothing to say.
Now in real life, having nothing to say does not prevent me from talking. But in blog-land, I worry that I will wear out my welcome. Therefore, I try to take as my role model the eminent Mr. Ed, the talking horse of 1960s sitcom fame. Mr. Ed, we are told in the catchy theme song, will never speak unless he has something to say.
So yes, I could talk about last week's Polar Vortex, when it hit 9 degrees for two nights in a row. I could mention how I tried to cover my now rather sizable Edgeworthia so that its buds didn't freeze off a mere weeks before they were scheduled to bloom. How I couldn't find anything big enough or thick enough to cover it, so basically told it you're on your own and good luck to you. How the buds, to my great surprise, survived the Arctic blast and, if my luck holds out, should begin opening in mid-February.
Or I could talk about how I was going to spend this winter on the long-overdue task of creating nicely defined garden beds in my back yard. How I planned to purchase a real-life edger and even put down some stone as a border. How I haven't done anything of the kind. How instead of scouring garden catalogs, shopping for edgers, or researching effective mole deterrents, I have been spending my leisure time reading 800-page Dickens novels and watching what Ron likes to call "Mumbles in Costume" - BBC adaptations of my favorite classics of British literature.
But since I have four sisters and two brothers, I am acutely aware of my place in the universe (hint: it's not at the center). Honestly, the minimal goings-on in my dreary winter garden are pretty darn boring, and the less said about them the better. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "Better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." I would do well to follow his advice.
Pride goeth before a fall.
Last January, I got a bit carried away with my extra-late blooming Kniphofia rooperi (aka torch lilies or red hot pokers). These little devils are supposed to bloom in September, but for as long as I've had them they have insisted on trying to bloom in December and January instead. Most years that spelled disaster, as the buds were inevitably decimated by a frost. More than once I was on the verge of digging them up. Then, for the last two years, something remarkable happened: the weather held up, and they bloomed.
If you have never seen Kniphofia rooperi blooming in the dead of winter, you don't know what you're missing. Although it's dramatic enough no matter when it blooms, when it's the only act in town it is stupendous. But was I satisfied? Could I just accept the blooms as a freak gift from the weather gods and leave it at that? Of course not. I wanted more.
What did I want? I wanted everyone in the neighborhood to know I had torch lilies blooming in January. I wanted everyone driving by to slam on the brakes and say, "What's that?" and "I must meet the gardener and get her autograph." Alas, my miraculous, mutant torch lilies were in my side garden, which is not visible from the street. So I hatched a scheme. The torch lilies would move up front. Never mind that they were safe and sheltered by the side of the house and would be unprotected and exposed to the elements up front; I had other fish to fry. Up front, in the company of my pyracantha and coral bark willow, they would be the eighth wonder of the world. Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.
Mid-November: so far, so good. My front-yard Kniphofia has tons of buds and, with a little help from contractor garbage bags and some spare bed sheets, has even survived two nights of temperatures in the 20s. Victory is mine. Fame and fortune are nigh.
Monday, November 25: the forecast calls for nighttime temperatures in the teens. I throw my homemade frost protectors over the plants and cross my fingers.
Tuesday, November 26: I learn many important life lessons. Leave well enough alone. Don't be greedy. Appreciate what you've got for as long as you've got it. Don't use garbage bags for frost cloth and expect it to work. And for heaven's sake, don't touch the extra-late blooming Kniphofia rooperi. They know what they're doing.
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.