(4.2) Life in the Garden

For a long time after Isabel the garden stood still. Some plants could not seem to get on with their lives. Post-traumatic stress?

Traditional toughies, spireas trumpeted the loss of shade, and grasses went wild and free in the sun. Modest loropetalum became giants outgrowing their allotted space. Crabapple, serviceberry and holly produced abundant berries. Viburnums came into maturity and blossomed and berried.

Some old favorites simply carried on reliably. Crepe myrtle and black-eyed Susans could be counted on to lift spirits each summer when the garden was flagging. Azaleas grew over and around lumps in the landscape and gave us dazzling springs. Some daylilies came through like champs, others chafed at too dry summers. Camellias on high ground were dependable bloomers, more spectacular as they aged.

But semi-evergreen plants fared less well. Leaves of Florida anise yellowed each spring when the plant bloomed, then lost its leaves. Yes, these plants are supposed to shed some leaves each year, but not when they are blooming! Lately, they’ve accepted change and seem less unhappy.

Our native magnolia virginiana, used to being caressed by pines, squinted in bold sunlight. One year the east-facing half caught sunscald after spring night-time freezes. It defoliated. It refused to get dressed and stood naked until July. We thought it was dying. Fortunately, we were sluggards about cutting it down and Lady Godiva finally became civilized. How nice to cross a job off the list without actually doing it.

Pre-Isabel drifts of hellebores, heady, lavish spectacles each spring abruptly retired. Mope, die, flop, rot, piddle along. They didn’t seem to care. In this eighth year they surprised us. We immediately took credit for the show. Then somebody mentioned in passing that spring 2011 was an exceptional year for hellebores everywhere. Oh well.

For others, their time was up. Smokebush, recovered smartly from our repair to its trunk after Isabel, languished the following year. Weigelas can’t seem to find their way any more and the old standby deutzias, gracilis and nikko, are weary by summer’s end.

Sticky, twiggy andromedas lingered, skeletons teasing us with luscious bloom. We finally got wise to their chicanery and, having kept them on for far too long, said we could do better.

Red twig dogwood, replacements for lost trees, up and died one summer, no fuss, no lingering, probably caught a phytophthera. It’s a fungus that lives in the soil waiting for just the right conditions to strike. When it does, it clogs a plant’s arteries, but not exactly like cholesterol. No heart attack involved. The plant simply wilts and you think it needs water and you water it, and it never perks up. We call it root rot, stem rot, or thunderstorm rot because in our garden it occurs regularly after thunderstorms in August when plants have been stressed by too much heat and too little water.

Despite the soil’s tolerance for phytophthera, we have learned to respect its power to grow and heal. We understand that if we give to the soil, it will give back to us what we want: healthy, blooming plants. Each year we restore it with the wealth from our garden: ground-up prunings, twigs, pine straw and leaves spread as mulch around plants, or blankets of leaves raked directly on beds to cool soil and cancel out weeds. After decades, yes decades, there is top soil where there had been none, and it is like velvet.

Every year brings something new. Trees grow and shade is returning. Why did we not expect this eight years ago? Sun-loving plants that we thought were permanently placed must be transplanted. Shade lovers move in..

We experiment with new plants given to us by good friends and family or purchased from plant sales. Will they survive and grow? Will they be anchors in the garden? Who knows?

The garden will never be finished, nor will every plant grow to perfection. But there is variety and life here. Each spring we hear merry bird song and see rebirth close up in the fledglings and their families who use our garden as bed and breakfast.

During warm weather, chiggers and ticks and mosquitos bug us, but there are ladybugs and bees and praying mantis and spiders who go about doing good, and lightning bugs and butterflies to make us smile.

Some years rabbits eat our violets and we never see a bloom. Other years, if foxes choose to den here, rabbits are missing and violets are lovely. We’ve found signs of a bobcat in our garden but haven’t seen him yet.

Deer are bolder lately, untouchable and they know it, though they had better watch out for that bobcat. We have tried off-the-shelf sprays and homemade concoctions, human hair, citrus, lemon balm, soap, stinky salvia, bird netting, and blood meal, and probably more I can’t remember. They all work well enough if we are persistent. Trouble is, the deer are more persistent than we are.

Raccoon, opossum and box turtles snack in the compost pile, first-come first-served, when we have special offerings: shrimp shells and watermelon rinds, but not carrot peelings and broccoli stems. And on warm days you can always find sliders or yellow bellies sunning on logs in the slip.

Life in the garden is good these days, but we will always remember the shimmer of our leafy cathedral over the water.

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