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In the Garden

It may be premature to announce this, but summer is just about over, and I couldn’t be happier. The tragic faces of schoolbound children delight the eye as far as one can see. In the manner of a cartoon cat dreamily picturing Little Mister Canary as a tiny roasted carcass on a platter, I imagine these tanned urchins crammed into their uncomfortable desks, fidgeting endlessly through World Geography while, out beyond the playground, insolent adults swaggeringly reclaim the wide open spaces. Soon, my little dears; very soon.

But this is a relatively minor payoff compared to the sheer joy of seeing the tail end of summer itself, with its alternating napalm’d droughts and monsoon rains. As is usual in August here in the upper South, the garden -- well, to be specific, my garden -- is a class 4 disaster offering countless opportunities for the tactfully averted eye. Those gold-banded lilies which, verdant and leonine, sprang adorably out of the dirt in April have now achieved a height of five to seven feet and suggest the stark remains of a palm grove after a firefight. The Japanese beetles have outstayed the contractually specified six weeks and are roiling on the surface of every rose not otherwise destroyed by the elements. The tomatoes, victims of an ill-considered experiment in which they were allowed to sprawl along the ground rather than being staked up -- Live Free or Die! -- have provided plenty of compost for themselves but, to date, little fruit. Evil caravans of nut grass have journeyed undisturbed into the bearded irises and set up thriving colonial outposts there, and other places, too.

I acknowledge that many of these misfortunes could have been avoided if only I had not found it so blasted hot outside. In spring I was all business, digging and weeding and hauling around big loads of X or Y, but as the heat set in I began to see more and more clearly the need for staying at the office until seven or eight or possibly nine in the evening, and then soon enough weekends were taken up with a careful examination of the fall nursery catalogues that had begun to pour in on or around June 15. Well, what would you do, given a choice between grubbing around in the rose beds in thousand-degree heat or lying on a comfortable sofa in an air-conditioned living room, looking at handsome pictures of rare and pristine daffodils that can be had for only a few hundred dollars a bulb? All right, then.

But forget about that; it’s time to look ahead. As the temperature gradually drops, certain green stirrings may be discerned. About a week ago I noticed that the Boursault rhododendrons have left off their mule-eared sulking and broken out in new leaves, at least in clusters here and there. A group of cinnamon ferns that had grown crackling dry and, I assumed, cashed in their chips are unrolling a few lurid replacement fronds. The late-blooming hosta “Royal Standard” -- common as dirt and nothing to write home about leaf-wise -- has begun shooting up elegant stalks of waxy white blossoms that are heavily jasmine-scented and good for jamming into a vase with other flowers more showy but less fragrant.

I’m particularly pleased to see a constellation of buds appear on the tangle of clematis paniculata (now, I think, classified as c. something else, but I can’t recall what) that has hog-tied a bed full of floribunda roses and annuals in front of the house. If you don’t know this worthy, it’s an energetic species that covers itself with a multitude of vanilla-scented white stars for a couple of weeks in late August and September here in Virginia. I bought it in pots for several years running and planted it in a variety of sites, where inevitably and without formalities it would expire. Then I gave up, and shortly thereafter it popped up unannounced in one of the flower beds, apparently self-sown. During the summer I periodically yank out big hunks of it that have got into places where I don’t want it and leave the rest as a sort of billowing groundcover. For some months it slithers around among the flowers before exploding into bloom itself at the end of the season.

Certain trees and shrubs are now making minor displays of confusion: some of my azaleas are showing the odd flower or two, and recently I noticed that a magnolia soulangeana on the street where I work was blooming sparsely and with some embarrassment, as though it had jumped out of a cake at the wrong time. There are also some “curiosities” out there like those bearded iris that have been bred to bloom both at their proper moment in the spring and then again, superfluously, in the fall. I don’t approve of this and I suggest you put any idea of them out of your head.

We are, of course, still some weeks away from the most gratifying part of the fall -- the time when the gardener goes forth into the mercantile wilderness, hell-bent on gathering zillions of bags of bulbs from every nursery in a hundred-mile radius. Many times these bags will be tucked away in dark corners to await planting at the most favorable moment: they will then be discovered sometime in the following July, soft as marshmallows and perhaps covered with a fine green fur of mold.

When they escape this fate, however, bulbs are a particular, and peculiar, pleasure -- not just for the flowers they will turn into, but for themselves. I am not talking about daffodils and hyacinths, which are big and flaky in a disheveled way, like aged onions, or about fritillaria imperialis, the so-called crown royal, which not only is big and ugly but stinks to high heaven. (And incidentally, the flowers are perfectly awful-looking.) I mean the tulips, particularly the smaller species like t. turkestanica and t. tarda, and the little species irises, reticulata and danfordia, and several other minor bulbs. When in good shape (i.e, neither rotten nor desiccated) they are plump and shiny -- the tulips very much like chestnuts or buckeyes -- and they look and feel wonderful in the palm. Get as many of them as you can: they look best planted in generous sweeps, and the squirrels will be digging them up and eating them as fast as you can get them in the ground.

One more thing. I am sorry to have to mention it, mainly because I hate doing it myself, but fall means tidying up. Which is to say, among other things, cutting the grass after frost even though “it’s not going to grow that much more,” because otherwise it will look exceptionally crummy all winter long. You are free to guess how I know this. Once growth has slowed it’s time to pull on those wellingtons, get the hell out there, and root up all, or most, or anyway some, of the pernicious weeds that entrenched themselves over the summer, and to clear out the remains of the vegetable garden and the defunct annuals. Unpleasant things overwinter in this detritus -- both pests and diseases -- and additionally you don’t want to spend some hushed winter evening gazing mistily out the window at a spotless blanket of snow punctuated by a row of dismal blackened cucumber vines on a sagging trellis. No: what you want from snow is a blank slate from which every trace of last year’s gardening catastrophes has been erased, and upon which the shifting kaleidoscope of next year’s anticipated wonders can be projected courtesy of good old limitless hope, a certain amount of purely medicinal alcohol, and a few hundred housebound hours with some really top-notch garden catalogues.

-Viriditas Digitalis

see “In the Garden,” Vol. 1, No. 2








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