i n  t h e  g a r d e n 



I’d like to take this opportunity to register my extreme dissatisfaction with recent weather patterns inflicted upon us here in the Southeast. In fact, if you’ve been living anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard of these United States this past summer, you know there is one word to describe conditions in the local wide open spaces, and that word is Hell. Not the picturesque Hell of colorful roaring flames and a dressed-to-kill Mephistopheles, either, but a dull and crackling-dry wasteland rippling with hallucinatory heat waves, and sporting an array of flora so blighted and seared that the sensitive gardener will avert his or her eyes during each day’s scramble between house and car. On the few recent occasions when I have surveyed my own garden at any length I have felt like Vlad the Impaler picnicking amidst a forest of severed heads.

There are a few consolations, of course. You don’t see much of that vomitous-looking ground fungus that often ornaments bark mulch during less arid seasons, and for that I’m thankful. I always feel rather unwell myself when I see it and have sometimes leapt to hasty conclusions in which the dog figures prominently.

Let me note, too, that I have not seen a single Japanese beetle this summer. In more typical years the roses are swarming with them by mid-June, and cutting flowers for the house generally means transporting a hidden few indoors, where they will provide an unwelcome surprise to the innocent dinner-preparer by clambering indignantly out of the sink and onto a nearby countertop.

But why play the Glad Game? We’re not Pollyannas here, but the opposite — gardeners. There’s no point in tarting up disaster. If the roses are not crawling with beetles then they are becrisped by dessication, and who’s to choose one over the other?

One of course sees certain plants touted as drought-resistant — echinacea, gaillardia, zinnias, and so on — but these claims are often disingenuous. In rainless times a coneflower might not simply vanish neatly from the face of the earth as would, say, a maidenhair fern, but still it can shrivel up shockingly and, at five to six feet tall, might as well be a billboard announcing the garden’s current miseries. There are few sights more repellent than that of a so-called drought-resistant plant that has reneged on its agreement to be indestructible. Among other shortcomings, most of these hardies have a scratchy, slightly inorganic quality, as though they had been run up hastily out of toilet brushes: it’s difficult not to feel that they have an obligation to withstand pretty much anything in order to compensate. If I hired a burly thug to act as bouncer at my saloon, I certainly wouldn’t expect him to be running off to the emergency room at the first sign of a hangnail.

On the other hand, I have been surprised and impressed by the single-minded endurance of the annual vincas I stuck in as an afterthought among the perennials in my front garden. Their simpering, candy-coated quality is deceiving: they have clung to life and in fact have put on a good show of actually thriving during the many balmy, 100-degree interludes we’ve been treated to. I’d never have guessed vincas would harbor such reserves of toughness, flimsy-petaled as they are.

Also doing yeoman service are some clumps of indigo heliotrope I spread around fairly lavishly this spring. Their rugose leaves are a tad less handsome than usual owing to liberal applications of the solar branding iron, but they are good-looking all the same and very attractive to butterflies.. Supposedly heliotrope is sometimes called “cherry-pie plant” because of its scent, and while I’m annoyed by the Little-House-on-the-Prairie-ishness of the term it’s also fairly accurate. A stronger wallop of the same odor is delivered by the potato vine, a succulent and leggy little weed that grows at a horrifying rate and blooms in clusters of dull and unimpressive white flowers. I spend a good deal of time pulling it out of all sorts of places, but occasionally it gets going in an obscure and innocuous spot and then I leave it there and enjoy its scent as it wafts inappropriately out of, for example, the rhododendrons on the dark side of the house.

Still, this is putting a Happy Face on a nuclear warhead. There is something intensely dispiriting about a wilted 40-foot tall tree, as I myself have discovered by looking out my front door and across the street at an overgrown copse of silver maples and choke cherries. When I see trees in this kind of distress I have no trouble at all imagining what they will look like lying spread-eagled across the remains of my car after next winter’s first severe ice storm.

It may be well to establish an emergency policy for pulling the garden through parched times like these, particularly since many localities may be imposing water restrictions. (Mine didn’t, although some of the surrounding counties did, and I felt very guilty about this even as I unleashed raging torrents on my rose beds.) Such a policy need not be elaborate, but merely predicated on logic. To wit:

1. Forget the lawn. If you are a man you will probably find this a particularly wrenching decision, but the grass will likely come back eventually and if not, sayonara to it. Grass seed will no doubt be available in mid-autumn.

2. You may fuss slightly with the annuals, but don’t make a federal case out of it. Water things in pots, which dry out very quickly, but don’t perform heroic measures on bedded cannon-fodder like impatiens and snapdragons. If the going gets tough, cut them loose and trust in Darwin.

3. If you have a lily pool, keep it topped up just enough to prevent the fish from floating off to the Sweet Hereafter and no more. The lowered water level may well expose things best left unseen, but unless these include portions of a human corpse, ignore them.

4. If you have a kitchen garden, you will find that some vegetables can make it on restricted water, but most can’t. Even hose dousing, if you’re on a heavily treated municipal system as I am, will just barely keep things hanging on by their fingertips, and you might as well forget about cucumbers, peas, lettuce, and anything else that is essentially crunchy water. Stunted vegetables in general are not taste treats. In many areas, you can write off the summer garden and plant for fall if the drought has eased by then: otherwise, there’s always next year.

5. Try to keep your perennials going if possible. Because most are relatively deep-rooted, they’re not automatically goners if the soil surface dries out slightly (though some, like Japanese iris, will be pretty displeased); on the other hand, it usually takes several years for a given specimen to come into its full glory, so it’s worthwhile to provide some form of life support in order avoid going back to Square One.

6. If you have only one drop of water to your name, siphon it off to a tree. As anyone with eyes in his head knows, trees and shrubs provide the architecture of a garden and should be kept alive at all costs. You might not think an established magnolia or dogwood would be seriously affected by a drought of one or two month’s duration, but you would be wrong. And unfortunately, by the time said tree exhibits visible signs of water stress, it’s often too late to save it: if it doesn’t die outright, it’s liable to be dispatched by an Arctic blast at some point during the coming winter. In these parts, rhododendrons, hollies, azaleas, and boxwoods are particularly vulnerable, and they’re not cheap to replace. Watch them.

Needless to say, you would be far ahead of the game in all departments if you had the sense to provide a good mulch for everything early in the spring. If not — well, shame on you. You might as well pull down the shades, ensconce yourself in an easy chair, and settle in with your stamp collection or your knitting in bleak anticipation of the weeks and weeks of punishing monsoon rains that, even as I write this, must surely be lying in wait.

See also:

V. Digitalis, In the Garden, Vol. 1, No. 2, 3, No. 4; Vol. 2, No. 1


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