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annual gardening, annual garden design
VACATION BLUES

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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

Anyone who has ever doubted the ephemeral nature of gardens should go away on a two week vacation. It helps to make sure that your friends and relatives are either away or inattentive at the same time, and are therefore unavailable for even routine watering. When you return, take a deep breath and confront your beds and borders. The results will be eye opening.

Last year, during the drought, I returned to find that a few plants were deceased and the rest were at least crispy around the edges. This happened despite the lavish amounts of mulch that I had heaped around everything before I left, and the limited hand watering undertaken by a helpful neighbor. Ironically the plants that were not watered fared better than many of those that were, and the common spurge succeeded better than anything else. In fact, last year when I got home from vacation it billowed out of the cracks between the bricks in defiance of the drought. This year when I returned, it surged out of the same cracks in defiance of the perpetual rain.

Of course this year the abundant moisture made everything else grow too. Individual specimens of crabgrass were bigger than my head. Of the intentionally cultivated plants, the roses grew exponentially, reaching out to snag the car as it came in the driveway, and overwhelming smaller accent plants. Being a lover or roses, I do not panic at this kind of exuberance. Unfortunately, the rose canes that had grown by about a foot were also absolutely naked because the leaves had been decimated by blackspot. I have been fighting blackspot this entire damp season, and without my vigilance it took a toll. If you like minimalism in the garden, the sight of my roses after vacation would have done your heart good.

My garden also suffered on a small scale from animal depredation. We have known for a long time that a groundhog goes in and out via two large holes dug under sections of fencing at the rear and side of my backyard. Arthur the cat had a face-off with this animal one evening as we were eating dinner on our back porch. After a few tense seconds, both jumped back and headed off in opposite directions. The groundhog is, apparently, as undeterred by Arthur’s actual presence as he is by Arthur’s scent. While we were away, the persistent pest ate all the tender buds that were on my daughter’s ‘Green Envy’ zinnias. The interesting thing is that he ignored the neighboring ‘Violet Queen’ zinnias. Scientists may not have discovered it yet, but apparently groundhogs have some a primitive sense of aesthetics.

Naturally, every shrub on the property responded to the rain by sprouting large amounts of new growth. The weigelas, which are only really attractive when they are in bloom, sprouted long, arm-like branches in all directions. I know that weigela blooms on old wood, so if I cut these now I will be reducing the number of blooms next spring. However, if I don’t cut these back at least a bit, the bush in my front yard will engulf everything around it, including the expensive tree peony that I installed last fall. Simple economic considerations suggest that no $9.99 weigela should ever be allowed to engulf a tree peony that cost nearly ten times as much.

So as I struggled last week to meet deadlines and clear the mountain of work off my desk, the garden needed a lot of tender loving care. The problem for me in this situation was "Where do I start?"

I started by making a futile attempt to convince myself that even a little work will make a big difference. This strategy is fine for day-to-day garden management, when things are mostly under control. It doesn’t work as well when your property looks like a little piece of the Amazon rain forest. In desperation I decided to start by dealing with the things that bothered me the most. I spent my first twenty-minute session armed with my loppers, trimming the most overgrown portions of the hedges. I am happy to report that after a week of such ministrations, they look much better, and my mental health has returned (at least as far as the garden goes).

I am hard at work now weeding out the beds, and this exercise has made me realize that some things have actually improved since the day I left on vacation. The Rose-of-Sharon tree that I transplanted and thought that I had killed two weeks before I left has returned to life. By September it may even bloom. My ‘City of York’ climbing rose has proven strangely immune to blackspot, and has sprouted lots of leafy new growth. ‘Aphrodite’, a statuesque hosta in the front yard, has blossomed at last, and its white flowers smell just like honey. The perilla that I used to edge a raised bed in the back now look like small trees, and the potted portulaca plants are blooming their heads off, despite the fact that they have not been deadheaded in weeks. The whole landscape is green, and that makes me realize that I should be grateful that everything around me is not on fire, as it is in some parts of the country this year.

Now that I have begun the process of setting things to rights, my customary optimism has been restored. If it ever stops raining, I may even mow the lawn.

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