THE POWER OF MYTH
A friend called not long ago, and she sounded desperate.
“I am going to join the N.R.A,” she said in a tone
that suggested she had just committed herself to scrubbing the floor of Grand
Central Station with a toothbrush. When I asked her why a normally peaceful
person would want to do such a thing, she told me the whole sad story.
It seems that my friend had just bought a
fall-blooming anemone that was gorgeous, healthy and-best of all-on sale.
Lovingly installed in her Westchester garden, the anemone lasted exactly one
day. A deer apparently ate it during the wee hours of the following morning.
This was particularly ironic for my friend because just recently she had seen
her anemone’s name on a respected publication’s list of “deer proof”
The myth of the deer proof plant is only one of
several that I have been reminded of recently. In truth, a hungry deer will eat
just about anything, even if the act results in distress of one kind or
another. Unfortunately deer have rather large stomachs and rather small brains.
Thinking about deer reminds me of another myth-that
the presence of a dog or cat will keep squirrels, racoons and other marauders
out of the garden. I have three cats. One is an excellent mouser and another is
as big as an average cocker spaniel. Neither of them is able to intimidate the
horde of bulb-stealing, plant chewing mammels that troop through my backyard on
a daily basis.
The truth is that even if the average domestic cat or
dog performs effectively during the day, it probably won’t be patrolling the
yard all night, when many varmints are out on the prowl. While you and the cat
are snuggled on the sofa listening to Mozart or watching Survivor, the
mice, voles and groundhogs are rifling through the begonias and eating their
fill. So much for deterrence.
Then there is the myth of plant hardiness (or lack of
hardiness). This year two lovely gladiolas popped up in my back beds. I didn’t
plant them, which means that the previous owner of my house put them in over
two years ago. This also means that the gladiola corms survived in the ground
for two winters, and are still producing flowers.
Everyone knows that in this climate gladiolas must be
lifted every autumn and stored for the winter lest they freeze to death. My
gladiolas probably lasted because we have had mild winters of late, and the bed
where they live is in a protected place close to the house. If the coming
winter is harsh, I may lose them, and at the moment I am undecided about
whether or not to tempt Fate and leave them in the ground. I did not put them
in, but I have grown rather fond of them. Chances are they will spend the
winter in my cellar.
The thing to remember about the U.S. Department of
Agriculture Zone Hardiness Map and the recommendations of plant merchants about
hardiness, is that everything is relative. Whether you are talking about
gladiolas or crepe myrtle, or Lady Banks roses, it is your own microclimate
that matters most when it comes to survival.
Ornamental grasses have also become the stuff of myth,
especially among landscapers. A couple of years ago these plants became
extremely fashionable, and that’s when the myth began. Grasses were touted as
being “perfect”–tough, hardy, drought tolerant, and (in some cases) native.
Many of the larger species grow quickly, and landscapers put them in here,
there and everywhere to fill up empty spaces in a hurry.
Unfortunately for many people, the landscapers are
long gone and the grasses remain in gigantic form. I know places where grasses
have enveloped Shasta daisies and even overwhelmed impatiens. People are afraid
they will kill them if they cut them back, even in the face of empirical
evidence that suggests that it would take a prolonged nuclear winter to slow
The truth is that grasses are great when they are
sited properly and cared for regularly. Most of the larger cultivars should be
divided at least once a year. It is easiest to do this in the fall, when you
can cut down the tall stalks with impunity, dig up the clumps and divide them.
Use a sharp knife or even a small saw to do this because the roots tend to be
Here is a great truth that works in gardening and most
other things. Always think twice about “common knowledge”. If your experience
differs from what is accepted as common knowledge, go with what works for you.
My friend, the former anemone owner, has decided to forego joining the NRA,
skip the deer proof plants and spend her money on deer fencing. After all, a
‘good fence is a lot stronger than a garden myth.