Volume 14, Issue 9 ~ March 2 - March 8, 2006

Bay Reflections

Field of Dreams

Plant catalogues nourish my fantasy garden, but I plant my real garden from local sources

by Carol A. Russell

Seed and plant catalogs have arrived. What gardener doesn’t drool upon sight of these colorful glossies curled up in the mailbox? I reach in and grasp the bulging roll of papers, anticipating the vibrant beauty arrayed within their pages. Peeling away the chaff of junk circulars, I scurry back down the driveway, headed for my bottomless easy chair next to the fireplace. My footsteps crunch brittle beechnuts thrown down by a recent wet snowstorm, and today I don’t stop to jabber with the juncos.

This time of year, the garden in my head is at its peak. I’m referring to my fantasy garden, a potential yet unrealized plot. I settle into my spot with a cup of coffee, a lighted strawberry votive by my side. The catalogs lie across my lap, ready for the rub and sweep of earnest fingers. Burpee’s cover displays the Red Lightning tomato, a fiery little ball with yellow stripes. On the magazine from White Flower Farm, my personal favorite, the cover honor goes to echinacea Harvest Moon, one of a new generation the copywriter says I “can build a garden around.” And that’s just what they want me to do: fill my garden with tempting tradescantia, bountiful bamboo and seductive sambucus.

As much as I love perusing the showy new varieties and reacquainting myself with old standbys, I now exercise restraint when it comes to my actual purchase. There have been years when my ordering lust — make that list — was pages long. Now I think of all the money that has died in my dirt. Gone, like rotting compost. The brave little imports grew for a while, maybe even a year or two. But the light wasn’t right, or I wasn’t attentive enough in a drought, or some invasive species staged a coup when my back was turned. The sweltering heat and humidity of Chesapeake summers, thunderous downpours preceded by hail, festering fungi and onerous clay soils challenge leaves and roots.

Even if a plant did survive, it never looked like the dashing specimen pictured in the catalog, but rather showed as a drab and tuckered-out shadow of its advertised image, like a microwaved meal appears on my plate compared to the delectable entrée shown on its box. 

I don’t really want to know the total cash I’ve spent on deceased biomass over the years, because it could be enough (or more than enough) to pay for a good kayak. Among the casualties I’ve lost roses, dianthus, lilacs, lamb’s ears, astilbe and bee balm.

But hope springs eternal. Late winter is a time to consider what plants in my garden would benefit from being moved, because the days for transplanting will soon be upon us. When it comes to sunlight, a delicate lacecap hydrangea bordering the driveway gets too much in the afternoon, and two crape myrtles near the thick beech don’t get enough.

After years of experience, I’ve found a better way to expand my garden. I keep in mind plants that are native to Chesapeake Country, and I borrow from my neighbors’ landscapes. The price is right: just a little elbow grease. The added bonus of this approach is genial chit-chat about plant features and garden dynamics. In this way I’ve added creeping sedums, black-eyed Susans, daylilies, peonies and hostas.

There’s also a wealth of plants to be discovered in my own yard. The previous owners of our house had a shade garden at wood’s edge. In it I eventually identified two types of loosestrife: firecracker with bright yellow star-shaped flowers, and gooseneck, with its curvaceous nape of cascading snow-white blooms.

Fantasy is fun and entertaining, but these days I try to keep it just that. When it comes to reality, listening to the land and climate trumps the lure of those perfect pretty pictures.

Carol Russell, a member of the Bayhill Writers Group, lives in Huntingtown. This is her first story for Bay Weekly.

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