Friday, October 15, 2010

Still Life With Robin: How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Peggy Robin

Fall is the time to plant spring-blooming bulbs: daffodils, crocuses, snowdrops, hyacinths, tulips, and a whole host of other easy-to-plant, animal resistant varieties that you find offered by the bagful at our local plant stores and nurseries. I love the burst of color that I see all around me in March and April – it’s high up there on my list of what’s good and right about living in this city. So every year I go to Johnson’s Flower Shop and peruse the shelves of bulbs, selecting only those plastered with photos of the product in full bloom, with deep, showy colors and that are hyped with testimonials to their squirrel resistance, hardiness, speed of spreading and long life – that is, Superblooms.

I take my bulbs home and wait patiently till the perfect planting weather. I scrupulously follow the instructions on the package, digging the hole to the required depth to the centimeter, adding the bone meal in the specified, measured amount, spacing the holes the correct distance apart. Every year I note what I planted and where it is in my small yard. Then come the months of dreariness, chill, icy rains, snows, and bare ground, until at last the sun returns and green shoots start poking through the sodden ground. All around me my neighbors’ yard become a collage of reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, and purples. And mine? There are always lots of greens – the stems shoot up faithfully from their planted bulbs -- but for some reason my bloom rate tends to be stuck at around the fifty percent mark. I have never figured out what everyone else is doing right that I’m doing wrong. 

That doesn’t stop me from trying again next year. This year I face a special challenge. I have to start from scratch. Snowmageddon took down our 20-year-old plum tree, and when the stump removal company came with their machine to take out what was left of the tree after another company had chopped it down, the “stumper” machine churned up all the soil in our tiny front planting area and destroyed any trace of bulbs from the past that may have had any blooming life left in them. So I have to assume I need to plant all new bulbs to have any hope of flowers in March. But it’s also my fresh shot at doing it right this time. (Not that I know what I’ve been doing wrong all along.) I’m approaching this task with optimism; still, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m wondering if I’ve become a bit like Charlie Brown approaching that football each fall, thinking this year, this time, it’s all going to go just as it should. In my case, Mother Nature seems to play the role of Lucy whisking away the ball, right when you expect that thrill of contact. Okay, I need to put that image aside. No point in being negative even before the bulbs are in the ground.

On the other hand, my track record with all kinds of plants is so dismal that perhaps I need to be more realistic.Take houseplants. I have owned many over the years, but never met one that lasted more than five years under my care. I swear I water and expose to sunlight exactly as directed. A few years ago, after throwing out the last of the withered plants I had somehow driven to the brink, my husband (Bill) decided to take over the management of our indoor greenery. Being the die-hard techie that he is, he approached the task as an opportunity to acquire new and amazing gadgets. For each new houseplant he purchased, he installed some kind of self-monitoring watering device. I now have nothing whatsoever to do with the care and maintenance of anything growing inside our home.  Needless to say, all the potted plants are flourishing.

I just realize that my last sentence is not one hundred percent accurate. There is one plant in our house that remains my responsibility, and, against all expectations, it’s doing fine. It’s a small potted cactus. It’s not my plant, technically. It belongs to my daughter who's away at college. It came to her when she was seven, as a birthday party “goodie” given out by the mother of the birthday girl, a very organic, environmental mom who’s philosophically opposed to giving out bags filled with candies and junky plastic toys and instead came up with the creative idea of giving each birthday guest a living thing. For the first few years my daughter wasn’t much interested in the cactus, and so I was the one to keep it watered. That was hard to screw up, as the instructions were to let it sit in a sunny window and ignore it, except for once a month, when it needs to be watered. And the watering method is simply to soak the sandy soil in its pot until the water runs through, then put it back in the window and forget about it for another month.

By the time my daughter was a teenager, the cactus had grown from a small prickly nub to a big prickly globe, somewhat in the shape of a man’s closed fist, but with one “finger” extending upwards.  She grew to like its quirky shape and for all of her high school years, she was happy to take charge of its monthly maintenance. Over the next four years the cactus “finger” grew so tall that it had to be tied to a stake to continue to support its upward growth. Last year, when she went off to college, I promised to look after her cactus for her. And that I’ve done -- successfully, so far. (I’m almost afraid to write these words, lest I jinx myself.) But the “finger” has now grown so fast that it’s become too heavy to stand straight, and has dipped into a U-shape, but it’s still pushing up new prickled extensions at the top. When my daughter comes home at Thanksgiving, I know she’ll be impressed.

Now I have it! Brilliant idea and the answer to all my planting woes. Forget the bulbs: I can do cactus! Now all I have to figure out is how to keep the ground dry around it for all the days of each month except for one, how to keep the air around it at room temperature, and how to make sure it gets bright sunshine each and every day throughout the winter. Looks like the only answer to these problems is to move to New Mexico. And that, I have to concede, is farther than I’m willing to go for planting success. So it’s back to bulb shopping and believing in the blooming promises printed on the packages.  (Check back with me in the spring and I’ll let you know how this story played out.)

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