The Long View – Meditations on Gardening (The Thing About Gardeners)

Occasional essays by Christa Watters

The Thing About Gardeners

This was the long, hard summer that tested our endurance. First it was floods of rain, then that long dry spell, and then more rain, Now that fall has arrived and the cold is creeping in, the summer blooms are looking a bit seedy, except where the asters and naturalized chrysanthemums are adding their graceful blooms. Looking back, it was actually a splendid summer in many respects. No matter how the weather goes in any season, there’s always some plant, or some corner, that loves what’s happening, even as other spots, other plants, are protesting.

Gardening strikes me as the perfect metaphor for life. Everything goes swimmingly well for a while, then adversity strikes and we need to plod through it until we’ve solved the problem or survived the crisis or found a new pathway.

The thing is, even in adversity – maybe especially in adversity – gardening is so healing. We can go out there cranky and tense, and after a half hour or so, we are completely focused on these changing, growing things that we have in our care. We weed, we water, we tend, we prune. And then we are surprised by nature’s way of producing the unexpected! Sometimes the surprise is sudden death. What happened to that plant, it was just looking so good? Other times, a volunteer pops up, maybe even in multiples, and we have a pleasant surprise of color and form—in some cases even an attractor of beautiful butterflies or soothingly humming bees.

One of the special joys of this summer was the success of a corner bed started last summer when the old azaleas began to die. They are dying because a large Linden tree that had shaded them just enough had died and been removed. So until the replacement tree grows big enough, this corner is the perfect place to plant some sun-loving perennials sparked up by a few annuals around the edges to keep my neighbors happy. They like more conventional, tidy garden they say, so my more exuberant borders can make them nervous. Hence, the neat row of begonias at the edge. The tactic worked; many of them have stopped to say how much they like the border plantings and how they change. Something’s been blooming all season, starting with grape hyacinths and crocus, through tulips and hyacinths and daffodils, and then the cheerful coreopsis and eventually the border you see below, as photographed in July.

Eastern tiger swallowtails, including some of the black ones (perhaps females?) danced around my pollinator corner for several weeks in late summer. Assorted bees and bee flies fed there all summer. A Monarch or two visited. The dianthus, volunteers that spread from a single gift annual two years ago, were at their peak in August but are still in partial bloom and have set a lot of seeds. A late purple aster is taking over for the black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia).The Agastache are still in bloom, but fading fast. And the few bees left as November begins are sluggish except in the warmth of midday sun.

I should have written about this garden as it progressed through the summer. But the thing about gardeners is, when summer’s in full swing, and the garden calls, we’ll go out there and work or take pictures, or pat the bumblebees (yes, you can actually stroke their backs when they are tranquilized by nectar and weighed down by pollen!) or just luxuriate in the glorious excess of it all. The computer wasn’t calling me; the writing had to wait.

The pollinator corner in July, with tall Agastache “blue fortune”, shorter magenta Agastache “flame”, Phlox paniculata, Rudbeckia, yellow threadleaf coreopsis, and pink Dianthus japonica, planted among 30-year-old azaleas. The perennials attract butterflies and bees all summer long. Photo: Christa Watters

The pollinator corner in July, with tall Agastache “blue fortune”, shorter magenta Agastache “flame”, Phlox paniculata, Rudbeckia, yellow threadleaf coreopsis, and pink Dianthus japonica, planted among 30-year-old azaleas. The perennials attract butterflies and bees all summer long.
Photo: Christa Watters

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