Occasional essays by Christa Watters, Extension Master Gardener
Photos © Christa Watters
Gardening in the Time of Pandemic
Gardening is a lot like life, as I’ve often noted in this space. It is one long lesson in patience, and the gardener is often beset with setbacks and frustrations. Weather, climate, insect or disease invasion, and our choices of what to plant are all the stuff of ordinary garden dilemmas. Yet gardening also rewards us with unexpected joys to counter the tough times. If we’ve gardened more than a year or two, we recognize that change is a constant, and we accept it as the background to our joys and sorrows. But this year of Covid-19 has been extraordinary in a whole different way and to a whole other degree. The rules for coping with the pandemic have caused some of us frustrations of access to our demo-garden spaces, or limited our usual plant shopping habits. But those very things have offered us a different opportunity: We have been reminded that the garden is not just the taker, the place that eats up our time and labor; it is also a much- needed source of joy, a giver of balm to the soul in a time of worry, stress, and isolation. And it has reminded us that often the garden matures all on its own, without much need for intervention from us.
This past winter was mostly the winter that wasn’t, and spring came very early. At the demonstration gardens where I usually volunteer, we had added a lot of new bulbs to the existing plantings, and the results were stunning. Not only did their cheerful masses of colors lift our spirits, they also helped disguise the fact that we had to stop work parties just as the weeds began to grow in full force. Visitors to the garden, when we were there occasionally to check on things, often called out from their masked distance to thank us for keeping these gardens so beautiful, a respite they said they needed in these hard times.
The spring weather was largely benign, mostly enough rain, mostly enough sun, and the gardens, including those here at home, were not just beautiful, they were lush. Many of the tulips in my home garden set giant seed pods, an exceedingly rare sight in normal years. Because I was reading a book on the history of tulips,* I really looked at them, and photographed them in detail this year. The variety of colors and patterns and striations, the form and color of the stamens and pistils, the degree of smoothness or fringe, and the variations of size were all a revelation; I’ve been growing tulips for years, but this year I looked with new eyes and saw them as even more interesting and beautiful.
Because I was mostly sheltering in place, I didn’t make my usual treks to the garden centers and nurseries to fill in perceived gaps or introduce new things into my small garden beds. Instead, I split and moved a few things, but mostly I waited. Patience revealed how little new stuff those beds really needed, especially with everything growing so well and to such big dimensions this year. The gardener’s mantra of “right plant, right place” reveals which plants are happy and which ones gradually disappear. A happy garden tends to grow shut, doing away with the need for much weeding or mulch. Plants spread by seeding themselves out, or spreading roots or rhizomes.
Now, in early summer, plants have grown tall and spread and bloomed prolifically. In one bed, I had spread larkspur seeds last fall. One came up pink, one lavender, but many of the tall spikes have multiple deep purple blooms set against those lacy green leaves. They are interspersed with the summer perennials, among them Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot) and Phlox paniculata (summer phlox), which this year has more than 20 large panicles all blooming in a rich purple. When I originally planted phlox there some years ago, there were just three plants, one each in white, pink, and lavender. How did they all turn purple as the cluster multiplied? And what ensured that this year, for the first time, there is no powdery mildew on the leaves?
The Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ (giant hyssop) that was so huge for a couple of years and then almost disappeared last year is back all over the place, hugely tall, already flowering in the sunniest spots. This is the plant I count on every year to attract an army of bumble bees, so that when I pass by on my way to the front door, it literally hums with life. Livening up this blue-purple theme are the bright yellow blooms of Coreopsis verticillata (threadleaf coreopsis). Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower, which always looks pink to me), Rudbeckia fulgida (black-eyed Susan), and Achillea ‘Anthea’ (yarrow). Filling some of the spaces is the foliage of the asters and chrysanthemums that will bloom much later. Just last week, I decided to fill in a couple of empty spots left by the dying down of all those tulips, so I finally bought a few Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed) and a couple of Liatris spicata (blazing star). To complete the picture, I added another coreopsis and a couple of Shasta daisies that needed dividing in another bed.
All these riches of sight and scent and bees and butterflies have come about despite the pandemic. The garden reassures us that life goes on and that, if we’re lucky, the isolation and destruction of our normal schedules may even have granted us time to see and appreciate in a deeper way.
*The Tulip, by Anna Pavord (Bloomsbury, 1999 paperback version, picked up at an MGNV book swap.) Available at Alexandria Public Library