February 20, 2020

The Accidental Gardener

The pale blue-and-white house we'd lived in for the past 25 years was finally beginning to show some wear. To be honest, a lot of wear. It had likely been going downhill for a while, but as aging appears stagnant in real time, I only noticed how run down it looked when we returned after a freak flood had kept us away for several months. (See last August's blog, “Revenge of the Dishwasher.”)  Necessary interior renovations included a full paint job. We decided to update some furnishings as well.

Almost as soon as that major project was complete, the day after a fierce thunderstorm, I discovered water seeping onto the floor of my office from an exterior wall. Flooding again? No way! I was pushed to reevaluate my house's aging exterior. It was time, past time, to blast clean, paint and refurbish the outside walls and trim as well.

I chose a deeper shade of blue-green/gray paint (the plasticized kind that's supposed to last forever … or at least, I should live so long, another 25 years) and bright white for the brick-style trim. (Or rather I copied the cool color scheme of two gay couples who were doing a primo job of refurbishing an old house across the way.) We also had our favorite handyman fix the sagging and cracking planter that bordered the front of the house. It, too, was painted pure white.

Excepting a towering Chinese windmill palm that had been stupidly set smack center in the planter by the house's former owners (and was far too large to remove), that fresh coat of paint now merely served to highlight the complete absence of any flowers or shrubs. (The weed-like shrubbery we'd kept as “bushes” had apparently died during our absence.  As for the few, reedy, oak-tree trunks that remained [they'd self-propagated, I know not when], I was told they would do eventually damage the foundation if allowed to stay. Plus, they were seriously ugly. They would need to go.)

But guess what? Despite the seeming lack of plant nutrition, my planter suddenly had a new resident — a large land tortoise — who seemed happy to run its entire length.  (“Tortoise and hare” story be damned: this tortoise could run … but not escape.)

Wanting something other than dirt, scary trees and a, perhaps, illegal resident (I had no idea where the tortoise came from, but did recall reading a while back that young turtles could no longer be sold legally as pets), I jumped at the offer of help from a casual friend at our neighborhood music cafe. Rudi claimed to spend hours each day nurturing his garden and learning about local plants. Best of all, rather than simply give advice I could barely understand, he said he'd stop by early the next day to assess the damage, do some clean up, even bring a few, low-maintenance saplings we could have for free.

Rudi worked all morning, clearing brush, pulling weeds, and showing me how to sprinkle back the rich dirt attached to provide a better base for greenery in my sorely pockmarked lawn. He set a nice fern he'd found out back (among that ivy-laden, jungle-like habitat) into a “front island.” Its centerpiece would be two, foot-high cacti my black-olive-tree trimmer had recently found growing on my roof. (Yes, my experience with plants thus far was that they only thrive where unwanted.) We actually had four of these discarded cacti that the tree trimmer had set into an old pot at my insistence (after he'd flung them down to the ground in disgust). When Rudi mentioned he'd always wanted a cactus plant, I was happy to share my roof's bounty.

In addition to all the free labor (though earth-dirty and sweaty, he did seem to be having fun), Rudi also planted a tiny starburst tree at the edge of my front yard. I know, because I carefully wrote down the sapling's name. He also wanted to gift me a young mango tree, but we could find no appropriately sunny spot in the backyard, being as I'd been cursed with these two enormous “dirty” black olives that provided cooling shade but also a constant barrage of dead leaves (hence rooftop soil rich enough to grow a cactus). A passing neighbor, walking her dogs, kept me from planting the mango out front when she described roaming pick-up trucks stopping by with ladders to steal the fruit … and “you don't want strangers messing around your house at all hours.”

Ok, no mangos for now (as a city kid from the Bronx whose gestational experience with foliage was limited to fenced-in trees set in cement sidewalks, I'm easily swayed). Our cafe friend left with his cactus plants and the tortoise (I provided a cardboard box; he  punched out air holes). Other than withdrawing its head and legs, the tortoise was fully cooperative, relieved perhaps at being liberated from planter lockup. He (or she) would be taken to a wildlife center where Rudi used to volunteer. He planned to ask if it would be legal to keep the tortoise as a pet (for some reason, he'd taken a shine to it). If not, they would see to its proper welfare.

Suddenly reptile-free, my planter looked even more forlorn. And my husband hated the front yard's cactus centerpiece. (We gazed across the road at a huge set of cacti, likely progenitors of our own, bordering our neighbor's property. They were tall, but not particularly majestic, and like clumsy staging from an old Western, looked out of place among the more genteel rows of palm trees and bougainvillea.)

As for my adventures in gardening, I eventually gave up, gave in, and hired a professional landscaping couple to “xeriscape” my front yard (use native and quick-growing “invasive” plants, if necessary, that required little care). And remove all the ugly bare twiggery and frightening oak tree invaders from my planter once and for all. Maybe even design and plant a prettier “island.”

They did all that, seemingly effortlessly. My input was a color scheme of yellow, purple and white that I felt would show well against the deeper blue/green/gray (depending on the time of day) new house paint. And, being “me” (an original, creative type?), still look somewhat different. To save money, all the plantings would be small and rather common. Which was fine with me as well, as anything flowering in my front yard would be considered miraculous to this out-of-her-element, newsprint-thumbed city girl.

Our landscapers were from India and we immediately struck a bond over local Indian restaurant recommendations (our favorite ethnic fare). For flower ideas, they mostly showed me pictures of their native South Indian ixora shrubs. These showy full-round blooms brought to mind, in mini version, the chrysanthemum-looking bushes popular around the Far Rockaway bungalow colonies of my childhood. Remembrance of a happy and carefree past.

I chose the least common (and I feel most striking) deep-yellow shade of ixora. Then, even before they were planted, purchased a set of yellow, made-in-Miami, mesh patio chairs to match. There would be four bromeliads (two large, two small) to showcase the ends of my planter, and several sweet, multi-flowering purple pentas, set as accents throughout. Two striking flax lilies flanking a mini, purple bougainvillea tree would form the island's centerpiece (the antithesis of the cactus). And dozens of quick-growing, dual-shaded green trinettes (or “umbrella plants”) fill out both the island and circle round my towering, extant areca palms. And, oh yes, bordering my front patio, a slight gardenia tree will one day blossom (we hope). Bookended by two, somewhat taller, ixora plants.

All pretty standard greenery — but to me a wealth of wonders. It was almost June in Florida and rain-storming most days, but luckily not the Wednesday scheduled for our yard's makeover. The gardeners arrived early and, with brawny young help, were done within hours. I'd very much wanted a “maintenance free” front yard. Nevertheless, I was instructed to water everything thoroughly every day for the first month, every-other-day for the second, and then twice weekly forever after. This was, of course, for days when it didn't rain. Would you believe the next week —from June 1st on — it never rained once?

I hand-watered everything at first; then purchased a small, four-dollar sprayer. My husband (likely annoyed by my absence during dinner time) next suggested I get a two-hose connecter so I could spray both the side (more young areca palms planted there) and front of the house at once. Without necessitating my continued presence. My amazed daughter (who was POSITIVE all my plantings would die as I'd never water them — hey, her Bonsai still lives on the widow sill!) then convinced me to get one of those multi-hole attachments that spray a large arc, back and forth, over the entire front yard. It works great, but I still can't seem to adjust the thing so I don't douse myself in the process.

Despite my techy approach to irrigation, I soon called my landscapers to say bunches of florets were dropping like flies from many of my ixoras. Their response was to water and water some more. Forget the sprayers, they said; only hand watering would do for now. So once again I found myself standing over my planter, hose in hand, for over an hour, at dusk — the ideal time for my flowers, as all that water wouldn't quickly evaporate under the blazing sun. And no matter which repellant I used, also the ideal time to serve my flesh up as a tasty buffet to hoards of mosquitoes.

Yet despite all my watering, the flower damage continued. My gardeners finally returned for a live consult. (After much pleading on my part and after I'd texted photos of what definitely looked like chomped-upon buds). They admitted bugs were feasting on my plants (as I'd suspected all along). This was also after a friend came by, poked her finger into a brown, bitten-into part of a yellow flower, and retrieved a squiggly tiny green worm (or caterpillar). I looked it up. There is actually a named category of pests called “ixora caterpillars.”

For any and all unwanted garden pests, my landscapers recommended the cheap, quick fix of Sevin insecticide. But I looked that up too, and found it's poisonous — at least for the first few days — to bees and butterflies. Not in keeping with my natural, eco-friendly gardening vision.

Time for another trip to Home Depot's Garden Center (I've become quite the regular). I located a knowledgeable staffer who recommended Bayer's granules (yeah, the aspirin company could treat my headache with plants!) that would both fertilize the soil and repel insects and creepy crawlers for an entire year. Now that's my kind of zero-maintenance gardening plan!

I sprinkled the granules around all my flowers, watered and, as my luck would have it,  then it rained as well. Still, so far so good. With the named list of my shrubs and trees in hand, I also visited various plant websites (I'm discovering a whole new world of information) to see how to help my gardenia sapling next. About a third of its leaves were turning yellow, then falling off. (My laissez faire gardeners' advice was: let them fall; new green ones will grow in their place.)

But I'd found online sites that recommended dumping your morning's coffee grounds in the soil around a gardenia tree. It had something to do with proper soil acidity and natural fertilization. I'm not a chemist, and frankly found much of the soil composition advice on these sites intimidating. But this I could do.

I drink coffee, my daughter drinks coffee … between the two of us we manage at least four cups a day. After each cup, I now take out the filter and shake the grounds around the base of my gardenia tree. I even add a little leftover brew on occasion, as I'd also read the coffee's acid is good for the tree's soil. And would you believe after just a week of “sharing our coffee habit” my gardenia's leaves are perkier and shinier than ever — with practically all the yellow gone! (Should I check into what type of breakfast cereal will encourage the tree to flower next?)

My cafe friend, who'd had the first go at my yard, claims he waters and greets his plants each morning. He says caring for them, watching them grow and thrive, is a wonderful, reliable source of pleasure. It's his favorite way to start the day.

I remember giving him a strange look at the time. (Good morning, dear shrubbery? Really?) Though I can see now why he would want to water in the am, despite sun-drying-the soil-too-quickly advice. No bug bites!

Even more importantly, I totally get something I never had a clue about before. Because every morning as I'm out walking my daughter's dog (as the “morning person” in the family, that's my run), I also take a careful tour of my little growing garden. Often, I don't even wait to walk the dog, but first thing upon waking throw open the bedroom shades for a peek. Then can't stop marveling at the fact that I still have pretty flowers and plants. Live greenery that seems to be getting bigger and fuller each day!

Ain't nature grand … and rewarding. With just a little effort — some feeding and weeding and watering care — plants can lift your spirits and pay you back tenfold in expanding natural beauty. Best of all, gardening lets you know your actions CAN and DO have an immediate impact on life. Not much else does these days.

Because of my husband's ongoing medical issues, I see myself housebound, more than ever, for the foreseeable future. But I can still sit on my fresh-painted patio and watch my garden grow. I can see and hear all sorts of visiting birds — many of whom are so colorful and exotic looking, they appear to have escaped from a zoo or nature reserve. Given our South Florida location, that explanation is quite likely.

I can track the mating dance of blue jays and flitting monarch butterflies, and marvel at the expansive, ever-changing sky. And almost daily, during the summer, there are heart-stopping thunder-and-lightning shows where we'll move our chairs to the furthest inner corner of the patio, just to keep semi-dry. And there's always the unexpected thrill of catching a rainbow above the western horizon, just opposite my threshold.

I still pray for rain (another reason I'm a late-in-the-day waterer, “just in case”) so I need not become mosquito fodder while I feed the flowers. But I've also come to find a meditative pace to the act of watering that clears the mind and purifies the soul. Perhaps those fanatical old ladies in gardening hats and gloves, pruning shears in hand, that seem ever-present in quaint British mysteries, were on to something after all. The English love their gardens, and their gardening women are a most hardy and long-lived lot. Here in South Florida, this accidental gardener would be proud to count herself among their numbers.


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