In the garden, diversity is the way to go.
I love peonies, but a whole yard full of them? Glory-be would break out in late May, last two to three weeks, and then… nada.
I love white flowers, and have even toyed with the idea of creating a moon garden in a corner of the back lot, but a whole garden only in white? Might as well set up a symphony orchestra with nothing but flutes.
As for veggies, I ask you, do you really want that many zucchini? Or tomatoes, or beans, or take your pick.
And division is downright healthy. I look at those Siberian irises (yes, they are immigrants), which have ballooned into five or six boisterous stands, and I realize it’s time. They must be divided this fall if they’re going to flaunt those gorgeous purply-blue blooms next spring.
Given the timing of this post and my choice of title, you may think you know what’s coming next: oh, she’s going to get into the election. Well, only sideways. I’ve been thinking a lot about the divisions—even yawning chasms—opening among folks in this country, the staking out of some putative Us against some imaginary Them.
That’s a problem that it will take a lot more people than me to solve, but in honor of election day, I figured it was a good time to start looking at some of the diversity in our country that spans red states and blue states. When you get right down to it, we gardeners all live in green states.
So this past Friday, while two inches of wet snow fell relentlessly on my surroundings, my friend Hillary gave me a tour of her thriving garden in Charleston, South Carolina.
She warned me beforehand not to expect much going on in her garden this time of year, but as she walked me around (we used FaceTime), I saw plenty happening. And no wonder. As she started taking us outside, she wondered whether she’d need a sweater; it was only 65 degrees. (I think it was 28 degrees here in western Mass. at the time.) She walked me out into a green dream.
Hillary’s garden is bordered on one side by a tidal creek, and rimmed by trees. Fortunately, the land sits high enough that even when hurricanes roar through, the creek doesn’t invade her yard. All that water close by, combined with plenty of trees and shrubs, encourages lots of birds to visit or move in for the season. You’ll hear a little more about that in a moment.
As in many coastal areas, the soil is very sandy, which poses a problem for growing some kinds of plants (I’m taking Hillary’s word for this, since the plants she showed me looked like they had no complaints).
True, the veggie garden that occupied two sizable raised beds had wound way down; the summer veggies had long since done their thing and gasped their last. We found a couple of lonely little cherry tomatoes still hanging on, and a few lively marigolds were holding their own, but the rest was gone. I have to say that Hillary cleans up her veggie beds much more than I do, but we both see the same results once the veggies are gone: the weeds move in. And we have the same philosophy on dealing with those: maybe soon, but more likely next spring.
Which will arrive a lot sooner there than here. I looked up the skinny on Charleston’s climate. Average annual snowfall in inches: 0. Zee-row. Of course, that’s just an average, and as we know, there are outliers. Hillary recalled one winter several years back when they had a horrific 5-day freeze, with the temperatures barely moving above 20 the whole time. And it did snow, something that happens maybe once every five years, but it usually melts quickly. This particular time, though, the snow stayed, and turned into ice. The city had one snowplow, reserved for keeping the runways at the joint civilian/military airport cleared. You can imagine the rest.
I love these stories about weather events that seem like disasters in one part of the country but are taken as normal in another. Here in the Massachusetts part of the Connecticut River Valley, we get plenty of stretches in the teens and twenties any time and sometimes many times between November and March, and a good many days around 0 or less. Every winter we anticipate hitting -10 to -20 at least once. I remember the dog’s water dish—sitting next to an outside wall—freezing solid one winter.
But then, if we were about to get hit by a real hurricane, we’d be freaking out, while Charlestonians seem to regard them much the same way we see our two- to three-footer blizzards: plan ahead with batteries and candles and matches, batten down the hatches, and come outside afterwards to see what broke. Big difference is, we shovel snow while they shovel mud.
The Charleston averages make for very mild winters; possibly a two- to three-day mild freeze in late December or early January. Hold that thought: there’s their winter. But December’s average high is 63, with an average low of 41; January goes waayyyyy down to an average high of 60 and average low of 39. February goes back up to December levels, and by March, spring is in swing for sure. Summers are hot and steamy. The climate is wetter than the US average, with moderate rainfalls throughout the cooler months and plenty of water coming down June through September.
There is that occasional inconvenient hurricane. Hurricane Zeta, even though it didn’t hit the SC coast, was making itself felt while we talked, and I could see the tops of the trees swaying in the 35 mph gusts. The hurricane also spun off some heavy rainfall that came down after our tour. Fortunately, it held off during, so I got to see more.
Hurricanes aside, with that kind of climate, you’d expect a long growing season.
Charleston County is in USDA Zone 9a. Some things that would have to be moved indoors by now or consigned to perdition, in my Zone 5b (edging towards Zone 4) garden, thrive outdoors year-round for Hillary and her neighbors.
The rosemary grows nonstop, and has to be trimmed back frequently. The chrysanthemums come back year after year. Her papyrus plants look right at home next to some nano-ponds; in this setting, they too have to be controlled or they take over. Knockout roses, bred to withstand the South Carolina humidity and bugs, were full of blooms; those, too, had to be kept trimmed to civilized size. Somebody next door had some enthusiastic young fig trees going.
Aside from the roses and the marigolds and the papyrus, I did recognize some of the plants in the garden: bleeding heart and hydrangea and wild ginger, for example. But Hillary had to tell me what many of the plants were, because you wouldn’t see them growing this far north. (That goes for some of the weed plants as well, which sound a lot more tenacious than our New England annoyances.) I’d heard of lantana, but had never seen it before, at least I don’t think so. And I may have seen aloe growing in a pot somewhere, but I never knew they produced dramatic orangey-red flower clusters on a stem rising far above the leaves.
For some plants, Hillary could furnish the local name but wasn’t sure of the botanical name. One was a “tractor plant,” so called for the shape of the leaves, like tiny green tractor seats. I tried doing an online search for the plant to locate the scientific name, but came up with an entirely different kind of tractor plant, as you can see here. So if anybody can put a botanical name to the plant producing these tractor-seat leaves, please let us know.
Some plants had familiar names but looked very different from their supposed counterparts up here. Those hydrangeas were growing under a gigantic magnolia tree, which in Charleston’s climate never loses its leaves. Hillary told me a fascinating tidbit. Magnolias are a primeval tree: the first flowering tree in the arboreal kingdom. Nature sure went all out on that first prototype.
Then there was the hibiscus, which had flowers that looked a bit like those on my winter-hardy hibiscus, but with very different leaves. I concluded, from later investigation online, that hers is tropical hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), same genus as my hibiscus but a different species entirely. Sorry I can’t tell you which species, because I didn’t catch any but the fancy breeder name when I bought it. What I can tell you is that her hibiscus and mine are in highly contrasting conditions right now, and I have the photos to prove it.
As different as her magnolia and my magnolia. I don’t have a picture of hers, and I can’t even bear to show you how mine looked after this last very hard frost. Believe me, it ain’t pretty.
So, while we here in the northeast are crossing the plants off our list of garden action for the foreseeable future (unless you count my Siberian dogwood stems turning bright red after all the leaves have dropped), folks in Charleston still have plenty to look forward to. Hillary showed me her sasanqua camellia, with three lovely deep pink flowers but many buds. She says, “It will go crazy with all the buds beginning to unfold. It’s usually really gorgeous by the time Thanksgiving arrives.” Now there is something to give thanks about. I’m going to want a photo of its Thanksgiving condition.
Other things are growing furiously in the neighborhood: election lawn signs. There are Republican growths and Democratic growths, and I got a look at the contending parties down at the corner of the street: on one corner, a bevy of Democratic Party candidates; on the opposite corner, a parade of Republican contenders. What struck me was the multitude of signs.
Here in my deep-blue Massachusetts valley, you’ll see Biden-Harris signs and Black Lives Matter signs along the road and the occasional Vote! It Matters signs, but not many others. That’s not an indication that people don’t care about who’s representing them in Washington or Boston; it just means that there isn’t much doubt. Most of the local races don’t even attract a Republican candidate, and we assume the re-election of our congressional representative, Jim McGovern, and our senator, Bob Markey, is a foregone conclusion (so does Politico, and they have access to polling data I can’t get at).
But things must be more exciting in South Carolina right now. The Senate seat held by Lindsey Graham since 2003 may just get a new occupant after this election, although Graham seems to have pulled ahead of his opponent Jaime Williams in the latest polls. But it’s sure not a ho-hum situation. Feelings may be running high. Between when I saw those signs and when Hillary captured a photo, somebody had plucked the Biden sign from the Democratic side.
Hillary’s own lawn is growing a sign with a longer-term view, one that will be relevant well after this particular election. Who can’t use a reminder, now and then, about what the 19th Amendment was all about?
I did promise something about birds, didn’t I? Hillary is an avid bird watcher, and along with a Meyer lemon tree and a crape myrtle, the back yard has grown several bird feeders on poles. The hummingbirds that hang around all summer have moved on south, so the hummingbird feeders have been retired.
But some migratory birds are still wandering through, and the seed feeders make a welcome stop. I asked about squirrels, since every habitual feeder of birds I know has waged a frustrating battle against squirrels raiding the feeders.
Apparently that’s not a problem in this garden; the poles have sliding baffles that thus far have completely baffled the squirrels. Sometimes, says Hillary, they go flying off the pole and then sit there like they’re wondering what on earth just happened. The feeders are safe from marauders and continue to support those of the feathered persuasion.
I asked about favorites, and she mentioned a species locally known as “butter butts.” From the photo here, you can see how they got that name. If you want to be more dignified about it, you could call them yellow-rumped warblers. The ornithologists do, but don’t you think butter-butt is the perfect descriptor?
Let’s meander past one other feature in this garden that I found delightful; it has me thinking about finding a place in my garden for something of the sort. It’s a rock garden that reminds me of Japanese Zen gardens. This one borders the side of the house where all the pipes and utility cables run, and solved the problem of roots getting into the pipes.
I loved the design of this space at first sight, and especially the feel of a landscape painted with nothing but stones: solid ground, high points, a river running through it, and the arrangement pulls your eye sweetly down the stretch. A lot of the other beds are edged with river stones that Hillary has collected from all over; this rock-garden-landscape neatly picks up and completes the motif. Plus, it’s kind of nice to have a stretch of garden you don’t need to weed! I was beginning to think even more seriously about this—until Hillary told me that what she’d expected to be a three-hour job took three weeks to complete.
So there we are, the first installment in the virtual tour of the US, celebrating our diversity. We’ll get to division at some later date. The winter is long. At least, up north here where I’m writing it sure is.
Now your turn! Please post a comment (your email address doesn’t appear to anyone but me) on anything this post inspires you to say, or use one of the following questions:
- Do you expect any more action in your garden before the end of this year? What kind?
- Which do you think you’ll get first: spring, or a Covid-19 vaccine?
- Want to give me a tour of your garden, this fall-into-winter, or later? Let me know!
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