A Maine Garden Honors Its Fallen Heroes
There are Mainers who find April to be a dismal time of year and strive to spend as much of it as possible in some exotic locale like Disney World. I am not one of them. For me, April signifies [insert here stirring boilerplate about renewal of life, season of hope, new beginnings, blah blah]. Anyway at this time of year I can seldom afford to travel.
April does, however, have its ghoulish aspect. Those white blossoms of serviceberry (Amalanchier spp.), glowing ghostlike in the mud-brown woods, once signified to early New Englanders — so I've read — that the ground had thawed enough to bury the winter's dead. With which cheerful thought in mind, I undertake at about this time every year to tote up the latest round of losses in the garden.
In Maine by the end of April you can begin to tell with a fair degree of certainty which plants are alive and which are not. This goes especially for trees and shrubs, whose buds ought to be swelling by now. But even hardy perennials more often than not will have begun to stir in cautious fashion — sending up perhaps a tentative shoot like a periscope for a wary look around. Some of them (primroses, sweet williams, Shasta daisies, monardas and nepetas and the rest of the mint clan) will be going great guns. Others will be, not to put too fine a point on it, stone dead. For better or worse, at least now you know.
This last winter was unusually wild, which would lead the new or inattentive Mainer to suppose that everything in the garden will be just peachy. Ha ha ha ha! I'm sorry, that was probably rude. For reasons unknown to horticulture (or at least to me) these wimpy winters are often more devastating than the old-fashioned Angry Norse God kind. Maybe the plants just don't take them seriously.
On the theory that any normal gardener is cheered to learn of the misfortunes of another, I will briefly rail against some of the plants that have done me wrong.
• Echinacea (the species purpurea and numerous fancy hyrids). What is it with me and this great flower? It's a striking garden specimen, a butterfly magnet, a useful herb, and a North American native to boot. Every summer I see it blooming like a mauve-purple explosion in front of a mobile home up the road. For me, it languishes for a couple of seasons, looking more feeble with every sunrise, and then one spring it simply fails to come back at all. This is that spring.
• Mock-orange (Philadelphus spp.). This is one of those "grandmother" plants that thrive on neglect, grow into a big untidy bush, and fill the air with a delicious scent — in other people's gardens. My neighbor Maria has got one that could benefit from attacking with a machete before it swallows the car. I got a nice bushy plant from Fedco a couple of years ago and plopped it in a sunny spot in what I intend to be, someday, a wildish mixed hedgerow. Only last week I trotted out to inspect it and found just a couple of living twigs bearing maybe eight or ten anemic buds.
• Beach plum (Prunus maritima). As with mock-orange, only more so. This winter's die-back was worse than ever. So I grubbed it out and replaced it with a highbush blueberry that I got for $9.99 at the grocery store. Golden privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium aureum). I think I'm just going to shoot this thing and put it out of its misery. Or buy it a ticket to Disney World.
• Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea). You've probably heard the expression "hardy as an oak." Ha ha ha ha!
• Roses (in variety, but especially the beautiful "English" roses bred by David Austin). As Monsieur Swann said to his barber: Please, do not remind me of the great sorrow of my life.
Now I should point out that these are not just the sort of failures that afflict any garden newbie. I have been achieving this sort of failure for over two decades now. The wonder is that I have the cheek to step out my back door in April rather than staying indoors with my head hung low in shame.
And yet perversely this remains a season of hope. The hydrangeas and smoke bushes and Japanese maples are looking well. So are the bamboos except for the one that looks dead. My son Tristan bids fair to win the race between graduation and expulsion. My kitty slayed a mouse this week not much smaller than herself, and of similar coloring — perhaps she mistook it for an upstart sibling. The local garden center, I see, is running a 20-percent-off sale. All is well Down East.