Tuesday, June 7, 2016

My Latest Gardening Strategy --Tough Love

This is the season I grow increasingly offended by Facebook posts. No, not political ones. Few of those ridiculous rants will tempt me to unfriend you. But a pic of your hussy of a hydrangea, exposing her voluptuous blooms for all the world to see? That’s a different story.  
Admittedly, there is a good deal of envy behind my outrage. If Facebook is any indication, it would seem that growing show-stopping hydrangeas is an inalienable right of any gardener south of the Mason-Dixon line. But, sadly and unjustly, that is not the case.
I have two hydrangea plants. One is on the side of my house and gets limited light exposure. About every other year, it produces one or two decent blooms. It has been there a long time, and I haven’t pulled it up because . . . well, it’s doing its best under trying circumstances.
My sun-deprived hydrangea
... you have to admire this kind of effort.
The other plant, however—the one on my patio—is a different story. I’ve tried everything—cutting it back, not cutting it back, fertilizing it, moving the pot around for maximum sun. For a while, the plant gave me fairly decent blooms, but now it's going through its teen years—that’s about age six in plant years—and has grown lazy and stingy. Over the last two summers, it has given me nothing, nada, zilch in return for all the love and pampering I’ve lavished on it.
I need to explain that I began setting up housekeeping in the mid-70s—that transitional period between the Age of Aquarius and Stayin’ Alive. It was also the time of decorating your space with enough houseplants to replenish a ravaged rainforest. When it became apparent the green in my thumb was lacking, my friend Donna—still under the lingering effects of love and peace—offered advice: “Words of encouragement and tender caresses will restore vigor and vitality to your languishing plants . . . along with regular watering and feeding and adequate exposure to sunlight.”
I followed that perfect blend of mystical and scientific advice for years, but recently I’ve realized that plants—like pets and kids—have distinct personalities. Even when they’re in the same family. What works well for some doesn’t necessarily work for others. Some respond favorably to positive reinforcement and kindness. Others require something a bit more . . . forceful.
I tested this theory last spring with my obstinate hydrangea. I squatted in front of that petulant plant to deliver a tough-love talk.
“No more coddling,” I said sternly. “No more free ride. If you don’t produce a bevy of beautiful blossoms this season, you’re compost.” With that I stood, brushed my hands on my jeans, and walked away. When I glanced back, I could’ve sworn its over-indulged foliage was smirking.
I waited all summer. As had become its habit, the plant accepted my feedings and waterings like they were services owed, not privileges. Every day it lazed in its bed of dirt, soaked up the sunshine, and snacked on slow-release fertilizer. Not a single bloom appeared.
Toward summer’s end, I stood over it, shaking a hand trowel. “That’s it,” I said. “I’m through with you. I’ll let you stay in this pot for now because it’s too late to replace you. But come next spring, a butterfly bush is going to occupy this very space.”
With steadfast determination, I made good on my threat. The rest of the summer and all through the fall, I didn’t give that plant so much as a sprinkle of water. I turned a blind eye when its impertinent green leaves paled. I watched with sadistic pleasure while they withered and turned crispy. In winter, when hard frosts threatened, I didn’t bother to move the plant to a more protected space, and I scoffed when I saw its naked, shivering stalks protruding from a blanket of snow.
In the early days of this spring, I surveyed my patio, making note of what new plants I would need. I came to the bare twigs that once was my hydrangea and with stalwart resolve leaned down to rip them from the soil. But as I peered into the pot, I saw a speck of green the size and shape of a doodle bug. On closer inspection, I saw that this was a bud, not a bug, and it was attached to one of those twigs . I released a weary sigh.
 “Okay,” I said. “One more chance.”
My "other" hydrangea shows
that it's trying...we'll see.
As of this post, I’m pleased with the attitude adjustment my hydrangea has made. At last count, there were eight—count ‘em, eight!—blooms bursting forth from those once-barren stalks. Not huge blooms, to be sure, and I don’t consider this a total turnaround on the plant’s part. But I’m a reasonable person. I can appreciate small victories.
Also, I’m feeling a bit smug these days. I’ve never been over-confident about my gardening skills, but it appears my tough-love theory might have some merit. I’ll give it this summer before coming to a definite conclusion.
In the meantime, I’m preparing for a little heart-to-heart with an uncooperative clematis.




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