Saturday, August 25, 2007

Brown Place

Ten days ago, I returned from vacation on a Maine island favored by cool sea breezes to a landscape blasted by heat. When I left, my woodland garden was green and thriving. Now many of the plants are browning and crispy. This shouldn’t be too surprising, given an August of both record heat and drought in North Carolina. Being outside in the 100-degree heat feels like standing too close to a fire you can’t get away from, and the plants, unlike us, can’t move indoors to air conditioning. Still, the rapidity of my plants’ decline is a bit of a shock.

In our Maine cottage, some of the evenings were cold enough that we built fires and wore sweatshirts. In Chapel Hill these days, anything I step outside in becomes a sweatshirt.

The garden looks so pathetic I can barely muster the initiative to keep watering the plants in my high priority zone. This zone consists of the plants in garden beds, mainly close to the house, that I have put a lot of effort into designing. I have adopted a tough love approach toward the rest of the landscape. Whatever survives is a winner, and whatever dies doesn’t deserve to be there. Rationalization is a wonderful ability.

I am proving once again that I am a fair weather gardener. Each year I begin to get enthusiastic about gardening in early February, become discouraged by August as it becomes clear the garden has passed its peak, and am tired by November of the physical labor involved in the fall spurt of planting trees and shrubs and raking leaves. At the moment I am wondering what it is about gardening that I was so enamored with just a few weeks ago. Growing vegetables has a clear benefit, but growing perennials and woodland plants has no utility. And when those plants die, failing to conform to my plans for beauty, I am confronted once again with the harshness of nature and its disinterest in my projects.

Last week the yellowed leaves of tulip poplars were falling so rapidly that it seemed like autumn when I glanced out the window. Nearly all of the Christmas ferns I “rescued” in early July appear to have bitten the dust, except for a few in deeper shade that received water from a soaker hose on a timer. The fothergilla shrubs that had been thriving in dry part-shade are half browned. The year-old serviceberry has dieback on two of its six branches.

The only bright spot, literally, is the bed of drought-tolerant sun perennials that I planted three years ago. Purple coneflowers are still blooming, Joe Pye weed and summer phlox add pink and white accents to the back of the border, and Heliopsis helianthoides has dozens of small yellow blooms. Salvia ‘May Night,’ Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam,’ and catmint are no longer flowering, but they are alive. Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ is about to flower, and verbena, with its magenta flowers, is spilling over the edges of the bed.

Each year that I garden, my admiration for farmers grows. I have not lost much to the drought—just a few plants that I can replace if I choose to do so. I don’t know how farmers can stand to see the crops that they work so hard to plant and tend wither and die, knowing that thousands of hoped-for dollars are disappearing. Farming seems like such a gamble, such an act of faith.

As I sit at my laptop at Caffe Driade searching for a suitable ending for this rather depressing post, a beer bottle on display suddenly explodes, splattering beer all over the room. We live in strange and uncertain times. How do we tell if record August heat and dryness is part of natural variability in our weather, or a shattering of our previous assumptions about North Carolina climate? As a fan of native plants, I hesitate to mention that my tropical plants are the ones that are thriving: banana plant, elephant ears, canna lilies, ficus.