Love and Lilacs

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When I smell lilac blossoms, I am fourteen again and lying in tall sweet grass with my boyfriend. His hair is blonde and curly, and when he smiles, which is often, his blue eyes turn into twin crescents. There are summer cottages just a few yards away, and people moving back into them, but we are tucked behind a tall hedge and no one can see us. We kiss one long last time before getting to our feet and then, laughing, we brush the telltale grass off each others’ back. At the end of my street he pulls me close and kisses me again—this boy loves to kiss—and then he turns and starts walking down the dirt path along the railroad tracks. I do not take my eyes off him. Twice, maybe three times, he turns and waves, and though I can’t see his face, I know he is smiling.

Back east, where I grew up, lilacs grow like weeds. Each spring their branch tips burst into bunches of light lavender flowers that droop and nod in the breeze. On warm days, you live in their perfume. Tender and persuasive, the scent is like no other. There were roses in my youth, big dew-covered blooms lolling over white fences, but smelling them now does not take me back in time. Roses are not lilacs.

We were fourteen and in love. While I appreciate nature now, back then it was clemency, a place to disappear, and this boy and I were as much a part of it as the plants we hid among, all of us getting the same sun and rain and wind.

Scientists tell us that memories are stored at the connection points between neurons in the brain. The brain has approximately 100 billion neurons, each one potentially connecting to 10,000 other neurons. As information moves through the networks of the brain, the activity of the neurons causes the connection points to become stronger or weaker in response. This process, synaptic plasticity, is how the brain stores information. Once a memory has been created, aromas are potent triggers for recall.

This boy lives in me, my memories of him clear and true because they are welded in place. His wife has him now, but his boyhood belongs to me, as I presumably live on in him. I only need lilac blooms to bring him back and give our sweet youth another moment in the sun.

Photo by Breelynne on Foter.com / CC BY

Growing Pains

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Spring in the nursery is a happy time. The bedding plants are a riot of color and the eager young vegetables grow right before your eyes. Flushed with hope and fresh resolve, shoppers load their carts with more than they can use, for who can resist the tangerine zinnias, the deep blue delphiniums, the baby stalks of corn, the hundreds of heirloom tomatoes, each one promising something special. The is “The Year,” customers vow; they have learned from past efforts and this is the year they will have, at last, their dream garden.

Because people are impatient, because we must keep pace with the box store down the street—that heartless, hulking nemesis—we bring in spring stock sooner than advisable. Despite our cautions, many folks will buy cartloads of these greenhoused plants and plunge them into cold soil on a promisingly sunny day, and that night, or maybe the next, a hard frost will steal into their gardens, blackening the basil and wilting the watermelon. The disgruntled patrons will then return for replacements, digging into their pockets a second time, albeit not quite so cheerfully.

Eventually the soil warms and winter unhooks its talons and we assure everyone that they can garden with abandon.  Plants stream into the nursery like fresh troops and are cleared out the same day. We take special orders—for Tati’s Wedding tomatoes, Jersey Pickling cucumbers, Golden Calwonder peppers. The bounty! The joy! There is no stopping either.

Busy shoving more wondrous things into the earth, gardeners fail to notice the tiny green aphids in the broccoli, the tunnels forming in the Swiss chard leaves, the shroud of white fungus creeping over the zucchini. Not until their gardens are riddled with trouble do people perceive a problem. How they react is who they are. Some, blaming nature, will turn on it. They will buy the most deadly products they can get their hands on and they will turn their gardens into battle zones. Others, blaming us, will storm back into the nursery, brandishing their sickly specimens and demanding a refund. They will cite the return policies of the box stores and they will threaten to take their business to them.

And then there are those who blame themselves. They will come into the nursery shamefaced, holding plastic bags of evidence and asking us what went wrong, why are they such bad gardeners. While gardening is supposed to be a restorative pastime, too often this is not the case. People are intimidated by plants, intimidated and aggrieved. Their gardens get the better of them, and, disgusted, they give up. There are too many variables, they complain, too much they can’t control.

Which is true. Nature will not be controlled, not for long at any rate. The more you resist her efforts, the harder she’ll work to thwart yours. Eventually she will find a way to get around your weapons and give her varied progeny a toehold. Broccoli, aphids, roses, mildew—it’s all the same to her. Balance is what she’s after.

We have removed the most devastating munitions from our shelves, anything containing neonicotinoids (the bee killer); soil drench versions are the worst as they contaminate soil and ground water for years to come. We have also eliminated herbicides containing glyphosate (Roundup, KleenUp, Remuda). Not only is glyphosate a probable human carcinogen, it has a lethal impact on aquatic and terrestrial amphibians. We encourage gardeners to make their own herbicides and pesticides using household products like Epsom salts, cooking oil and dish soap—recipes for these remedies abound on the internet.

Even organic solutions should be applied judiciously. Medicating plants week after week can erode their health, in the same way that too much medication weakens human patients. Plants, like people, defend themselves when threatened. To save its strength, a Ficus benjamina will drop its leaves after the shock of relocation, then tentatively grow them back. In response to beetle attacks, a conifer will release wads of resin, sealing its wounds and embalming the marauders. If ground ivy loses its shade, it quickly gets to work toughening and thickening its leaves.

The most important thing you can give your plants is a good start: amended soil, a roomy bed, the proper light and water. A rose will not appreciate a shady location or the overspray from  lawn sprinklers; cannas relish both. You can save yourself a great deal of time and money by learning what plants require, preferably before you buy them.

That said, your yard will never be perfect because nature isn’t perfect. Accepting this will make you a better gardener, one who slows down for a closer look in an effort to understand. There are reasons for almost everything, like why your doublefile viburnum hasn’t bloomed. Plants moved from their pots into the open ground will often take years to flower: They are spending their energy below, in the establishment of roots. This is why a lemon tree in a container will produce fruit sooner than a tree in the ground: the roots meet the boundary of the pot and, and running out of room, signal reproduction. And that sticky black coating on your orange tree? Look close. You’ll see tiny brown ovals attached to the leaves and doubtless a few ants. What your plant has is scale, in its armored form. The scale are steadily sucking the sap; what they can’t digest they secrete as honeydew, which is then harvested by ants. The sticky residue promotes the growth of black sooty mold. And those skinny leaves on that one nandina? No, it’s not sick, it just needs more water—check the irrigation.

Sometimes a plant is destined to fail, and no amount of scholarship or coddling will make a difference. Maybe it was weak from the start; maybe it was neglected too long; maybe it simply grew old and frail, no longer able to fend off attackers. Removing it does not mean you failed; it means you cared: There are few things more dispiriting than a derelict yard.

If you want to be a good gardener, start with humility. You are, after all, asking this earth for miracles: giant sunflowers, golden watermelon, crimson peony blooms. You are bound to lose a few things, to bugs or blight; think of this as giving back and plant anyway. Make peace with your garden and arm yourself with knowledge. Above all, dig gently.

“How Long Does It Flower?”

“How long does it flower?” I hear this question over and over, especially in the springtime when many plants are in glorious bloom. “A few weeks,” I reply, and the customers lose interest immediately. “Is that all?” they say.

“But look at the foliage,” I tell them, rushing to the plant’s defense. I point to a peony’s lovely-shaped leaves. “This plants stays lush and green until mid-fall.”

“Then what?”

“Then it goes into dormancy.”

“It dies?”

“No, it turns brown, but it comes back very early each spring.”

The customers shake their heads. “Oh no. I need something that stays green all year.”

“Well, you could plant azaleas or rhododendrons, or camellias.”

“Do they flower?”

“Absolutely.”

“How long?”

Basically, people are looking for eternal youth: a plant that stays beautiful forever. Mother Nature knocks herself out to give us breathtaking blooms, and we are not happy. Will we ever be? Will we ever look at the world, at ourselves, and see the hidden value?

Even more miraculous is a plant’s ability to come back from dormancy, to flower year after year. This is what our green world offers us: a fresh chance each spring to put things in perspective and be thankful for what is. What a gift.

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