Story and photos by Ashley Bommer Singh
A summer rain provided relief. For days, I had watched the soil crack in the hot sun, the weeds extend their spindly probes, and the flowers wilt with thirst. I dreaded the garden trowel and soon discovered I misplaced it. Searching in the humidity just made me more sluggish.
My mother in Nevada and aunt in Florida felt the same way. Both long-time gardeners, they were also sweltering and suffering along with their plants. We had started so strong in spring. Had we taken on too much? Every gardener wants to try new things, and this year was no different.
Thinking big, I added a brick garden over the winter that formed a mosaic in the open space. New combinations in the patterned squares were doing well while there were still gaps that needed filling. White catmint, echinacea, agastache and Russian sage were the stand-outs, both physically and visually. Their pale violet, fuschia and white tones melded together in a restful background. The ‘Karl Foerster’ grasses planted to provide the much needed winter structure were taking their time.
And the new verbena in the flower path was rising up stiffly like little dinosaurs and spreading its small purple heads and stems. Of verbena, Graham Stuart Thomas wrote in Perennial Garden Plants, “A single plant is curious, three together are beautiful, and a large group is a splendid sight.” He suggested Cornus alba ‘Spaethii’ as a companion. Over at a friend’s farm, ‘Little Lime’ hydrangeas and pink geranium ‘Rozanne’ that we had planted earlier together were coexisting and flowering with abandon. She wrote, “The hydrangeas are a playground for butterflies. It’s delightful.”
But these wins – the blooms and butterflies – can seem small compared to the invasion of weeds. One day, I decided to just get at it. The former head of US Special Operations, Admiral Bill McRaven, suggests making your bed every morning to set the day off with a task completed. He delivered a famous commencement about it that became a great little book. Weeding your garden – or gardens one by one – is no different. It gives you the sense of accomplishment you need to get other things done at work and at home.
I tackled the small gardens around the house, tugging weeds from the daisy and aster flower path, adding cosmos seeds and milkweed to the pollinator garden, and cutting Alliums and phlox for the table. My clothes were soaked through. When I wondered what I got myself into, my mother and aunt kept me going. Aunt: I am raising black swallowtails! I have my first chrysalis! Mom: Look at my bee balm! Most blooms I’ve ever had!
A neighbor regularly texted “tomatoes, cucumbers?” and would leave them on the front gate, bags of summer to savor. On those days, dinner is simple and satisfying: chopped fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and feta cheese can accompany almost anything. Gardening can connect and unite us. This year, as I was about to give up on my overgrown jungle, I swapped gardens with my family. Like succession planting, we took each other’s places for a time. I flew west to my mother’s garden. My aunt drove north to mine.
What a revelation. My mother’s garden in the mountains was a such a welcome change that I eagerly grabbed the shovel. We worked side by side digging new gardens and tending to the ones we had planted together in previous years. The Monarda and pure white Shasta Daisies were in full bloom when I arrived, while mine were already passed. My aunt came up with a fall plan for my gardens, excited by a new project: adding more asters, Caryopsis, Chelone, chrysanthemums and fall crocus to help extend the season.
Speaking of crocus, now is the time to order spring bulbs. From snowdrops to tulips to Alliums and daffodils, plant what you love. This year I am ordering Camassia leichtlinii ‘Blue Danube’ to go under our young apple trees. Gardening is an endless process, dispiriting in drought and flood but most often joyful and surprising. Efforts now in late summer will bring happy smiles for years to come.
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of Middleburg Life.