Hope Taft Champions Native Plants

One of Hope Taft’s favorite garden chores is caring for the Heritage Garden’s water garden.

By Michael Leach

Those of us at Heartland Gardening have long admired Hope Taft, Ohio’s visionary former first lady. Debra has worked with her for many years in the Heritage Garden at the Governor’s Residence in Columbus. Teresa met her while they were wading the Olentangy River observing concretions with a mutual friend. Michael interviewed her about the garden at its inception when he was working as garden reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. The venerable house is America’s only governor’s residence with a landscape showcasing the state’s native plants and vignettes of its five major natural areas.

As Hope has been instrumental in bringing Ohio Native Plant Month into reality, we thought it a good time to for a Q&A session. Her replies have been edited for space considerations. 

Why do you garden?

Gardening to me is something that takes your full concentration and attention. When I am working in the yard, all consideration of worries or time go away. I find it very refreshing to come in tired from pulling invasive plants and weeding. Instead of the hour I had planned to spend, three have passed, and the area looks so much better! More important, the worries I had before venturing into the yard are so greatly reduced in size, or a solution to the situation has emerged. In our present home, I view what I do as gardening, but it’s more restoring its natural habitat. Wildlife has been nice enough to let us share their home, so I am trying to create a space where all can live in harmony. I recently heard the term “conservation gardener” and think that is what I am.

How do you find time to garden?

Even a few minutes outside, picking herbs for supper or looking for a gift of nature to bring inside for the table, can refresh me. But it’s hard to limit the time to a quickie, so the dinner doesn’t burn! On hot summer days, I find the best time is early in the morning. When I come home tired, if I can walk in the yard and pull a few weeds before I open the door, I am a much happier person.

The prairie garden at the Heritage Garden of the historic Ohio Governor’s Residence

What inspired the Heritage Garden?

When I was fortunate enough to be the first lady of Ohio (1999-2007), we gave many tours of the historic Governor’s Residence. Guests always wanted to know what was from their part of the state. We could do that with artifacts throughout the home. While traveling the state, I realized Ohio is made up of many different regions that favored different plant communities.

One day it dawned on me, we could highlight Ohio’s special topography and plant diversity in the yard and let people from all parts of the state find a spot they could relate to. And it would provide blooms from early spring to late fall!

(A master plan, featuring the five major regions and some of the plants that grow there, was drawn and planted. The small areas around the back lawn include a water garden representing a tiny cranberry bog, sand dunes from Lake Erie shores, and a boulder from Appalachian, which supports a host of plants.)

To further promote Ohio’s natural heritage, Hope helped develop the Geologic Walk Through Time at the Ohio Expo Center and State Fairgrounds in Columbus. 

Why continue working in the Heritage Garden?

Gardens, yards, nature and environments are continually changing. It is that change that is exciting to me. We sometimes call the residence and grounds a “living museum” because its occupants, furniture, colors are always changing, just as the plants and landscape do outside. I feel blessed that first ladies who have come after me have allowed me to stay involved, so it can be maintained, nurtured and protected. Wonderful volunteers under the leadership of our native plant habitat curator help us maintain the garden, as well as learn the value of, and how to care for native plants. It has become a test area of what works well and what doesn’t, and why it doesn’t.

Protecting nature

“I now believe that by saving or restoring our natural areas and the life that lives in them, we are saving ourselves,” Hope said. To that end she’s currently promotes Ohio Native Plant Month, protection of the Little Miami River, a state and national scenic river;  the Ohio Scenic River Association; Tandana Foundation, a nonprofit started by the Tafts’ daughter, Anna; and works to win designation of the Hopewell ceremonial mounds found in three major clusters in Ohio as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

A passion for people 

Long before becoming Ohio’s first lady, she  was active  for many years in the campaign to end drug abuse.  People have always seen me as an organizer or networker. So when the mayor of Cincinnati (where the Tafts once lived) asked me to help with the emerging crack cocaine crisis in 1986, I said yes. As a young mother at the time, I could see the havoc alcohol, tobacco and other drug use was having on youth and families, so it was easy to work on preventing the problem. 

While serving as Ohio’s first lady, she helped start Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free in 2000. After her husband’s term of governor ended, she became executive director to this nonprofit of first ladies and traveled the country, helping the U.S. Surgeon General release his report on Underage Alcohol Use. The organization disbanded in 2013. 

At the request of Gov. Ted Strickland and Gov. John Kaisch, she served on the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professional Board. Now I am on the retired, senior list of several organizations still involved with this issue.

Time management tips

I learned from a wise woman many years ago to deal with a piece of paper or email when you first receive it. Now my policy is to read all my emails for the day before I go to bed. It makes for some late nights sometimes, but this helps me sleep. (She also recommends, rest, good diet, enthusiasm for the work, keeping your calendar up to date, and having good friends who have special knowledge in your areas of concern that you can depend on to help.)

What’s next?

“As one interest leads to another, it will be exciting to see how my passions evolve in the coming years,” she said. “What other ways can I work towards leaving the world a better place?”

“But,” she added, “I am realizing that others need to be encouraged to take up the efforts that matter to them, because none of us lives forever! I am realizing the importance of planting seeds and mentoring their growth in the next generations.”

Hope Taft at the Heritage Garden with Debra Knapke and Ed Marriman.

Celebrating Ohio Native Plants

By Michael Leach

Today we are helping launch April as Ohio Native Plant Month, with a post about how this became Ohio law.  In a few days, we’ll share an interview with Hope Taft, former Ohio first lady, who not only helped make this happen, but has long been a champion of Ohio native plants and natural areas.

It takes more than trowels and watering cans to make a gardening statement. For April to become Ohio Native Plant Month, ideas, conversations, meetings, legislative hearings, political action, and the signature of Gov. Mike DeWine were part of the mix.

The purpose is to increase public awareness of Ohio’s native plants, and the many benefits they provide to pollinators, Ohio’s economy, and health of Ohio’s environment.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine with Hope Taft (far left) and Ohio Master Gardeners

One of the behind-the-scenes champions is Hope Taft, wife of former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and “mother” of the Heritage Garden at the Governor’s Residence in Columbus. It’s the only one in the country featuring a landscape showcasing the state’s native plants and vignettes of its principal ecosystems.

The idea for native plant month sprouted around three years ago when she learned Texas planned a native plant week. She said,  “This struck me as a great way to broaden the impact of the Heritage Garden and increase the use of native plants in residential settings.”

However, it stayed in her memory bank because “…. my background told me it would be a lot of work to get the legislature to go along and even more to have a group of like-minded organizations to do it without supporting legislation.”

Eventually she met Kathryn Cochran Wiggam, wife of state Rep. Scott Wiggam of the Ohio House of Reresentatives, and daughter of Ken Cochran, retired director of Secrest Arboretum. She is a member of the Garden Club of Akron, part of the Garden Club of America. Another memory deposited.

Eventually, several memories and meetings resulted in action. Nancy Linz, the Zone X horticulture chair of the Garden Club of America, Nathan Johnson, director of Public Lands for the Ohio Environmental Council, and Hope worked out a plan to get the facts and information needed to present it to the legislature. She said, “The stars were aligning!”

We surveyed every garden club, associated group and green industry member we could think offor the best month, she said. April was chosen because a wide variety of groups across Ohio could participate and nurseries could be stocked with native plants “when the public is most interested in their own yards.”

Rep. Scott Wiggam and Sen. Bob Hackett guided the plan through the legislature. Committee hearings were required. After making many trips to Columbus to testify in the House and Senate committees, getting school children, green industry representatives, and garden club association representatives to testify, and encourage many others to write letters, the bill was signed into law July 18, 2019,” she said.

The group isn’t finished. The trio is working to form a nonprofit organization, develop a website,www.ohionativeplantmonth.org, and encourage use of information there. “Nancy is the driving force behind Ohio Native Plant Month and hopes it will get national traction,” she said.

Recently the group received notice the Montgomery County Commissioners, which includes Dayton, issued a proclamation honoring Ohio Native Pant Month. This is important, Hope said. It puts the local government on records supporter of using native plants. 

Another way to promote Ohio plants, she said, is for local beautification groups to add “use of natives” as a criteria in selecting outstanding gardens. 

While the COVID-19 crisis forced cancellation of native plant events in April, the Ohio Native Plant Month website will list new events, provide updates, give information on invasive plants, and show tallies of Ohio tree plantings to reach the United Nations Trillion Tree Campaign, www.trilliontreecampagin.org, to plant a trillion trees by 2050.

They also will provide information on adding Ohio native plant pollinator gardens to home landscapes and using Ohio natives in existing landscape plantings.

Growing Gratitude

pink lilyGardeners harvest more than flowers and food

By Michael Leach

Plants star as Thanksgiving Day traditions. From cranberries to pumpkins, flora rivals fauna when it comes to menu musts on festive dinner tables.

Gardeners value flora for more than traditions. Those of us who grow vegetables and fruits savor homegrown flavor unrivaled by competition in stores. Anyone who grows flowers, knows their fragrance and color bring a smile.

Besides the obvious, there are subtle, subliminal harvests that come to mind during this too-short-season of deliberate gratitude.

Be thankful for the family members, friends, neighbors and others who introduced you to gardening and nurtured you along the way. I think of Grandpa Leach and his furrows straight as laser beams. Mom, my mother’s mother, who grew a higgledy-piggledy collection of all sizes and colors of plants in her small backyard. My garden’s appearance meshes the laser sharp and come-what-may of their poles-apart approaches.

Auntie and Uncle had a mixed vegetable garden. She tended rows of marigolds and fiesta colored zinnias. He carefully cultivated Beefsteak tomatoes.IMG_0214

Perhaps the most important people are my mother and father, who allowed my little sister and I to have our own plot in the large backyard surrounded by flat, farm fields stretching to the ends of the world. Grow what you like we were told. For me, it was some of Auntie’s zinnias and marigolds, plus a couple of small lilac starts.

The latter continue to hang on despite the dense shade of a sycamore tree, once a mere sapling pulled up from a back woods creek in Adams County, Ohio. Little did I realize this souvenir from a marvelous autumn  afternoon hike with a friend would tower so high, so quickly. (Well, it has been almost 40 years since the young sycamore was planted here.)

Numerous gardening friends have shared plants that make amiable companions with family heirlooms.

None of these people share Thanksgiving Day with me anymore, though their memories return when walking through the backyard. They come alive when I see their favorite plants in my garden or those of others. They live again whenever I share how-to moments with those new to gardening, always hoping my enthusiasm is as contagious as theirs was to me.

Narcissu Geranium cropThere are subconscious effects of plants. A “host” of dancing daffodils brought the poet Wordsworth more than visual pleasure on a sun-filled spring day. Wise gardeners know what he meant when he  wrote,

… What wealth to me the show had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.

Perhaps your dancing partners are violets, roses or lilies. No matter.  Simply gaze at them, inhale their fragrance, let their beauty flow deeply into your heart and mind. Recall the memory as often as you like. Be a part of nature, not a mere photographer or observer, and thank God for a world filled with such treasures.

In a way, I suppose all of our planning and planting is a subconscious (primal?) attempt to reclaim Eden, the place of beginning. Perhaps this is why sitting in a garden, beside a shore, within a forest or along a flowery meadow brings such peace. An ancient need is met, drawing us ever back to nature and its Maker.Rosa Dr Van Fleet crop 6-17-06 Whetstone-Roses

Flower Power

America in Bloom Communities Flourish

By Teresa Woodard

Across the country, flowers are transforming downtowns, attracting tourists to once sleepy river towns and becoming the centerpiece of communities’ destination events. And, for the past 18 years, America in Bloom has been fostering and rewarding these communities for their outstanding efforts.

At a past AIB national symposium, board member and economist Charlie Hall talked about the financial impact of plants. Statistics show horticulture creates 2 million jobs. Plus, America’s public gardens contribute $2.3 billion in community tourism spending, and stores with landscaped areas have expanded sales from longer shopping occasions and higher value pricing.

America in Bloom was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 2001 and has since awarded top honors to several Midwestern communities. Here are videos sharing several stories. Perhaps, you’ll find inspiration for your own community or discover a new place to visit.

Holland, MI – Known for its famous tulip festival, Holland recently gave tulips fields a second life as they offered community garden plots during the summer months. In addition, 800 volunteers plant tulip bulbs in community parks and adopt beautification projects at museums and more. 

St. Charles, IL – Located on the Fox River just west of Chicago, this community showcases its heritage, service and community beatification programs through America in Bloom. Its beautiful river attracted early settlers who relied on the river as a source of power and transportation. Today, the community mixes its cultural heritage with a hip vibrant downtown.

Logan, Ohio – Volunteers are the workhorse of this Appalachian community’s beautification efforts. Statistics show volunteers donated 85,900 hours and raised more than $90,000 for projects like the downtown street beautification, the gateway displays welcoming tourists to the region’s nature attractions and its Washboard Festival. Pretty impressive for a community of less than 10,000!

Happy Arbor Day

My dad with an 150-year-old European beech at Lawnfield, the home of President Garfield in Mentor, Ohio.

Honoring The Giving Trees

By Debra Knapke

In her March 27th post, Teresa offered a wonderful selection of books for children.  One was The Giving Tree. Shel Silverstein’s story is simple: a tree gives her all to the one she loves.

We annually celebrate trees on Arbor Day; the last Friday in April. The Arbor Day Foundation is the caretaker of this event, and it has announced a bold and wonderful initiative called Time for Trees. In four years’ time the Arbor Day Foundation intends to “Plant 100 million trees in forests and communities around the globe. Inspire 5 million tree planters to help carry the mission forward.” This timing coincides with the 150th anniversary of the first Arbor Day.

But we don’t always value our trees and sometimes, incautious decisions are made.

In a community where generations have loved and worked with nature there are those who do not fully understand the consequences of removing trees. Several weeks ago in Mansfield, Ohio, the Richland County Commissioners stated that the ten tuliptrees and one pin oak that have graced the front of the Richland County Administration building for decades were hazards, allowed birds to roost, and were in the way of a the installation of a new monument.

They were removed. There are plans to replace the trees. It will take years for the new trees to mature, but it is heartening to know that trees will come back to frame the municipal building.

Mansfield Municipal Building with the tulip trees and pin oak

In honor of trees, I offer this short ode:

The Giving Tree – a short list of the reasons we owe trees our love and respect

Trees shelter us; they are nature’s sunscreen.

Trees cool us: three trees correctly placed around a house can lower utility bills up to 20%.

Trees draw pollution out of the air: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter released by the burning of fossil fuels.

Tree roots, and the soil systems that surround them, purify water.

Trees provide storm water control by slowing water and diverting wind; thereby slowing erosion.

Trees store carbon; lots of carbon.

Trees – and all plants – perform photosynthesis where they combine, water, sunlight and carbon and make sugar. Without this amazing process, life would not exist as we know it.

Trees offer food to all life: while they are living, bark, branches, roots, leaves, fruit, and seeds feed bacteria, fungi, insects, birds, mammals… us. When trees fall and go back to the Earth, they nurse new communities of life.

When trees are numerous in a community, mental health is increased and crime is reduced.

The older the tree, the bigger its diameter and canopy, the more a tree gives to us and others. Young ones – just as with animals – reach maturity slowly and offer these benefits at a much lower degree.

Trees are beautiful… awe-inspiring.

May you be blessed with trees in your lives.

Illustration from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

Mushrooms: Flowers of the Forest

Yes, some food foragers hunt for mushrooms to savor, but I seek out these “flowers of the forests” for other reasons — the thrill of the hunt, the chance to photograph their beauty and the puzzle of finding their ID.

I wasn’t always this way. My first introductions to mushrooms were through friends who invited me to go morel hunting in the spring. I tagged along but never seemed to have the eye or patience to spot the elusive honeycomb-capped delicacies on the woodland floor. I seemed to get too distracted by the wildflowers in bloom. By luck one fall, my soccer-loving son and I were hiking and spotted a puffball mushroom thinking the large orb was an abandoned soccer ball.

This fall, my indifference for the fungi world changed when another friend invited me to a mushroom workshop. Predictably, the audience kept asking the presenter if this one is edible or that one was poisonous. But each time, he would respond “I just like to hunt for them not eat them.” I thought “how bizarre” to be a mushroom expert but have no interest in their culinary value. After the talk, my friend and I headed to look over his impressive collection spread across a big table. There were striated shelf fungi, big puffballs and even dainty red-capped ones. We oohed and awed at their diversity in color, texture and form, all found throughout Ohio.

No surprise, I returned home with a new set of eyes.  I started looking for the more obvious mushrooms and fungi  – the bright-orange Chicken Mushrooms and patterned Turkey Tails. Then I noticed more obscure ones — oyster mushrooms up the side of a decaying tree and velvet foot mushrooms on a decaying log. I ordered a Midwest mushroom guide and borrowed a more comprehensive one from the library. Gradually, I started seeking out others on the underside of logs or on newly fallen dead trees. I even experimented with making mushroom spore prints to confirm IDs. Thankfully, we had a wet winter with many warmer days, which are ideal for winter mushrooms.

So, in the next few weeks, I encourage others to explore this amazing fungi world, especially as the woods thaw and before they’re covered with a layer of competing green growth. While I’m still a novice, I share the following images and resource links with hopes others might also discover these fascinating fungi. For the mycologists reading this, I welcome your help with the IDs. Happy hunting!

North American Mycological Society and listing of regional clubs

Ohio Mushroom Society

Mushroom Expert

Turkey Tails
Chicken Mushroom
Artist’s Conk
Tree Ears
Velvet Foot
Unknown
Black fungus
Mycena
Oyster Mushrooms
Cup Fungi?
Shelf Fungus
Elegant Polypore?

Silent Summer

selective photography of flying black falcon

Photo by Nigam Machchhar on Pexels.com

Hawks spoil the garden party

By Michael Leach

When I told people, “Hawks are nesting in my garden this year,” they seemed awed and a bit envious.

But if you’ve had hawks in the backyard, you know it’s lonely at the top of the food chain. With hawks around, there’s almost no fauna to go with the flora. Some furry and feathered creatures played their roles in the food chain, but countless others fled in terror to safer territories.

Gone were the usual flocks of robins hopping back and forth across the lawn doing their own food chain duty of culling the earthworm population. Until late June, their predawn songs filled the air from the relative security of the small bamboo grove. (Where they spent the day, I never knew.) Goldfinch, jays, song sparrows, wrens, chickadees and other favorites made rare public appearances. From the distant neighbor’s yard, they could be heard sometimes. A cardinal managed splendid morning songs, but otherwise stayed so well concealed, there were only occasional  glimpses of his flashy red suit. I never had the pleasure of watching the parent cardinals teaching their fledglings proper behavior.

In spite of the menace, a cheeky pair of cat birds nested near the brick-paved patio in the tall hedge where the cardinal occasionally skittered about.

An outdoorsman neighbor identified the problematic newcomers as red tail hawks, but I referred to them as squawks, for that is their primary mode of communicating. They were especially loud and squawky when talons clutched freshly caught food. That racket roughly translated into, “Come and get it while it’s still warm. Bon appetite!”

white and brown bird

Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

Having resident hawks had upsides. The plague of English sparrows that once roosted in the bamboo grove disappeared long before I became aware of the hawks. Instead of their screechy 20- to 30-minute gab fests, as the flock took to the air in the morning or came home to roost at night, there was only silence.

Fortunately I found far more small, furry bits than feathered ones on the lawn and in flower beds. This was a great relief for a bird-loving gardener, who holds much less affection for field mice, voles, chipmunks and their pestiferous ilk. Due to the incredible appetites of the two young hawks reared in the garden, I’m hoping there will be fewer field mice invading my small Victorian farm house this winter.

Life with hawks had other advantages.

Maintenance was easier, especially during mulberry season. When the fruits ripen, robins gorge and leave purple polka dots on lawn furniture, pavements and occasionally this gardener. Daily rinsing (flushing?) of the bird bath is de rigueur; so, too, pulling mulberry seedlings that sprout wherever one of those well-fertilized seeds lands.

Squirrel issues decreased markedly. Initially the quartet of plump, brazen squirrels seemed to coexist peacefully with the hawks. Granted the bushy-tail tree rats didn’t cavort on the lawn with their usual abandon, nor did they perform their Cirque du Soleil acrobatics from sycamore to cedar to apple and back. As August wore on, I saw only one thin, nervous squirrel each morning.

Because the advantages of hawks are few, I’ll take high-maintenance robins and a handful of miscreant squirrels any day to spring and summer days of silence punctuated by occasional squawks.

Take heart! Natural enemies stalk weeds

Canada thistleBy Michael Leach

Weeds are villains in the garden story. They combine the reproductive prowess of a locust plague, kill resistance of a mad-slasher and relentlessness of sci-fi storm troopers. 

“Resistance is futile,” they are telling me. Looking in horror at the Amazon jungle growth threatening to take over the house, I’m inclined to agree.

But not just yet. Besides the inevitable late-summer slow down in growth, there’s news that offers a degree of moral support in the meantime. 

Weeds get sick. Take Canada thistle — puh-leeze (but wear heavy gloves when handling). Some are victims of a bacteria that makes them look bleached and so reduces their food making ability. According to The Ohio State University Extension, the bacteria, Pseudomonas syringae pv. tagetis, “cuts down on their seed head production and occasionally kills the plant. Laboratory-made extracts applied to thistles reduces seed production … by 87 percent. But this isn’t enough to overcome seeding by surviving plants.” No silver bullet.

Bugs eat weeds.  The mis-named tree of heaven, Ailanthus altissima, is the primary host  of ailanthus webworms. These little darlings can defoliate one of those odious and highly invasive trees. But so far, they are failing to stop the pest’s spread.

Another insect, a Southeast Asian import, also relies on tree of heaven as its main food source. But the spotted lantern fly, Lycoma delicatula, also dines on 70 other plants. Woodies are preferred but grapes, soy beans and other food crops are on its menu. 

It was discovered in eastern Pennsylvania in 2014 and is being monitored.

monarch and milkweedGood weeds face problems. Common milkweed, which can be weedy due to its underground assault, force roots and wins our hearts. It’s a food source for Monarch butterfly larvae. It’s garden-worthy flowers have an enticing fragrance and attract a wide range of pollinators, not just Monarchs.

Turns out it, too, has enemies, such as milkweed yellows, spread by leaf hoppers. The bugs suck juices from infected plants and spread them to healthy ones. Leaves curl and turn somewhat yellow, according to the Nature Scoop newsletter from Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District here in central Ohio. 

Obviously spraying to kill hoppers is problematic. 

The best management approach is removing infected plants to help stop the spread. That’s what I do with victims suffering aster yellows and garden phlox that dares to mildew. Out to the curb in a brown bag. 

The newsletter also carried encouraging news: Monarch Watch predicts the eastern Monarch population will increase this year due to favorable weather conditions. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources,  Monarchs migrating up the Atlantic coast appear to be from Florida not Mexico.

 

 

Brace yourself! Winter returns

PocketwatchWinter starts with an act of Congress.

By Michael Leach

How else can a gardener — or anyone else — look at the end of Daylight Savings Time?

One night you sit down to supper in the fading amber glow of late autumn sunlight; the next,  it’s a black expanse as vast and forbidding as Siberia.

It’s a mind game. No matter the temperature after time change, winter is as real as any wind chill reading or stinging sleet.

An urge to hibernate grows and reminds us this is the time to gather near the  hearth (more likely a furnace register),  be still, cover up and rest. For weeks this hibernation-like  approach makes for  guilt-free indolence of reading and dozing on the sofa after supper. There is rejoicing. We have a  reprieve from weeding. It’s too cold for watering.

Hope lives on indoors with potted tropical foliage, herbs and a few clippings of summer favorites. My contained garden, even in a room with large, south-facing windows, is appealing but still fails to satisfy as much as a few minutes working warm garden soil filled with free-range plants.

Gardeners are outsiders. We flag under the gray pall, just as a  sun-loving potted plant grows spindly and pale when placed too far from the windowsill. Like the unhappy plant stretching toward the light, we too lean to the window searching for some sign of spring’s return.

Our grounding in the world beyond the glass makes gardening essential. We can almost root into the earth as we till and sow, while our heads remain in the air and sunlight. We are nurtured even as we nurture. Plants literally feed us and give us oxygen, so why wouldn’t they inspire joy when we see them turning green, flowering and breathing life into the stale scene of straw lawns and skeletal trees.

When hope seems lost, Daylight Savings Time returns. What better harbinger of spring than an extra hour of daylight. Instead of hunkering down to dinner in the dark, there’s time to garden after dessert.

Surprisingly, Congress managed to do something at least halfway right.

Houseplants with Attitude

Orchid eyes

Orchid Reveals Ruthless Gardener’s Approach

By Michael Leach

This house is the Bates Motel for potted plants. I’ll grant you that my human keeper waters me more or less regularly, gives a dash of granular organic fertilizer at appropriate intervals, lets me spend months outside, and trims off faded flowers and the occasional yellowing leaf. So why the sense that Alfred Hitchcock directs daily life?

He murders plants. Many human beings consider houseplants as surrogate children. I’ve gathered this from overheard phone conversations and his endless chatter with visitors. I also know about this from the potted plants and rooted cuttings he occasionally receives from other people. We plants share stories, don’t think we don’t. He should consider us in the same way dog and cat owners are notorious for going all stupid over some slobbering Labrador or snooty  Siamese.

He wasn’t always this way. When I first came on the scene, he was more like other growers. But over our 20-plus years together, that heartwarming attachment faded, replaced by his dreadful notion that plants in this household  exist  only to satisfy his aesthetic sensibilities. Fail to keep producing fresh, lush foliage and flowers and you’re out. “Grow or go,” he says almost every month. It all started with that dreadful poinsettia.

He’s so cheap that one year he decided to keep the poinsettia and get it to bloom for the next Christmas. Those things are ridiculous, in my opinion, but I am an orchid after all, and Cattleya or corsage-type orchid at that. Pfff to poinsettias I say. They’re gaudy for weeks throughout the winter and then commence a prolonged death scene worthy of a melodrama. After he put that has-been holiday star outside for summer, it turned into a shrub with lush foliage worthy of the tropics.

Then he began the tedious process of trying to fool it into blooming. The poinsettia wasn’t fooled. Instead of massive swaths of red, only puny, vaguely red bracts emerged and this barely days before Dec. 25. He was livid and tossed the plant onto the compost pile in December! We were agast. After that Christmas, when asked what should be done with poinsettias he blithely said, “Throw it on the compost pile!” 

It was the following autumn I noticed things began to change. As usual, the tiny sunporch was crammed with houseplants returning to winter quarters and some impatiens and geraniums salvaged from the garden. There was the giant fern in the early days, just kept getting bigger because he lusted for the status of a big plant.

Those annuals always caused trouble. Being unaccustomed to the dim light of cloudy Ohio autumn and early winter, they suffered horribly, even in the south-facing sunporch windows. As you know, plants drop flowers, then buds and finally leaves — lots of leaves — when stressed by lack of sun. It’s a near death experience. This clashed with his sense of tidiness that borders on obsession.

Grumblings were heard daily, as one after another of the impatiens went to that big mixed border in the sky, leaving a mess behind. In early December, the massive fern began its slow death spiral that never ceased until it went back outside again in early May. By then only sickly green fronds remained. Somehow the old girl always managed to produce three or four flimsy new fronds in the growing light of early spring. That was the only thing that saved her until the day he snapped.

It was late autumn and the big fern continued to sit in a shaded place under the crab apple tree, despite temperatures plunging faster than stock prices in a crash. Still he seemed oblivious to the fern. Then it happened, the first freeze of the season.

The fern was a mushy, dark green mess the next day. He looked out and said, “Oh. I forgot to bring in the fern.” I swear there was a fiendish grin and a note of glee in his voice. The rest of us trembled in our places on the windowsills, table tops and warm corners of the porch. What kind of monster is this we wondered? We couldn’t help but lose a few leaves and petals.

One after another, the straggly and overgrown were “forgotten” in the first freeze. “A nice addition to the compost pile,” he said, tossing their frozen-stiff corpses into that wretched tumble of banana peels, coffee grounds and pulled-up weeds he calls a compost pile.

Me? I plan to grow, not go. Despite my too small container, stale potting mix and inadequate winter light, I continue to produce a bounty of lavender flowers, starting about Thanksgiving Day and continuing into mid-January. The oohs and aahs prompted by my delicate, lightly scented blooms keep me in good graces. “I’ve never seen an orchid this big,” visitors gasp in amazement.

While he glows and swells with pride. I sigh. Guaranteed another year for me it seems.

This short story by Michael Leach was done as a monthly assignment for the Grove City Writers’ Group.

Garden Topics

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