I am a “glass half empty” kind of guy. At a coffee shop, I’m the type who complains to my companion (or to myself), “They didn’t fill the cup up all the way.”
Sometimes I feel the same way about my yard. “The ‘blah-blah’ isn’t blooming yet,” I’ll grumble, when a perennial that should already be blooming doesn’t have a sign of a bud.
“We don’t need another inch of rain,” I’ll grouse, when the weather forecast predicts an 80 percent chance of rain the third day in a row.
Gardening in the Lowcountry is rewarding but, at the same time, challenging. During the “glass-half-empty” times, I turn to my favorite garden writers for encouragement.
Elizabeth Lawrence, the gardening columnist for The Charlotte Observer between 1959 and 1975, also knew the “glass half full, half empty” dilemma. In a letter to her best friend, Ann Bridgers, dated July 18, 1941, she wrote, “It doesn’t seem reasonable that you should look at a garden one minute and see only dead plants, and at another and see bud and bloom in the same garden,” (“Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence: Discovered Letters of a Southern Gardener,” John F. Blair Publisher, 2010).
Once, I lamented to a gardening friend from Oregon that being a plant pathologist directed my attention to the pests and other plant problems in my yard instead of the successes and beauty.
She gave me this advice, “Try to look at your garden the way other people see it.” Assuming a different point of view distracts me from my focus on the negative.
There was a time when I was dissatisfied that my single-trunk Savannah hollies (Ilex x attenuata) looked so sparse, because they naturally set leaves at the ends of branches. Shortly thereafter, two neighbors out for a walk told me how much they enjoyed seeing the heavy crops of deep red berries on these trees. Two perspectives on the same plants, one “half empty” and one “half full.”
Lawrence has more advice for Southern gardeners. I paraphrase it as “work smarter.”
“We can have bloom in summer if we want it, but we must plan for it and work for it” (“A Southern Garden,” UNC Press, 1942).
For a low-maintenance garden filled with flowers, she recommends a variety of blooming shrubs and seasonal bulbs. Rose of Sharon and dwarf crepe myrtle bloom most of the summer. Summer-blooming crinums and gingers come back year after year from bulbs and rhizomes.
To all frustrated gardeners, Emily Whaley says, when something dies, you have space to plant something new (“Mrs. Whaley and her Charleston Garden,” Simon & Schuster, 1997). I have comforted myself many times with these words at the loss of a favorite plant.
It is good to remember if your garden space is limited, an open spot for a new plant may be more valuable than hanging on to a struggling plant. However, do not replant the same type of plant in the same spot, or it will likely suffer the same fate.
Another approach to garden setbacks can be summarized as “back to the basics.” I pull out lists of tough, dependable plants and tell myself to plant “more of what works, less of what doesn’t.”
I check my garden notes to see what has persisted several years through wet and dry cycles, and then check my plant calendar to see when and how long these plants bloomed.
Balloon flower, Goldstrum rudbeckia (black-eyed-Susan), and daylily persist with little (or no) care.
If one season is unusually wet, it seems the next season often is drier than normal. Using a variety of plants ensures that, no matter what the weather is, some plant will be at its prime.
Plants that thrive in wet soil will look best during periods of excess rain, while drought-tolerant plants may suffer. ‘Texas star’ hibiscus, cannas and bee balm are listed among plants that tolerate damp soil in “The Southern Living Gardening Book” (Oxmoor House, 2004). These plants also do well in rainy intervals.
When the rain ceases, it’s time for drought-tolerant plants to flourish. Autumn sage, annual vinca and blanket flower (gaillardia) prefer dry soil and keep blooming even without rain.
Lawrence advocates variety in Southern gardens. Her gardens were an integrated collection of small trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, annuals and bulbs. A bed or border planted with a mixture of plants offers visual appeal year-round.
Another piece of advice from Lawrence comes from a conversation she had with her editor about books to read when one is depressed. “Thinking it over later ... I wouldn’t read anything, I would weed.”
A good cleanup of beds and borders always makes the yard look fresh and appealing. Weeding, dead-heading, raking, mulching, a gentle trimming and particularly edging (removing stray grass runners that have crept into beds) can transform any yard, particularly for gardeners like me who tend to slack off during the heat of high summer.
If all else fails, a trip to one of my favorite garden centers perks me up every time.
Anthony Keinath is professor of plant pathology at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston. His expertise is in diseases of vegetables. He is also an avid gardener. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org