It’s raining tonight. I can smell it. Only rain can do this. Irrigation never carries the young, sexy scent of wet earth and growing. Rain is the gardener’s delight, and Nashville is blessed with it. We average nearly an inch of rain a week. And an inch of water is all almost any garden needs.
I grew up in Texas, where there was no rain. I can remember praying on my knees beside the bed, my brothers lined in silent embarrassment beside me, as our mother (God’s earthly director) voiced our prayer: Let it rain. Please, let it rain.
But unless you live in England or our amazing Pacific Northwest, rain comes when it pleases. So though we get plenty of rain in Nashville, the fact is that we don’t get enough come summer. The one skill every Nashville gardener needsmore important than when to divide or how to trim, more significant than any slaughter of the bugs or supplementing of the soilis how to water.
Because it rains so much in Nashville, we don’t water enough. “It just rained,” we say. And it’s true. Last week, last month, it rained. But now, in May (or June, or July), the rain has stopped. It may still be cloudy and humid, but the rain is gone.
We are so separated from the weather. We don’t really know when it rains, or how much it rains. If it’s cloudy, we think it rained. But in April we had day after dark, cloudy day. The wind blew, the skin of the earth was parched, but the sky held the water.
We all need a rain gauge. We should check it regularly, religiously, to see what actually happened out there in the real world beyond the air conditioners and computer screens and windows that won’t open.
A garden needs an inch of water a week. This means a good garden is not cost-free. You can make your own compost and sow seeds instead of buying plants, but you still have to water. Don’t tell me you’re too poorwater doesn’t cost that much. There are lovely gardens in some of Nashville’s most depressed neighborhoods, with azaleas 6-feet-high and dahlias that glow in the dark.
But don’t water every day, either. That’s wasteful and ruinous. Either you just plain drown your plants or, more likely, you create shallow, thirsty roots that are addicted to your artificial rhythm. Then you leave town for a fun-filled week and everything dies.
A garden needs an inch of water a week. Grass. Shrubs. Flowers. One inch. Keep in mind that if it’s windy, the soil dries out more quickly; if it’s baking-hot, the soil dries out even more quickly. So if it’s a particularly dry summer, water twice a week, an inch each time.
How do you determine when a garden has an inch of water? Put coffee cans or peanut butter jars or cake pans at random beneath your sprinkler, and time how long it takes to deliver an inch. Hard, huh?
Promise me you will not enter your Friendly Local Garden Center (FLGC) in August, a dead shrub in each hand, and explain plaintively how it just couldn’t be your fault. You watered every day.
We won’t laugh at you. After all, we’re from the South; our mothers raised us better. But we’ll think about it.
Watch it grow, give thanks
May is also the month for aphidsplant lice, the old ladies call them. Aphids are very tiny green or brown or almost yellow bugs shaped like rice. You’ll see them by the dozens or hundreds on whatever they’ve chosen to love this year. They cluster on the leaves of a plant, suck out the juice, and secrete something nasty. “Honeydew” is what we call this secretion. How Victorian. I say it’s excrement, and excrement it is.
Black, ugly fungus grows in this secretion. Kill the aphids, and away goes the black stuff. Your FLGC will have 15 separate sprays, from insecticidal soap to jarred atomic radiation, all labeled to kill aphids. Select one and use it. It does no good sitting on the basement shelf.
Anyone with a perennial garden should visit his or her FLGC frequently. If you get there at just the right time, you might find just the right plant to stuff in that hole where the sure-fire perennial verbena or the never-fail catnip disappeared.
May is a busy time for gardeners. It’s safe to plant annual flowers now. Impatiens and red salvias, marigolds, petunias, and periwinkle can all go in the warm ground.
Then, for the garden lover who’s figured out how much to water and how to get rid of aphids, June is payoff month. There is no garden even minimally maintained that is not beautiful in June. For “what is so rare as a day in June?”
Then, if ever, come perfect days: lilies and roses, astilbe and coneflower, beebalm and balloon flower. It’s all blooming. It’s all lovely. It all needs one more plant to make it perfect.
I firmly believe this biological frenzy that consumes us each spring, this lust to plant, is passed to us from our ancestors. They were farmersalmost all of them. They worked the land with their own tough hands.
Nearly everything we humans depend on to fight starvation is an annual plant: wheat and corn, beans and potatoes, squash and rice. Our many-times-removed grandmothers struggled to get them in the ground each spring.
Sometimes the guys went out and killed a buffalo or a goat. Perhaps they milked a cow or made cheese from mare’s milk, but they all lived on annual carbohydrates. And even now, dozens or thousands of years later, we yearn to plant in the spring.
So do it. Frost is past. The soil is warm. Put in your tomatoes or your okra, plant the zinnias and the coleus. Spring is really here. Thanks be to God.
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