Gardening on the Fly

The best kind of bunny to have in the garden

In the movie, Cluny Brown, once it becomes clear Elizabeth will marry Lady Carmel’s son, Lady Carmel tells her they will have a long talk in the morning, “especially about the gardens because they’re all planned three years ahead.” Gardens are the marquee headliner in their upcoming talk—not wedding plans or financial settlements or living arrangements.

The movie is set in England just before World War II consumes Europe. Lord and Lady Carmel have an English estate in the countryside. Their gardens are immense and sumptuous, the kind that need planning and a bevy of gardeners. Even the shore along their lake is landscaped. Lady Carmel probably has a rose named after her. She probably enters a flower arrangement every year in the village garden show and, no doubt, wins.

Hand-me-down irises in bloom

Lady Carmel would’ve been disappointed to have me as a daughter-in-law. My idea of planning gardens? Go to the farmer’s market, see what’s being offered, and decide if I have a place to plant it. This is an ongoing slice of my summer, with the heaviest impromptu gardening happening between the end of May and the middle of June.

My gardens present a challenge—I need plants that can stand the shade. I have lots of shade: complete shade, almost all shade, mostly almost all shade, some sun but still a lot of shade, and a few good hours of morning sun then lots of shade. I need plants with sunglasses, wide brimmed hats, and slathers of sunblock on their leaves, begging to be lodged in shade.

Farmer’s market columbine

I’m giddy when I discover flora that blooms in the shade. Last weekend as I paid a vendor at the farmer’s market for a hanging basket and some painted rocks, I spotted a plant at the back of her stand. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a pot with a dowel to which a picture was taped.

The vendor rattled off a name, which I promptly forgot. “Does it like shade?” I asked.

“It loves shade,” she said.

“Complete shade?” I needed her to know the sunlessness of my empty garden spot.

“It doesn’t care if it ever sees the sun,” she said.

A bumble bee visits my flowering spearmint, another farmer’s market buy.

“Does it bloom?” I asked because most plants seem to want some sun if they’re going to bloom.

“Yes, it gets lots of little heart-shaped flowers.”

“I’ll take it.” My feet tapped eight to the bar.

I imagined Lady Carmel standing next to me, saying, We can’t buy that. It’s not on the three-year plan.

Lighten up, Lady Carmel, I’d say. Do you know how hard it is to find a plant that loves shade and blooms?

Near the beginning of Cluny Brown, Lord Carmel tells a house guest that the gardens are Lady Carmel’s empire. He figuratively implies the sun never sets on the grounds that she rules. My gardens are like a small unincorporated township. But Lady Carmel and I would both agree that no matter the size, our gardens are our dominions.

Marigolds and tomato plants from the farmer’s market

Every morning, afternoon, and evening, I tour my gardens, meandering around my house then behind the shed where a small, full-sun planting bed exists, my only one. I gauge the needs of my flowers and plants, pulling a few weeds, deadheading, and watering the thirsty.

My gardens are humble, but they’re mine, and like Lady Carmel, I feel rather noble after returning from a tour of my blossoms and greenery.

I do have a three-year plan now, but it involves the garden spaces, not the plants in the them. This year I’m getting new vinyl-clad basement windows. Next year I’m having the stucco around the foundation fixed. The following year I’m increasing the size of my gardens and having new borders installed. Lady Carmel might think there’s hope for me, but I will still buy my plants on the fly.

And the finches like my front garden, where the seeds are!

Two Rounds of Tomato Plants

Mother Nature gave us some warm days in the second half of May, but to keep us from getting smug, she tossed in some freezing weather with substantial winds off Lake Superior. I’ve lived in northern Wisconsin too long to plant flowers or tomato plants until the first weekend of June. This year was no different. I didn’t plant anything early, but I lost three tomato plants. Icy winds roared off Lake Superior, withering their leaves.

The tomato plants stood on my back deck, tucked up against the house, nestled among flowers and other plants waiting to be transplanted. I’d heard the weather forecast. I’d felt the frozen sandpaper winds off Lake Superior, bursting around the side of my house and over my roof. I should’ve moved my plants into the garage that night, but I was smug.

And my tomato plants paid the price. After two days of winds off the lake, temperatures below 40˚, and overcast skies, their baby-skin leaves curled over on themselves, attempting to cover up in the cold.

I touched one of the furled leaves, struck by how soft and thin it was. The leaves of my other plants were rough-hewn slabs in comparison. I apologized to the tomatoes and hoped they’d heal. But they didn’t.

I tossed them in the garbage, sorry they wouldn’t have a chance to share fruit with me.

I bought three more tomato plants. I pampered them, moving them into the garage at night and hauling them out during the day. On the first weekend of June, I planted my gardens. Hot-furnace winds blew out of the southwest, temperatures reached 96˚, and endless blue stretched across the sky.

Now, with a watering can in hand, I check my gardens several times a day, looking for drooping leaves, watering the thirsty, protecting my plantings from Mother Nature’s current mood—a heatwave.

I can’t be smug. I don’t want to start over with new plants.

From Journal Entry to Flash Essay

[Below is my journal entry from May 8, 2020, after discovering bunnies had eaten all my tulip buds but one. The journal entry was published by Passenger Journal’s Pandemic Diaries on May 12, 2020. I later developed the journal entry into a flash essay called “Tulips Beheaded.”]


Journal Entry May 8

Only two daffodils bloomed, but the tulips showed great hope. Yesterday I counted nine tulip buds that were ready to burst open in red. This morning I walked to the back garden and found one red tulip with its petals fully opened to the sun. It caught my eye with its vibrant red. I looked at the other buds to see how close to blooming they were. Gone. All. Gone. Sheared off by some animal’s guillotine teeth. Probably some overly cute bunny. This has happened in past years, and this year we have lots and lots of bunnies in the neighborhood, so I wasn’t surprised to see my tulips decimated. What’s different is that I wanted to have a good, wailing cry. But I stuffed my tears because if I started, I wondered if I’d stop. 

Tulips Beheaded

Only two daffodils have bloomed, but the tulips show great promise. I count nine tulip buds ready to open and reveal their dressy reds, the color of tunics worn by the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace. My tulips will stand watch in a humble stretch of garden nestled behind my house, allowing them to avoid cold spring winds advancing from Lake Superior. Because of the coronavirus and stay-at-home orders, I await the triumphant return of my tulips with enthusiasm.

The Lone Survivor

The following afternoon I return to my garden. A solitary red tulip, its petals open to the sun, stands at attention. I look toward the other tulip buds to see if they will soon join their companion. Gone. All gone. Only eight headless stems remain, each encircled by pointed leaves that failed to protect them, their buds sheared off by some animal’s guillotine teeth, most likely one of the hordes of rabbits pillaging the neighborhood.

I want to have a wailing cry. But I stuff my tears because decapitated tulips are nothing to cry about during a pandemic that has caused so much havoc. If I start crying, I wonder if I’ll stop.

An image of Elmer Fudd singing, kill the rabbit, kill the rabbit, from the cartoon parody of a tragic opera interrupts my thoughts. Fudd, performing an aria about killing his prey, sings what I feel. I sing with him, kill the rabbit, kill the rabbit. But Fudd is lampooning tragic opera. The parody strikes a chord with me because rabbits will not die by my hand. Tragic opera is about fatal flaws, vengeance, and remorse, and I can do without the remorse.

With kill the rabbit still echoing in my head, my brain retrieves the song “Circle of Life” from my memory bank. The tunes spar in my head. I smile at my dark humor, but the rabbits have won. Spring has been late in coming, and the rabbits are hungry.

I hope they enjoyed their fillet of tulip buds.

Elmer Fudd pops back into my head, singing, kill the COVID, kill the COVID.