• ,

Silver Threads: Spring gardening

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

The other day I got to thinking about the time the cows ate all the flowers and shrubbery that my mother had just planted outside our house in Texas in the ‘40s.

It was on Monday morning that this memory surfaced, when the weather was warm and sunny and I’d sat down to begin a column that went like this:

“Since spring is apparently in New Orleans to stay for a while, I’ve planted 15 petunia plants in eight pots, put new mulch down under my rose and crape myrtle bushes, had our grass cutter trim the freeze-damaged fronds off our palm tree, all in the back yard of our estate. Whew!”

But as you know, the temperature dropped late that afternoon, the wind and rains began again, and I woke up yesterdayto the sight of petunias pounded into their pots and red rose petals littering the new mulch.

My family just “can’t win for losing” when it comes to gardening. But I’ll persevere and continue here at the second graf of the column as I wrote it on Monday:

On the front and sides of our manse, I’m keeping a close watch for exactly when and where the sun shines so I can get expert advice on what to plant. Everything but the camellias and the green and white variegated liriope plants has faded away after a year or two.

I’m taking this gardening thing seriously; folks in our neighborhood even put flower beds around their mailboxes.

And I can only imagine what my friend Keith Marshall, master of Madewood Plantation House (and fellow columnist for NolaVie), has to go through each spring. But wait! Doesn’t the plantation aristocracy have hordes of groundskeepers rushing about to do their planting and pruning?

“Our grounds-keeping entourage is limited to two 67-year-olds, me and Warren Freeman, whose family has lived on Madewood for six generations,” says Keith in response to my assumption about his lack of gardening chores.

“It's not exactly a Jack Sprat situation, but he takes care of practical matters, and I'm the plant activist. Nothing makes me happier this time of year than to pillage the discounted racks of sad-looking plants at Lowe's and Home Depot. It's not just that I feel sorry for them; I know if I take them home, talk to them and get them in the ground, they'll prosper. And I'll save enough to buy the food they need.”

My own gardening history goes back only to age 12, when I decided to plant a rose bush  -- maybe as a class project. I remember putting it too deeply into the shade, but it grew fairly well anyhow. And when a pest threatened, I tore up two of Daddy’s cigarettes, scientifically made a thick solution, and dosed it. The home remedy worked.

Before that, I remember our houses -- Daddy’s work required travel -- as always being surrounded by big bushes and flowering plants, like azaleas and hydrangeas. Then my parents decided to settle down and build in their hometown -- a village in Texas. We were in World War II by then, and since fencing materials couldn’t be had for love or money, Daddy had an acre-long ditch cut along the road side of our yard, with a cattle guard at the beginning of the driveway.

Mother planted shrubbery at the front corners and at the steps of the house, beds of colorful zinnias in between, and engineered a twine-supported canopy of morning glories to cover a kitchen window on the west side.

But neighborhood cattle, perhaps freed to roam by this dearth of fencing materials, simply navigated our ditch and ate it all.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so pessimistic when I’m planting. Maybe -- when my petunias have succumbed to summer’s hot sun -- I shall do as Keith does and give those specimens on the reject racks a chance to win me a Garden of the Month plaque. I’ll feed and water them -- but talk to them? I’m not sure.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]