My Garden Ghosts
By Becke Martin Davis
I have lived and gardened in a number of houses in places with very different soils and climates. In the process, I not only learned about the plants that thrived, but also those that died before their time. At first, I was sure I had a black thumb and that I’d never get the knack of keeping plants alive and happy. It took awhile, but I finally realized even the most skilled gardeners lose plants occasionally.
I wasn’t a born gardener, by any means. Both of my grandfathers enjoyed their gardens, and some of their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. We didn’t live close enough to either of them for me to pick up their day-to-day habits, though. My mom liked gardens well enough, but with five young kids she didn’t have time to garden on a regular basis. I do remember planting zinnia and morning glory seeds when I was young, and both of those plants are still favorites.
I learned about four o’clocks early on, but more as a commodity than as a thing of beauty. One of our neighbors grew masses of four-o’clocks, and she would let us kids pick through the plants and fill envelopes with the chunky little seeds. We would go up and down the street, selling seeds for a few cents. I don’t remember planting any – our yard was probably too sunny for them – but as an adult I’ve always tried to include them in my gardens.
Zinnias, morning glories and four o’clocks are easy – give them a little soil, water and sun (filtered sun or part shade for the four o’clocks, full sun for the others) and you’ll be rewarded with blooms. And the seeds are inexpensive. The plants I kill are invariably expensive.
When I sold my first garden book many years ago, I rewarded myself by using my first check to purchase three beautiful Serbian spruces (Picea omorika) – a narrow, elegant evergreen that won’t take over your yard. We were living in Cincinnati, Ohio at the time, where winters are usually pretty mild. I planted one in back, within view of our bay window, and two in the sunny front yard. Later I added a beautiful Chanticleer pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’) in the front yard, too. Within a year, all the front yard trees had died. I called a nursery owner for his advice, and he discovered water was pooling under the lawn where the pear had been planted. The tree had basically drowned.
The autopsy on the spruces was trickier. He suspected they’d been planted deeper than they’d initially been planted at the nursery where they were grown. I’ve since found that’s a common explanation for the death of trees. The spruce in the back had been mounded up higher, and that tree is still alive fifteen years on.
One of my favorite trees is the ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’). It’s not as hardy as some hybrids and cultivars, but it was hardy enough to survive normal winters in Cincinnati. The magenta flowers were as beautiful as any redbud, but the foliage was stunning. The heart-shaped leaves started out burgundy-red and gradually changed to green. For a good ten or twelve years, it was the showpiece of my garden. Sadly, two years of summer drought followed by exceptionally cold winters brought it down.
Gardening is a risky business, and, for the most part, I’ve learned from my mistakes. And in my memory those ghostly trees are as beautiful as the day I planted them.
Gardener/writer Becke Davis has been gardening for over 40 years, in Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and in London, England. Her favorite thing about gardening is enjoying the colors, textures and scents of the garden. When she’s not gardening she’s reading, babysitting for her young granddaughters and/or struggling to write romance novels. You can learn more about her at www.beckemartin.com