A Tip for Transplant Shock

I am making sure my garden is extra special this year because we are selling the house after 17 years. This is sad, but I’m feeling better. One thing that helps is getting in some gardening work at the new house in between unpacking boxes.

I’ve been deadheading and pulling out vines and removing buckets of clay from the front flowerbed in the new place so I can transplant a few things from the old one before it goes on the market. Just a few things. I want to leave the essence there. It is part of what makes that house so special.

A friend’s father, Chuck, reminded me of a gardening tip I had forgotten. We were putting in hostas in the back yard of the old place, which had been cleared of clutter and the small dogwood and holly trees trimmed. The roses had barely bloomed for years because of the large shade tree just outside the gate, so I took those to the new house.

So now the back is a serene, shaded meditation garden. The patio is lined with hostas surrounded by smooth stones flanked by bursts of pink flowers. Chuck, who is an artist, suggested this to contrast with the bold splashes of color from the giant zinnias and Angel’s Trumpets that line the walkway out front.

I was talking about watering the plants after putting them into the ground and Chuck said, “I dig the hole, then fill it with water.” Of course! The summer heat in northern Virginia has been sweltering, reminding me of Alabama. I had already lost a couple of zinnias I tried to transplant. Zinnias don’t like to be moved, anyway. I had forgotten this old gardener’s trick.

So now I’m back with the program. It’s so simple. Dig a hole, put in the tip of the hose, fill with water. Pop in the plant, let water trickle in as you fill with potting soil and make sure that is nice and damp.

Even in the hottest part of summer, this will lessen transplant shock.

As for me, I’m still working on that.

Stay tuned.

Published in: on August 5, 2010 at 4:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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They Left Camellias

Driving through the old neighborhood, I noticed Ellis and Vannie’s magnificent rowhouse on Capitol Hill was for sale again. I pulled over and got out of the car. I looked for traces of them. Silly, I know, they passed away years ago.

The yard was tidy. But to my eye, it was much less beautiful, a shadow of its former self. Ellis, who moved to D.C. with Vannie during the 1960s, was an artist. Their yard looked as though the art inside the red brick house had tumbled and roiled through the walls and windows and splashed into the landscape. Or the other way around.

I saw a row of Lenton Roses that might have been an Ellis signature, something for winter. Several rose bushes lined the fence. Tulips pushed up from the soil, waiting to bloom. Then I saw it.

A camellia bush, stretching high and strong against the brick, was pushing up from the ground. It was covered in red blooms. The camellia, the Alabama state flower. Of course, Ellis’s signature, a gift for Vannie.

They were the most charming couple I’ve ever known, an old-fashioned love story. They had an open house every weekend, brunch, which Ellis cooked while Vannie held court at the massive table in the antiques-filled dining room. Friends were invited, acquaintances, and they were told to bring people.

That house rang with laughter and the blonde, green-eyed Vannie’s deep south Alabama accent. No topic of conversation was off limits. Ellis worked for a U.S. senator, then began to paint after retirement, becoming an artist of note on Capitol Hill and Washington.

I had missed Alabama after moving, but going to this house was like being home. Vannie would talk about Zelda Fitzgerald, about her recovery at home in Montgomery from a “nervous breakdown.” She would come into their clothing store everyday and buy one white linen handkerchief. “Scott just ruined that girl,” Vannie would say, emphasis on “ruined,” twisting a large emerald ring around and around on her long, thin finger.

Then she would brighten, talking about Hank Williams, who as a boy had a shoeshine business on the Montgomery outskirts. He also would drop by their store, to tell Ellis not to allow his estranged wife to charge anything else to his accounts once they parted ways.

One time I was living in Baltimore and working in D.C. when a blizzard hit, stranding me. Vannie and Ellis insisted I stay with them. I was working the overnight shift in the news business, so I slept during the day, in a serene guest room up high in a turret of the house.

When I got up, they had a lavish dinner prepared. They served it on fine china with silver and crystal goblets. I remember a chicken dish served with a sauce of cherries jubilee. They treated me like a princess.

They grew up and Ellis got sick. Vannie went first, though, dying unexpectedly. Then, Ellis passed away within weeks.

I have a row of his paintings above my sofa. It is fitting that they are of flowers and trees. I wasn’t gardening when Ellis was alive, but he knew, he told me I would. The paintings comfort me.

And now I know about the camellia, a living legacy. The flowers tremble there after the snowiest winter I can remember. Radiant, still, from the years of laughter and the limitless kindness that flowed from a sweet, inimitable home.

Published in: on April 3, 2010 at 2:22 am  Comments (4)  
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