Friday, May 22, 2015

Reclaiming the Valley of Death

Ten years we've lived in our house and all that time I've lovingly referred to our backyard as the Valley of Death.

The way my backyard once looked.
(NPS photo)

It wouldn't be fair to say nothing grows in the Valley of Death. There's sandy soil with good drainage. Half the yard is shaded by tall pines sprinkled around the periphery of our property. A few lonely bushes planted by the builder in 2005 had managed to muscle through.

Not the azaleas, mind you. Azaleas and I have never been able to reach a common understanding. My record of killing azaleas is second to none in North Carolina. In fact, if reincarnation is real, then all those poor azaleas I've tortured over the years must have committed some egregious sins in past lives for which they needed to atone.

In the interests of full disclosure, most things I've planted in the Valley of Death have withered and died primarily because I've consistently chosen the wrong kinds of plants. I would find myself roaming the garden section of Lowe's or Walmart, see something colorful and think:

"This looks pretty. I'm going to bring it home and watch it grow." 

Then I'd get it home, plant it, and watch it burn to a cinder in the high heat of summer because I neglected to read the informational card telling me the plant needs 17 hours of shade, several gallons of water, morale-building pep talks, and deep-tissue leaf massages three times a day. After years of this behavior, I finally learned to read the labels and, unknowingly, moved to the opposite end of the spectrum. Only those plants capable of tolerating full sun and requiring little to no water started making the trip home with me. It no longer mattered if they were pretty. The question I asked when wandering the garden section became:

"Can it survive equatorial solar radiation, desert droughts, and the occasional fire ant infestation?"

I wanted plants with a Dungeons and Dragons constitution score of 18, plus three for magical potions (fertilizer). The trouble with that line of thinking is you end up with a yard full of plants and shrubs that look scraggly, twiney and neglected even in the best of health and at full bloom. It's difficult to take pride in showing off a garden full of purposefully planted weeds and sticks that would make Georgia O'Keeffe long for the lush greenery of the New Mexican dessert.

Lately, it seems, I have managed to strike a balance between aesthetics and sturdiness. It all began with a blueberry bush.

I can't recall if I bought the bush or it was given to me as a gift. However it came to me, I planted it in the backyard in the one shady spot where things seems to grow. After all, I like blueberries. I like eating them. I enjoy baking with them. I wanted the bush to have the greatest chance of survival, and planting it where I did paid off. The bush produced approximately one dozen berries that first year, a few dozen the next, quite a few dozen the following year, and presently is poised to yield several hundred berries in the coming weeks.

I fully realize one bush does not the Garden of Eden make, but any sign of success was encouragement. So, this spring, I decided it was time for the Valley of Death to meet its maker.

My next project -- a simple, under-
stated water feature.
(NPS photo)
At present, there are five knockout rose bushes, the blueberry bush, two rosemary plants, several new crepe myrtles, two wildflower patches, two butterfly bushes (which were already there, but which appear to have sensed the enthusiasm), two lovely camellias (thanks Mom and Dad), one spindly grassy thing with long spikes topped by purple blooms, and a rapidly growing grape vine. I hadn't really intended to grow grapes, but Aldi had a rack of mismarked plants ("Grape Bush") near the checkout counter and I simply couldn't resist. Even the oregano I ripped out last year has sprouted anew.

With all this new growth boosting my confidence, perhaps it's time to take the yard to the next level. I've often thought it might be fun to install a water feature. Nothing too intricate, just a simple, understated cascading waterfall with mossy boulders surrounded by a fully matured natural pine forest. Piece of cake...

© 2015 Mark Feggeler