This is the sixth of six in a series of writings by Tim Lovejoy on his arrival, house, and garden in Hadlyme, CT. You can find the first part here.
I had no idea what was involved in all of it, planting it, caring for it, even just keeping it alive. I knew deer ate yew bushes, cedar trees, prickly holly and, in rough winters, even really prickly roses, but it never occurred to me that they ate tulips or lilacs or the buds off the hundreds of day lilies I would plant along the road, just as they were about to flower.
It took me a couple of seasons of never having the berries my mother had in August, to learn that the racoons were waiting for them to ripen — just like I was. Standing, empty basket in hand, I could almost hear them giggling and slurping down my berries in the bushes behind the barn.
We always had gypsy moths in white cocoons in the mulberry trees, even when I was a kid, but I had never seen them in the millions, or billions, in their caterpillar stage – as I have this last year – climbing the oak and fruit trees, stripping and killing them by the hundreds. It’s worse in Rhode Island.
I had heard of
yellow-bellied sapsuckers, but only as a term of abuse among kids. “You yellow
bellied sap-sucker!” Well, they are real, and there is at least one yellow-bellied
sapsucker who makes row after row of neat holes in our apple tree in the walled
garden and sucks the life out of it. Hopefully I stopped him in time last
From the get-go, I loved the stone walls of the place. But I had no idea that the chipmunks and the moles and the voles that loved them too. The chipmunks eat everything planted in or behind the walls, digging away at them and destabilizing them. The moles, chasing grubs, tunnel through the lawns and flower beds while the voles follow along eating everything, the roots of the grass, my roses, even young holly and box bushes. They also, indeed especially, eat bulbs — all kinds of bulbs — making it impossible for me to grow any kind of plant from a bulb anywhere here except daffodils. I have planted lily bulbs in gravel, under wire or in wire balls, even in pots, and the moles and voles still got them.
For years, I would not give in. I insisted on planting casa blanca lilies, clumps of crocosmia, and waves of acidanthera again and again only to watch the beds treated as a salad bar. I would be sitting in the kitchen having lunch, hear a crunching sound and look out the window to see first one acidenthra waver and shake and disappear into the ground, and then another.
Once in a rage, after losing sixty or eighty in two beds of a hundred by the beginning of July, I raced out with a kitchen knife, a real kitchen knife, and began stabbing at the bedagain and againwithout ever getting anywhere near him, I’m sure.
The next year the moles and voles took out almost the bed I had planted between the end of the house and the barn. One day, I was setting up a sprinkler to water when I realized that the plants looked a little…funny, droopy and stepping into the bed to see what was going on, sank in right up to my ankles. Almost everything was gone — only the nepeta border, a couple of rose shrubs, my baptisia and the thalictrum were left, and a few big oak-leafed yellow hollyhocks – all blue except the roses and hollyhocks.
I tried everything. I found vibrators you stick in the ground that knock all day and all night and are supposed to drive the moles away — all they did was keep us awake at night, I am sure the moles slept next to them. I bought little guillotines with a spring-held blade, but it never nailed any of them. I put Irish soap and juicy fruit chewing gum into their tunnels. I poured bobcat urine down the holes, and urinated into the holes myself. I thought I had finally found a solution when I stumbled over some long tubes at the Shagbark, our hardware store. They were smoke bombs you were supposed to put in the tunnels and light. “Do these really work?” I asked the guy behind the counter. “I don’t know,” he said, scratching his neck, “but first time I put ’em down in one of the tunnels, I heard this little heh heh heh under the ground.”
I knew he was making it up, but the image was too good, and I bought about fifty of them. I still set out a few of the things every year. At least I have the satisfaction of smoke everywhere and the awful smell.
What sounded like the best solution I heard from Christian when he returned from a garden painting trip to Nashville. He told me how the owners of the garden, old friends of his, and indeed everyone in Nashville, hired this really old man who would sit in their gardens at night with a shotgun and shoot them. “How could he shoot them in the dark?” I asked. “They said he could hear them,” Christian answered. I thought maybe we should have him come north, but he died the following year.
For a time I was pretty desperate about the near-total destruction of the biggest and best bed in the garden. I even considered plowing it under, but then I realized I still had all these blue flowers and ten or twelve yellow hollyhocks, and I decided I would work from that and just make it a yellow and blue garden.
I planted more thalictrum — a plant I love — added aconitum carmachaelii, a big mauve-y- blue stunner that blooms at the beginning of October. I added a pair of golden-leafed spireaea with blue flowers. I added a few more yellow hollyhocks and, as it were, sat back and waited.
The following year, the bed was beautiful, really spectacular. Sitting up on the porch one day over drinks, looking down at this reborn bed, Ruth Lord — the daughter of Winterthur’s owner, Henry Dupont — said her father always told her that all a garden needs is blue and yellow. I sat there flush, almost hot, with pride.
A week or two later, weeding in the same bed, I noticed that some of the hollyhocks seemed to be wilting and turning brown. The leaves were covered with ugly, almost orange spots, little lumps, like the measles. I called the nursey we use, Ballek’s. I described what was happening to my beloved hollyhocks.
“That’s rust,” she said.
“Rust?” I asked hopelessly, hardly daring to say the word.
“Yes,” she said, “it’s a fungus.”
“Oh, great. Another fungus. What do I do about it?”
“There isn’t much of anything you can do about it,” she said, “except remove the sick leaves and pick up any that are on the ground, put them in a black plastic bag, tie it at the top and take it to the town dump. Do not leave them around.”
For the next seven or eight years, I did just that, and for the next seven or eight years my hollyhocks all sickened and most died. Within ten years, all of my hollyhocks, seventy-five or a hundred of them, were gone.
Mother Nature is a bitch.
The good news is that a few of the yellow ones hung on enough to self-sew a little here and there and, though they still got sick after a couple of years, two finally came up behind the barn that were free of rust. After a year or two, I moved them back into their old bed where it seems they will self-sew and survive. Maybe.
A happy ending? Not really. We are now worried about a fungus attacking the boxwood. It’s not “the blight” as everyone calls the really bad boxwood disease, which is lethal, but this is our second fungus and the jury is still out. Also, for some reason, my baptisia, all four plants, died. My nepeta border is gone. The buds on the magnolia were hit by a frost. But despite all the problems you can have with a garden, and ours are legion, neither of us have ever really thought of giving it up and plowing it under.
It’s not the “life style”, the lovely home and garden shtick – it’s that caring for a garden enters your life in ways you can’t imagine. Convinced city rat that I was, I actually live here full time, both of us do. But more than that, having a garden changes your sense of time, gives you something to look forward to, and wait for, maybe even stay alive for. It heightens your sense of the weather and the seasons. You become conscious of frost, drought, when certain bugs or birds appear every year. It teaches you how to get rid of garden plagues and pests without poisoning your household pets and children.
On a more personal level, this is where I started using pastels, now my favorite medium. And Christian, the person who couldn’t imagine painting here, couldn’t imagine being inspired by nature here, started painting in our garden as well and has gone on to painting flowers and gardens all over America, indeed all over the world.
This is the sixth of six in a series of writings by Tim Lovejoy on his arrival, house, and garden in Hadlyme, CT. Lead illustration from Into the Garden by Christian Peltenburg-Brechneff copyright © 2019
Into the Garden, a new volume of 185 illustrations by Christian Peltenburg-Brechneff, with a foreword by Bunny Williams, and essay by Donald Kuspit, will be released in June by G Arts. You can preorder copies of the book here
There will be a lecture, book signing and reception, on June 30th at 3 p.m. at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, followed by a sneak preview of the exhibition at 5 p.m. at the Cooley Gallery, 25 Lyme St. There will be an opening for the exhibition at the Cooley Gallery on July 6th, 5-7 p.m.