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Green Acre #431: Rolling in (Shades of) Green

A shady garden, with some color (thank you, caladiums, right forefront) around the edges. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

YET AGAIN this year, I will not be seeing any semblance of Versailles from the back porch steps. For all my planning and dreaming and finger-crossing and spitting (to ward off the evil eye), my shady garden is, once again, what it is. A spattering of successes drenched in a rain of errors. 

And we started out so well this year.

In times like these I turn to Henry Mitchell, a ray of light. The dearly departed Washington Post columnist always mixed advice with humor and bits of life from his own city patch. 

Like me, he had what he called a “cat run,” typical of city gardens. A narrow yard about 40 by 100 feet, possessing no inherent charm, just that which he managed to create. 

Unlike me, he dwells on the positive.

In a chapter on summer, from The Essential Earthman, Mitchell says of this point in the year (or inches from it), “There is a brief time in July when the gardener has nothing to do but enjoy his flowers,” calling it “a time of leisure.”  

Hoo-hah, I say. My mood is as dark as my garden.

Phyllis, the 20-year-old mophead hydrangea, always a reliable beauty that announces the beginning of the left border, went into cardiac arrest last fall, for no reason I could figure. She’s coming back, but there’ll be no flowers this year,  another green thing doing nothing. 

When you garden in the shade there are many green things. Ferns, of course, and ivy, philodendron, palms, monstera, and elephant ears among them. I do enjoy the shades of green, the mix of textures, but . . .

Completely lost is the mock orange that, for years, blossomed by the pond. We have others, but this was the only one that had a scent. And what a scent it was! 

Another elderly mock orange, by the back porch rail, decided not to bloom at all. It’s right next to the Don Juan climbing rose, which normally reaches the second floor, ravishing in sight and perfume. 

The pittosporum, a 3-year-old, still has no sign of flowers—which should be clusters of creamy white and intensely orange-scented. It’s healthy enough. And green. Sigh. 

My kiwi has grown into a small tree. It was in fragrant bloom when I bought it, about six years ago, but nothing since. 

I’m still waiting, praying, that this will be the year that the plumeria will finally bloom along with my little collection of birds of paradise. 

When you have so little space, every failure or delay feels like a disaster, and when July rolls around there’s little to be done about it. 

O! where is the color of yesteryear?

Thankfully, I dumped a bunch of caladium bulbs into a tub in late April. They’re beginning to emerge and can fill in the dead spots. Such lovely soft leaves and mellow shade of pink, large enough to have some impact. You can, maybe, still buy some already up and potted. 

My two rose of Sharon plants have grown into small trees; one is white with red centers, the other pale purple. They just began to flower the other day, eye candy. 

The Meyer lemons are (relatively) spectacular this year. One has three lemonettes—a bumper crop!—they should be ripe in December or January, if the squirrels don’t get them. Three lemons is enough for three tarts! The other, brought back from Florida this past January and nursed along indoors, was full of blossoms last week. The flowers fell off, as they do, revealing little fruit nubbins. Dare I hope for fruit, or will they frizzle? 

The hibiscus is full and showing a few buds, Alice (my white hydrangea) is a mountain of snow, the jasmines are blooming, the anthurium is covered with heart-shaped flowers, and the mandevilla’s velvety pink blossoms are flourishing on the porch railing. 

Never mind. I’m gonna sit back and enjoy what I have. Thanks, Henry. 


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