Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why I Plant Flower Borders Around My Vegetable Garden

Ever since I moved to the country, I have had a vegetable garden behind the barn. When I was in college, had you asked me if I would want to plant vegetables, I would have said, “No! Never again!” While I was growing up, my mother forced me to plant, weed, and hoe in her massive garden, and I was delighted to go away to college and avoid sweating and swatting flies while working in the dirt of a vegetable patch. Years later, when I knew I would be moving to a renovated farmhouse, I could not wait to plant a garden. I wanted to revive my dormant knowledge of growing vegetables, and I wanted to honor my mother, who had instilled in me the important values of gardening.

As my mother knew, growing beans and carrots is not done just for the exercise; rather, producing food is meditating, appreciating earth, embracing life, loving neighbors, and a host of other qualities so fundamental that other tasks shrink to relative insignificance in comparison.

Zinnia in My Garden Border

My initial forays into the joys of raising vegetables were not entirely successful. Raccoons and deer helped themselves to my first garden without as much as a thank you. The next year found me at the local livestock supply store, where I bought an electric fence. When I tested it, I was standing in a pool of April rainwater, and I received such a jolt that I literally landed on my butt in the mud. The fence kept my garden free of deer and raccoons, but I felt sorry for the awful shocks that I must have been delivering to them. The next year, I dispensed with the electric fence and grew mostly vegetables that are found beneath the surface of the soil or that are not so desirable to wildlife. This meant that I could not grow sweet corn, but I bought plenty of it from the local farmer’s market. What I could grow were beets, potatoes, carrots, onions, and turnips. I found that animals left my squash and Swiss chard alone.

I have a story to share about how remarkable Beananza bush beans are. Unidentified animals repeatedly gnawed the tops off my beans. Each plant had not more than about eight leaves, yet, surprisingly, week after week, the rows produced more beans than I could use!

Grasshopper Posing on a Giant Marigold in My Border

As my central purpose for writing this posting is to share information about flowers, let me turn to them. Two years ago, I thought how pleasant it would be to plant a border of flowers around my vegetable garden. I added two rows of flower seeds around the perimeter of what is practically a square garden area. In the mix were zinnias, giant marigolds, and cosmos. Like snowflakes, no two of which are alike (they say), my zinnias were as varied as varied can be. On many summer mornings, I brought fresh flowers from the garden to my home and filled vases in all the rooms.

Flowers Filling Border in 2013

Last year, I enthusiastically added a border of flowers again. I chose marigolds, zinnias, tithonia (which I had never previously grown), and different kinds of sunflowers. The ground slopes slightly to the west, and, where the rain ran, the fertilizer must have flowed, too. The tithonia along the western border exceeded eight feet in height. I was so stunned by their stature that I dug out the seed packet to read it again, and, yes, it said that the flowers would reach a height of four feet. I wasn’t dreaming, either. Mine rose far above my head!

Flowers Filling Border Again in 2014

My photographs of the flower borders are deceptive. The images fool me, as well, and, having pulled weeds for years, I know how big my vegetable garden is. The photos make my garden look small: really small, perhaps not larger than thirty-six square feet. The area within the border is actually about three hundred square feet! In the pictures, there is nothing to indicate the scale. The flowers have been simply huge!

Tithonia That Grew to Eight Feet in My Garden
Marigolds are said to keep rabbits away, but, last year, I was delighted to discover baby rabbits beneath my squash and cucumber leaves. All summer, I watched them grow. Whenever I harvested squash, I would find the growing rabbits discreetly hopping to hide among the zucchini. Unlike Elmer Fudd, I regarded them as my friends.

The sunflowers and other seeds attracted flocks of birds and large contingents of butterflies. They, too, were my constant acquaintances, and their colorful flitting about made my gardening experience all the richer.

The seeds for this spring’s flower border have already arrived!     

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Why I Plant Night-Blooming Cereus

The night-blooming cereus, a kind of cactus, was a favorite conservatory plant in my grandparents’ generation. While various plants have been called “night-blooming cereus,” only one kind was universally adopted among the women of my hometown. It was nicknamed Christ in the Manger. The popularity of the plant may have received a boost from the mounting of a special exhibition of night-blooming cereus at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. As many people from my village traveled to Chicago to participate in the celebration of Columbus’ discovery of America, they may well have obtained specimens of cereus that were the ancestors of my plant.

My Night-Blooming Cereus in Joyous Display

The flower opens for only one night, usually after midnight, and the petals are found withered and drooping by sunrise. I have heard of Victorian families staying awake to watch the opening of the flowers. A single luxurious plant can have well over a dozen blooms, but mine has had no more than three at a time.

Long ago, the plant was considered to have medicinal value. It was mentioned in Joseph H. Wythes’ The Physician’s Dose and Symptom Book (12th Edition, Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1875). Please understand that I am not endorsing the medical value of night-blooming cereus when I quote from The Pharmacology of the Newer Materia Medica (Detroit: George S. David, 1889): “Sedative and diuretic; especially useful in functional diseases of the heart, attended with much irregularity of action, in which it exerts a decided action, palliating or removing the symptoms and frequently giving prompt relief. It has been found serviceable in palpitation, angina pectoris, cardiac neuralgia, rheumatism, valvular disease, also of hemoptysis, dropsy, and in threatened apoplexy.” The book gives several case studies, including this one: “Mrs. McSwain, a lady about fifty years of age, nervous temperament, and formerly of Minnesota, called me in to see her. I found her with violent palpitation, cold extremities, clammy sweats, and great prostration. I examined the heart carefully, and found the distinct bellows sound, and rapid pulsations of an enlarged heart from dilatation. … I prescribed [cereus] in five-drop doses, every two or three hours, alternated with collinsonia, in doses of ten drops, three or four times a day. Under this treatment she rapidly improved, until she regained her health and returned to her home in the northwest.” I have no idea if the plant had anything to do with the restoration of Mrs. McSwain’s health, although I am delighted that she recovered from her illness. I have quoted her case because I find the old-fashioned medical lingo so piquantly redolent of an earlier era!

You need only a little imagination to perceive the Christian symbolism. In the center of the plant is the Christ child upon the yellow straw of the manger. Angels in white raiment have gathered around; above them is the star of Bethlehem.

I inherited my night-blooming cereus. I have simply watered it for many years, and it seems happy enough. Websites describe the care and feeding of the night-blooming cereus, and I direct you to them. Why? Because I really have no idea how I have prompted my heirloom plant to bloom. It has set on flowers in some years and not in others. I need to read the websites myself so as to learn how to encourage my plant to develop blossoms.

I can tell you that the flowers are large and heavy, in a sense. In a way, it is surprising how they can quickly wilt into lightweight nothingness after such spectacular blooming. For some, the blossoms may demonstrate a wistful aphorism such as all good things must come to an end, but I prefer to think that the flowers are dazzling like sunup dispelling darkness while anticipating the actual sunrise in all its splendid symbolism; as such, they are an inspiration!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Why I Plant Cosmos

My first six blog postings were about my friend Mary, and she introduced me to cosmos. I had rented a house, and behind it, the ground sloped down steeply to a creek. “We can plant flowers!” Mary exclaimed with the joy of a gardener who had been forced to spend too many years in apartments. Mary was eager to touch the earth again, and she felt starved for cosmos. “They’re so pretty in a vase,” Mary assured me. So, that spring, Mary brought to my rented house a couple of packets of cosmos seeds.

Judging from the name, I was expecting maybe bright orange flowers like fiery orbs in outer space. I may have been thinking of sunflowers. Little did I know how delicate the stems and petals would be!

A Constellation of Cosmos in My Garden

First, I had to discern the difference between a fledgling cosmos and a weed. I regret to say I probably plucked many of the cosmos seedlings from the soil because I thought they were some other plant that nature had sown and that was not wanted in that location.
Eventually, though, I had a good stand of cosmos. Before they bloomed, I was mystified. I could not see what Mary saw in them. Their thin leaves were too thin to be called “leaves,” in my opinion; they looked more like an herb to decorate an entrée. Then pale buttons began to form at the ends of the stems.

One day, I awoke to flowers. Is “gossamer” overused? I hope not, as I want to describe the petals as gossamer. Near the cheerful yellow center, the petals were a hot pink, but the pink cooled toward the petals’ outer ends. Depending on the hour of the day, the angle of the sun, or the presence of clouds, the blooms bore a subtle shade of pale lavender. At other times, they acquired a coral tone.

Mary could not have been more pleased. Out came her scissors, and she began cutting the long stems. I was alarmed. Finally, I said, “Shouldn’t we leave some to enjoy in the garden?” Mary laughed and said, “They’ll keep adding stems all summer.” For the record, I will attest that she cut only enough for a single vase on that first day.

Once Mary had arranged the flowers—which is to say, once she had confined the stems to the vase and had let the flowers arrange themselves—I thought they were ballerinas. They performed with a grand plié and an equally grand jeté! (My cousin Jill, who really was a ballerina, would be proud of my terms!)

Some of the cosmos drooped, others reached up. Some bobbed in the breeze wandering through the kitchen window. Others stood still. They filled their stage with grace. I fully understood why Mary had been so impatient to grow cosmos in my garden. Throughout the season, the plants produced plenty of flowers for Mary’s apartment and my house, too.

Cosmos Like Annual Ballerinas

Ever since Mary helped me appreciate cosmos, I have grown them. Yes, I believe that I have had at least a few cosmos in the flower gardens of every house I have owned. Two years ago, I planted hosts of them within an assortment of flowers forming a border around my vegetable garden, and the elegant blooms danced in vases around my home all summer long. I have come to associate cosmos with the joys of gardening.    

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why I Planted Tiger Lilies

When I was growing up, my family always drove to Fowler, Indiana, to see the fireworks on the Fourth of July. In the deepening dusk, anticipation grew until the crowd spotted the bobbing pink lights that were the wands the firemen used to ignite the rockets. A cheer went up, and, almost as quickly, so did the opening mortars with a whoosh soon followed by an explosion of vibrant colors.

I connect the spectacular bursts in the night sky with several “firsts” for me. At a very young age, I tasted my first cotton candy at the Fowler fireworks display. Later, I enjoyed my first coffee there. While I have not eaten cotton candy in many, many years, I am sipping a cup of coffee while I type this sentence.

I may have been in seventh grade when I was permitted to drink coffee. My father, mother, brother, and I were awaiting the fireworks. My father poured a cup of coffee from a thermos and handed the cup to my mother, who said, “Are you going to let Robert taste yours?”

“I don’t know. Am I?” my father asked.

“I think he’s old enough,” my mother observed.

My brother, a few years older than I, was already drinking coffee. My father poured a small amount into what was to be his cup and handed it to me. After I blew and blew on the coffee to cool it, I tried it. I loved the nutty flavor! I was hooked from that day forward, but, at first, I was permitted only the occasional cup.  

My Father's Tiger Lilies

I also connect fireworks with tiger lilies, which were my father’s favorite flowers. I think he conferred upon tiger lilies the special status of being his chosen blossoms because they were always in full bloom during his birthday in the third week of July.

The flamboyant lilies seem an incongruous choice of flower for my father, who was soft-spoken, mild, and gentle. I saw him lose his temper only once. It was when a sow broke through a barn door and escaped in the meadow. My father had gone to a lot of trouble to herd the pig into the stall, and, as he knew all too well, making a second attempt to coax the sow into the barn would be an exercise in futility. My father was unaware that I witnessed his anger. He thought he was alone, but I was hiding so as to surprise him when he walked past. Had I not observed his tantrum, I would tell you that he never lost his temper, and I really believe that he almost never did.

My Father Filling the Tank of the Farmall Tractor

Even though tiger lilies are loud and brassy, they are refined, and it is in their refinement that they share a characteristic with my father. A Valedictorian at a time long before any dumbing down of education, my father was intelligent, knowledgeable, and well spoken. He could compose and deliver a speech better than anyone, and such refinement finds an analogy in the tall stalks, exact leaves, and branching flowers of tiger lilies.

Tiger Lilies in Bright Sunlight

If you will make it a point to view such lilies after sundown on an endlessly mellow July evening—and if you will squint—you can imagine the flowers and the unopened buds as the pyrotechnic bursts and streaks of light from fireworks in the night sky.

Tiger Lilies Reminiscent of Fireworks

When my father passed away, a friend urged me to transplant at my home a clump of Dad’s cherished lilies. I did so, and, dependably, they have reached their fullest bloom during the week of my father’s birthday. They serve as a brilliant reminder of his life.