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COVID AND THE GARDENER: Creating beautiful spots in a world turned upside down

Since I am still living in my pandemic bubble, I spend more and more time gardening. These months have been devastating for so many. Loved ones have gotten very ill. Some have died. Jobs have ended. Homes have been lost.

It is hard to figure out a new normal.

Thank goodness I have my garden, a safe and satisfying place to retreat. Experts said to go outside, to exercise, to spend time in the fresh air while remaining physically distant (something about the words “socially distant” troubles me). A garden fills these suggestions. There we can create a personal sanctuary where nature provides comfort.

Active Calhoun County Master Gardeners (of which I am a 20-plus-year member) give 25 hours of service to their communities yearly in sites such as Longleaf Botanical Gardens, Coosa Valley Youth Services and Cane Creek Community Gardens.

For months, Longleaf and Coosa Valley remained closed to their volunteers. However, they are now open to these dedicated folks who now work with masks and distancing.

Cane Creek closed for several weeks and then reopened, as landscaped grounds there require continued maintenance. There are 12 cultivated acres, making it easy to stay more than six feet apart. The Cane Creek Community Gardens Volunteer Crew could be found there weekly with masks on, shovels and pruners in hand, caring for this oasis on McClellan. There are heroes everywhere.

I was able to continue to garden with a fellow Master Gardener at the Jacksonville Pocket Park, another area where we could stay distanced and masked. The park provided a break for us and a place to de-stress for those who needed it. On Tuesday, a ‘Julia Child’ rose sparkled with a pale yellow flower, perhaps the last rose of fall.

Gardens need people as much as people need gardens.

Most of my plant-loving friends have told me about the hours spent in their own gardens, creating beautiful spots in this world gone crazy. They talk about how much they enjoyed reconnecting to their own landscapes.

A Master Gardener told me she and her spouse spent so many hours working that her garden earned a Calhoun County Beautification Award. Congratulations to them for creating a special place.

I have been touched by the virus. My beloved sister and her husband months ago fell victim to this evil illness. Day by day, she gets better and stronger. Instead of talking about the coronavirus, we are back to discussing our gardens. She has been talking about pansies lately, a wonderful sign.

When your yard becomes your world

As I spent so many days in the garden, I took a hard look at what I did and did not like. “Garden editing” became my pandemic plan.

Plantsman Jimmy Roberts (now deceased) said that a garden needs reviewing every 10 years or so. A shrub outgrows its spot; others have not done well.

Jimmy was a consummate gardener, willing to share his knowledge. My yard is full of plants he said I could not live without: they will never be removed. It goes without saying I have a sentimental attachment to every plant from Golden Springs Nursery, his place of business.

Gardeners know where their plants came from, and if pushed, will provide a plant’s back story. As I sit in my garden, I remember Jimmy’s friendship as he lives on here. His memory brings me peace.

On various plant-buying expeditions in the distant past, plant lovers like Charles White (also deceased) of Rou Rou’s Nursery further expanded my gardening horizons. As our world becomes a scarier place, those happy times are calming.

Master Gardeners themselves are better than Google searches. Someone knows the answer to every gardening dilemma. They share plants, too. They are fantastic company when your yard becomes your world.

Since I have been gardening in the same space for 48 years, my garden has seen a lot of changes over time. The popular plant of yesterday became part of this year’s compost pile. Yes, I loved it once, but then it just was not what I really wanted.

Becoming a Master Gardener and spending time around local plantsman Hayes Jackson, the original “Plant Geek,” inspired me to stretch in the garden, to try the new and captivating.

Hayes also encouraged the habit of collecting plants. I have collected azaleas (lots of the same ones) and perennials (including some that would not survive here). Many, such as the chameleon plant, became pests.

I am a much wiser gardener now, almost half a century later. I try to live by the basic rule of gardening: “the right plant in the right place.” I wish the rules for how to survive a pandemic were so simple.

Seasons change, spring awaits

Currently, my garden is evolving from one season to another. It can be a sad time as plants that provided so much pleasure and energized me during COVID-19’s misery have wilted, ready to be removed.

Happily, they have been replaced by others coming into their own as the temperatures drop. On a stroll this morning, I noticed dramatic changes in the landscape.

The once lush hostas are entering their period of winter dormancy and are a bit brown and ugly. But the optimistic gardener knows, when the days warm, they will sprout into beautiful specimens again. (That same optimistic gardener is hopeful when those hostas appear, COVID-19 will be just a miserable memory.)

Over the summer, I developed a tremendous zest for zinnias. With their bright colors and long blooming time, they were definitely a pandemic highpoint (if there is one) and kept me enchanted for months. Although the flowers have faded, their beauty remains in my brain. I am already scouting seed catalogs for next year’s zinnias, something else to ponder besides the rise in hospitalizations.

A few of summer’s waning perennials are giving their final push before the serious cold sets in. A purple coneflower invites the pollinators to visit.

The trees are donning their fall finery. Dogwoods are a mixture of burgundy and red leaves with bright red berries, which the birds devour with pleasure.

The flowers of the loquat perfume the entire garden with a delicious scent. It is rivaled by the tea olive. Although the tea olive’s flowers are tiny, their fragrance is powerful, at times almost overwhelming. Sporadic bloom over the winter months will give the gardener a reason to stop for a sniff.

Japanese maples are the magic of November. The landscape has become a rainbow of color in shades of orange, yellow, rust, maroon and red. There is no way to look at this scene without a smile. The branches will soon be bare; trunks and limbs will stand like statues in a sleeping garden.

The ginger lilies have been charismatic this fall, still in bloom earlier this week. Not only are they beautiful, but they also have a heavenly scent attracting the important pollinators, the bees and the butterflies. The first hard freeze will crumple them. Still, we know they will sprout with the heat of next summer, multiplying to have more to enjoy next autumn.

Purpose in the pandemic

Last spring, just as the pandemic locked us down, it seemed time for real change, and with help we removed a sizable group of 40-year-old pink-flowered azaleas. They required constant pruning to make certain they did not hide my house.

Inspired by photos on YouTube (what did we do before YouTube?) I gathered a collection Japanese maples that stayed small (then residing in containers) and planted them in the space.

The azaleas were lovely for just a brief period when they were in bloom. On the other hand, Japanese maples are a gift 12 months of the year.

The trees needed company, so other plants moved in: peonies with luscious spring blooms, vibrant milkweed for the monarch caterpillars, flowers, and ferns with leaves in shades of copper and green.

The pandemic may have prevented me from my normal routine, but it did not stifle my gardening spirit. Who needs a haircut when the gardenias are blooming?

This year’s pansies are nestled in the ground and containers. I shopped for the first time at a local nursery where the owners grew the pansies themselves. Within a few minutes, my old truck was packed (much to my husband’s surprise when I pulled in the driveway). I usually just fill a car.

I have spent weeks planting them, watering them and removing spent flowers. My biggest chore has been to protect them from the deer, who have polished some to the ground, and the squirrels, who insist on digging them up and tossing them everywhere. I start each day surveying the damage, replanting what I can and cursing under my breath the ones that are chewed to bits.

It did not take long for the pansies to be surrounded by the bees and the butterflies. No matter how sad the winter might make me, I can be charmed by precious faces.

In the summer, as the coronavirus numbers climbed, the bulb catalogs began to arrive in the mail. The box just arrived. I asked the FedEx man to place it in a special place in order to explain to my patient spouse that the large box marked wholesale bulbs was not for inside the house.

In just a few weeks, the daffodils and crocus will join my other plants, and I will wait for their appearance in the winter and spring of 2021. When I see the dainty little crocus, I will know that spring is close by.

Bright holiday blooms are here

 In the midst of the pandemic last spring, when everyone was afraid to go out, I went to a local nursery and chose a new hydrangea for my garden. Going to a business where we remained outside felt infinitely safer.

I purchased a panicle hydrangea by the name of ‘Pinkie Winkie’ because its white flowers tinged with pink. Normally, hydrangea flowers have browned and turned papery by September; this one, however, had one perfect panicle in full bloom as November began.

There is an exquisite story unfolding in the garden. Around the end of September, the camellia sasanquas began to flower, soon followed by the majestic japonicas. ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ has become a small tree. ‘Cotton Candy’ and ‘Jean May’ are now banks of pale pink blooms. ‘Yuletide’, which normally blooms later in the fall, was covered in brilliant red flowers by the middle of October. Perhaps, it sensed I needed a bit of yuletide color.

Each day, another camellia begins to bloom. ‘Debutante’ is showing gorgeous pink blossoms. Every camellia is covered with large fat healthy buds, indicating what is to come as the colder days set in.

Colorful holiday plants are appearing on the shelves of garden centers. Cyclamens are a treasure. They have been available since mid-October instead of just prior to the holiday season. I quietly shouted for joy when I saw the first one at a big box store. I could not wait to get it home. When I feel down, I sit next to it.

Pretty soon the grocery store had a display of cyclamens. Shopping became a joy instead of another coronavirus expedition. I got a second cart to hold the cyclamens, along with a dramatic bromeliad. I turned my kitchen table into an indoor garden. Every morning after hearing the media’s COVID count, I walk in the kitchen and switch on the light to find “my babies” waiting for me and lifting my mood.

Consider purchasing a live plant with fabulous flowers for someone whose life is not going well — a small bit of cheer in dark days.

Plants can not alter reality; however, they can make life brighter. Caring for them becomes an exercise in improving my mental health and certainly less expensive than a therapist. Research has proved time and again that we are healthier in body and spirit when we garden.

The pandemic created a great interest in gardening. Last spring and summer, garden center shelves were quickly depleted and seeds sold like milk before a snowstorm. I surely hope this newfound hobby continues for these enthusiastic gardeners. It will help in hard times.

Sherry Blanton, “The Southern Gardener,” writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at Follow her on Facebook at Southern Gardener-Anniston Star.