Since the big wind came through my neighborhood on March 19, residents of the Avenues (the northeast) and the northwest sides of Jacksonville are working toward a new normal. It will be a long trip to that normal, full of bumps, detours, tears and frustration. With patience, fortitude and time (and help from our insurance companies and FEMA), we can reach the finish line.
Blue tarps that once covered damaged roofs have been replaced by nice new roofs on many houses. Unfortunately, tarps, now weather-beaten and a little worse for wear, are still in view.
Vivid images of destruction remain as mangled homes, upturned root balls, broken trees and empty sites where residences once stood surround us. Sadness permeates the Avenues.
On the positive side, the enormous stumps and tree debris piled high on the curb are history. More work yet needs to be done. But there are signs of life; I saw a small vegetable garden in the neighborhood.
For weeks, the noise of the large trucks picking up storm debris has filled the air. Their contract ended May 31; another stage in our recovery has begun.
Someone asked me how I dealt with being part of this misery 24/7. My answer was that it was difficult, frustrating and maddening.
How am I really coping? As any gardener would when faced with a tragedy, I head toward what brings me peace: my yard.
My husband and I were fortunate to sustain only minor damage to our house. My garden, on the other hand, took a hit.
Hundreds of plants got caught up in the funnel cloud. Two beautiful old pines were spread-eagled across 12th Avenue on top of a beautiful dogwood. Branches and debris covered almost everything in sight.
I am extremely fortunate to have two angels in my life. Quint Davis, owner of Davis Landscape, is one of them. Our relationship goes back 20 years. I called him at 4 in the morning and left a message telling him I was afraid to face the ugly reality of my yard alone. He and his crew were here after sunrise, picking up, pruning and saving what could be saved. My gardening pal Tammy Hall, “The Garden Girl,” sat with me two days after the storm, sifting through the soil hunting for remnants of flowers we could replant.
I have been told over and over how lucky I was. It has taken me weeks to absorb that fact as I remember the night in the closet listening to the sound only a tornado can produce. Truly, I would really only feel lucky if two F-3 tornadoes had not torn through the Avenues. But that is beside the point.
I have been busy replanting a patch of my garden destroyed by the tornado and visible from the window. As I dig, I realize that most folks are not nearly as blessed as I am and are contending with damaged, unlivable homes.
Our community is full of people, like me, who love gardening. Living proof is the long lines of carts stuffed with plants at the checkout counters of garden centers and big box stores.
When I call my husband from one of my adventures, I can almost hear the sigh. I pull up in the driveway and he dutifully unloads this week’s haul.
The lilies I purchased online last fall are up, and my older ones have magnificent blooms, lightening our moods. Beauty can do that.
Since my shady garden — and my shade — vanished with my two massive trees, I now have a sun garden. I have named it my “pop” of color garden.
My plant choices are easy to grow and maintain, and many are attractive four seasons of the year, certain to brighten any landscape. These new plants represent the future.
Recently on vacation, I spied an intimate courtyard garden packed with bold annual color, some in pots and others in the ground: orange, red, yellow and pink. That vibrant garden would be my role model.
Unlike that garden, which contained only annuals, I wanted good bones as a background for the annuals and perennials: ornamentals shrubs and trees to showcase the virtual riot of colors I was planning.
Before that new bed could become a reality, we brought in soil rich with organic amendments to fill in the holes and replace the top layer of soil that flew up with everything else the tornado took away with it. Once that was done, we could begin planting with abandon.
My first purchase for my new sun garden was a red maple, Inabi shidare (cascading ricelike leaf). It represents my personal rebirth and my determination not to give up on gardening and the Avenues.
The initial week after the storm surely stretched us; it was hard to look at my neighborhood without the thought of moving out. Gardeners, however, tend to be tough. We remain optimistic even when down. We are always planning for next year. That philosophy gets us through the nasty winds of life.
Surrounding the new red maple tree:
• Abelias with variegated leaves (‘Miss Lemon’) will add interest all year and will be covered with dainty fragrant flowers in the summer. Abelias are a magnet for the all-important pollinators and will be a draw for the bees this summer.
• Encore azaleas with white flowers make a circle in the garden. White is a great neutral, helping to bring the diverse colors together. They will bloom more than once a year, bringing in lovely azalea blossoms spring and fall. Encore azaleas can handle more sun than our typical spring bloomers.
• A patch of red drift roses fits beautifully into any sun garden. These hard-working little roses reach only a couple of feet tall, and produce fluorescent-colored flowers in spring and summer. To keep them neat, prune them back in the winter and remove spent blossoms in the summer.
• A Southern Living dwarf weigela with variegated leaves is another colorful addition. Even without the flowers, the chartreuse and green leaves earn a place for this ornamental in a sun garden.
• A Cornus koosa dogwood blooms later than the dogwoods we know so well. Since I am basically starting over on this place in my landscape, I have the opportunity to try new plants.
• A green Japanese maple stands regally in the midst of the flowers.
• A camellia that the pine tree squashed is in survival mode. It was about 6 feet tall and is now 2 feet tall, but my hope is that it will rise again. ‘Dr. Tinsley’ had delicate pink blooms and I look for them again – maybe not next year but surely in the future.
The garden’s beginnings were in the ground. It was time to add the frosting to the cake.
Dozens of annuals and perennials have been added for color. Some went into containers. Others went into my fresh new soil.
• About half a dozen salvia greggii, which thrives in hot sun, are now growing beautifully. I am looking forward to the visits of the hummingbirds to the blossoms.
• Three ‘New Gold’ lantana highlight the greenery with bright yellow flowers. Butterflies adore lantana and will bring an extra gift to the garden.
• ‘Homestead Purple’ verbena forms a sweep around the edges. The combination of the yellow and the purple flowers is dynamite.
• The white flowers of ‘Becky’ shasta daisies add cheer and a touch of neutral to this riot of color.
• An elephant ear with 3-foot leaves is stunning.
• There is lavender (suited for our climate) and rosemary, purchased at the Longleaf Botanical Plant Sale, to add texture.
• Sun-loving purslane in shades of yellow, apricot, white and red lures the viewers’ eye into the garden.
• Pentas with clusters of pink and red tubular flowers, mixed with annual white salvia, will attract the bees and the butterflies.
• Pots of pink, red and orange ‘SunPatiens’ handle the sun well given the right amount of water. The blossoms are joyful. Keep long stems pinched so they do not get leggy.
• The final touch was dozens of sun-tolerant caladiums (most of which I had overwintered in the house). Their colorful leaves bring a special touch to any garden.
There were several plants that made that old spot home and required shade to thrive; they have been moved to other parts of my garden. I hope they will have the stamina, like their human caretaker, to survive and grow.
They were special plants purchased at the annual Tree Amigos plant sale. Like other gardeners, I know the story of all my plants. Names may have escaped me, but not their care.
By midsummer, my “pop” of color garden will have its own story. I have begun my road trip to my new normal. I hated throwing away crushed tree trunks and small bits of plants, but as my friend Hayes Jackson said to me years ago as I lamented a lost plant, a dead plant is a new opportunity.
I hope that my readers will not have to experience a tornado to make a change in their gardens. Occasionally, it might be interesting to throw caution out the window and try something new. If you do, please consider some of these plants. Each is bound to provide a degree of loveliness.
Sometimes an ill wind forces us to begin a new life. My children, survivors of Hurricane Katrina, landed in Houston, Texas, where they have bloomed. I hope I and my garden have the moxie to blossom again.
Sherry Blanton writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.