Zone 5

Gardening advice

Vol. I

Dear Readers,

Spring is here, and already we are itching to get to work in the garden. We have been dreaming all winter—for most of us the dreams exceed the reality to follow, but no matter. Unfortunately, some readers, like our friend Gene, whose letter follows, have spent a long winter’s night dreaming about all the wrong things.

Dear Miss Corydalis,

Just before a recent heavy snow, I noticed some bare spots in my lawn. I know that lawn like the back of my hand and can pinpoint the exact location of the spots under the snow. I called the ChemVelvet lawn service this morning. That was a waste of time. In spite of my contract with them, they refuse to send a technician out when the lawn is covered. What a bunch of wussies! Anyway, I noticed that the garden center here has BlastoGreen combination seed and starter fertilizer granules on preseason sale. Can I just broadcast the product on top of the snow?

Am I right that, as the snow melts, the seed and granules will settle into the moist soil and be ready to germinate the moment the ground thaws a little? I’d appreciate a speedy reply as a warm spell is forecast for next week.


A: Gene, you’ve been overcome by urea vapors from the BlastoGreen granules. Instead of fretting over a bald spot here and there, you’d be better off spending the winter months bringing armloads of gardening books home from the library (except my books, which you are encouraged to actually purchase). Undoubtedly they’ll inspire you to redirect your efforts and discover plant specimens more worthy of your obsessive disposition.

This is the perfect opportunity to put my readers on notice. My secretary Miss Vong has her instructions: There will be absolutely no lawn care questions in the coming gardening season.

Dear Mertensia,

I just moved into my first home of my own. In the yard is a bed of what a neighbor tells me are peonies. They have big ball-shaped buds with ants on them. I don’t see ants on the other plants. Should I be concerned?


A: First, Roberta, resist the temptation to rip out everything the previous owner left in the way of plant material. Let a year pass and study what you have. It is possible that the peony bed has been in place for generations, in which case you have a bit of a moral obligation to be the caretaker of plants set out with loving high hopes by a long-forgotten housewife. As for the ants, they enjoy a symbiosis with the peonies, tickling and teasing the tightly contained buds until they open themselves in a wanton, blowsy shag of petals, seducing the gardener to plunge her nose in their midst and swoon, nearly overcome by the headiness of their scent. The payoff for the ants? They can busy themselves collecting the sweet juices of the peony, toiling in working conditions that rival a seraglio.

Miss Corydalis,

Which is better: caging or staking tomato plants? I plan to grow giant beefsteak tomatoes. I would like to see just how big I can get them to grow. Would the fruit need special support?


A: Walter, just what kind of Brobdingnagian club sandwiches do you plan to prepare with these freaks of botanical tinkering? I should be surprised if this “bigger is better” philosophy of yours doesn’t carry over to other aspects of your life. Being a backyard gardener, you have the advantage of not having to deliver the tomatoes 3,000 miles by freight car to your table, so you also don’t need to grow the tasteless baseballs known as Big Boy, Better Boy, Boy Toy, and all the other engineered “Boy” members of the deadly nightshade family. Look into heirloom varieties such as Costoluto Genovese, Brandywine, and Yellow Pear, and enjoy them still warm from the sun.

NEXT TIME . . . creating a pleached all饠. . . Sussex trugs . . .

Vol. II

Dear Miss Mertensia,

My husband Gene spent the entire winter tuning up and accessorizing his riding mower. We were the first on the block to have the little ChemVelvet “No dogs, No children” flag planted by the curb. And of course he was the first in the neighborhood to start mowing the lawn. For years he has had a schedule of mowing on Wednesday and Saturday—he never wavers from this—and, feeling invigorated afterward, he has other aspects of our life, if you get my drift, on the same schedule. His proctology colleagues golf on Wednesday and Saturday. Not my Gene. It just kills him that Will, our ChemVelvet guy, comes on Mondays when Gene can’t be here to supervise the spraying. We never go on vacations. Everything is planned around the schedule. Even Will commiserates when I invite him in for an iced tea. Isn’t Gene being a bit obsessive?


A: Lotte, your letter has been passed around the editorial offices here at Cutting Borders Magazine. No one can recall ever having seen a lawn care question from a female reader. It’s a “guy thing,” you know. I am bending my policy of not dealing with lawn care matters just this one time because I am concerned about your being at the epicenter of this toxic bombardment. You must take action to preserve your own well-being. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Dear Miss Corydalis,

My hosta have a number of holes in the leaves. I can’t see any bugs on them. What is doing this, and what can I do about it?


A: Phyllis, the holes were chewed by slugs, which do their work at night, retiring to the underside of wood mulch or rocks during the day. There are poison granules available, but you don’t want a curious animal to nibble on them. Another option is to surround each plant with a copper wire, which will electrocute the snail when it crawls over the wire; save that method for the sadists and social conservatives among us. Instead, set out saucers of beer among the hosta plants. Not your craft-brewed porters and ales, but cheap, mass-produced canned beer. The slugs, a belly-scratching lot, will be distracted on their way to work by your tavern on the green. In the morning: stiff as boards. Dump the remains on your compost heap and start over again. This method will amuse any children (who are natural-born sadists, by the way) you might have and can be turned into an instructive example of the consequences of immoderate consumption of alcohol. I hope your hosta are enjoying a shaded area. I am seeing these plants stuck all over the place, struggling in the hot sun next to concrete driveways.

NEXT TIME . . . constructing a mossy dell . . . winning the black spot war . . .

Vol. III

Dear Mertensia,

We are brand-new to these parts and have inherited an apple orchard on our property. This year, our first, the apples got to only about 1 inches in diameter, then fell off the tree before ripening. Also, I’ve noticed several snakes in the orchard, which makes me nervous. We’re having a little dispute over this. I say we cut down the orchard. My wife is just dying to have her own apples. What’s your opinion?


A: Adam, it sounds as though your apple blossoms are not getting properly pollinated. You can rent a hive from a beekeeper, who will install and maintain it during the blossoming period. See if this doesn’t solve the problem before taking to the ax. The snakes are no doubt harmless and serve the useful purpose of keeping down the population of field mice, which feast on the fallen, rotting apples. Regardless of my opinion, I suspect that your wife usually wins out in these domestic disputes anyway.

Miss Corydalis,

My lawn has taken a turn for the worse this year. It started when Will, the ChemVelvet technician, convinced me that there should be a treatment twice a week (Mondays and Fridays). Unfortunately, I was busy with my medical practice and couldn’t be as attentive as I should have been. The grass is burned to a crisp. ChemVelvet sent a new guy around, too, but he just isn’t as dedicated as Will. I have some extra time on my hands since Lotte, the wife, is no longer with me, and I’m thinking about tearing up the whole thing and starting over. My question is, which is best—sod or seed?


A: Gene, your turf has been overfertilized and now you are suffering the consequences. Indeed, you should start anew. And this time, exercise some common sense about what you choose to cultivate. As for your question about sod or seed, it’s a matter of personal preference; it’s not for me to judge.

[Readers, you have continued to test my good nature by sending me lawn care questions. This was absolutely the last one I will entertain. Ever.]

NEXT TIME . . . succulents for winter pleasure . . . last call for mesclun . . .

The gardening columns of Mertensia Corydalis (a.k.a. Bonnie Abbott) also appear in the recent humor anthology Mirth of a Nation.

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