I have learned since moving to coastal Georgia six years ago that the schedule of gardening is different here than the schedule up north. When I lived in Boston, the annual rhythm was much like it is in other places in the US. When the ground was reliably thawed in the spring, sometime between the end of March and the middle of April, perennials could go in the ground. On Mother’s Day, annuals were planted, and with regular water, they would provide bright colors in the landscape all summer. The summer was spent mowing, weeding, watering, deadheading, trimming, and doing other chores to keep things looking good; I have photos of Alstromeria, Calla Lilies, and Daylilies blooming in early July. By late August, the fall flowers went in the ground: chrysanthemum and aster, mostly, which provided the yellow, orange, and rust tones for jacket weather. By late October, the first frost killed all of the annuals and told the perennials that it was time to go to sleep for the winter. The mulching mower chopped up its last leaves by early November, and the only tasks left were cleaning up the skeletal remains of the plantings, storing the tender summer bulbs in the basement, and waiting for the snow. December through March were the months for reading the reflective prose of all those gardening writers, looking through seed catalogs, planning for new beds to be carved out of the dirt deep under the snowdrifts, and for resting, too. The only reason to spend significant time outside in the winter was to shovel or play in snow.
In the South, there are two seasons which keep the gardener inside. As in other places, there is the cold of winter. From mid-December, when the last leaves have fallen and the mowing and edging machines are parked in the garage for the last time, through late February, when the frost usually stops, there really isn’t so much to do in the garden beds. Those are good weeks to stay in the heated indoors.
But summer is another time to stay inside around here. It’s hot out there, so I haven’t really been spending any more time working outside than I have to. When I do venture out there, it is to do only the most essential work, and then, I don’t do it more often than absolutely necessary. I refuse to mow more than once every two weeks, and lately it has been more like three weeks between cuts of the grass. The edging, a necessity with the spreading southern lawn grasses, only happens once a month or less. When there are no thunderstorms to keep things green, I water the flower and vegetable beds twice each week, but I rely on the sprinkler system to get water anywhere else it needs to be. This is the time of year when I usually give up on weeding; if there are enough weeds in any bed to take over, they just take over, and I put the spreading of mulch in that bed on the “To Do” list for fall or spring.
Otherwise, June, July and August are times to stay inside. They are good months for more of that reading or planning. A few weeks ago, on an afternoon when I was home alone, I started digging around the bird bath in the back yard. For at least the past six years, it has been surrounded by a complicated mess of ivy, ferns, confederate jasmine, dollar weed, and some liriope gone wild. A stray palmetto or two shot spikes up every few months, some acorns turned to small oak trees here and there, and one pine tree grew to be taller than me before I lopped it down last fall, leaving a stump behind. To craft a more ordered bed out of the chaos out there will take some work, and my free afternoon seemed like a good time to start that work.
Big mistake. I used my shovel to turn over the dirt and bury the weeds in about half of the space, a total of no more than twenty square feet, before I felt myself starting to feel woozy. I don’t like feeling woozy, and I know that, given how much sweat was soaking my clothes, hair, face, and numerous other places, woozy was not a good sign. I put the shovel back in its shed, headed into the air conditioning, got a drink of water and a shower, and pulled one of those books of reflective gardening prose off of the bookshelf. And I haven’t been back out there since, even as the weeds are trying to heal the scar I left on their territory.
It has taken me several years to get used to this new schedule of gardening seasons. But in this season of my life, I have found this new schedule to work well. Because my son was born soon after we moved here. Those first couple of years after he was born, any work that happened in my garden would be described as sporadic at best. But then, he started going to various forms of preschool. At first, he went two mornings each week, but then, about the time he turned four, he started going five mornings each week. Since Friday is one of my days off of work, I suddenly found myself with time to work on projects in the yard. Hallelujah, and pass the trowel! I carved a new flower bed out of my lawn that year to celebrate. Last year, he was in an all-day Pre-K program in the public schools, and things are looking better and better all the time out there.
During the summer, though, there is no school. That reality makes this a convenient time for us to take a long vacation. It also means that our church sponsors Vacation Bible School, and all three of us throw ourselves into the art projects, the songs, and the storytelling of our faith community for a full week. We have found interesting camps and programs for our boy to attend the rest of the summer, just to keep everyone from getting bored, but those are half-day activities at most, and there just isn’t much time to putter in the garden.
But in this season, gardening is just not the thing to do. Did I mention it’s hot out there? The thing to do right now is to make sure I have some free time to go play in the pool with my son, or take a picnic supper and a toy bucket and shovel to the beach, or invite some friends over to put our Hot Wheels cars and moveable dinosaurs, not to mention our air conditioner, to good use.
The other day, as I was on my way from the air-conditioned house to turn on the air conditioning in the car, I stopped for a minute in the steamy air to look at a hibiscus blooming next to the driveway. The hibiscus is one of the few flowers which blooms during the summer here, in spite of the heat and my negligence. The flower was gorgeous. The petals were a light orange color, not smooth in texture, but crepe-like and crinkled. The center was a vivid red, like it was actually living blood, and it was surrounded by a narrow border of pink, almost white, separating it from the orange. The stamen stuck up in that immodest way, with bright colors at the tip advertising its availability to passing bees and butterflies.
After a moment, as I started to feel the sweat forming on my face and under my t-shirt, I went on to the car. There wasn’t much else to look at; the Alstromeria, Calla Lilies, and Daylilies lost their blooms weeks ago, and their leaves are looking a little withered by now. But as much as I appreciated the beauty of that flower, I realized that the schedule of gardening in the South works well for me in this season of my life, when my boy is young and I get to be his daddy.
As the Teacher said, “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”