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Absence Makes the Garden Grow…

Fonder? I’m not sure. More untamed, full of weeds and needing maintenance? Definitely. August has been a month when I’ve abandoned my usual morning routine of walking through the garden to check in on things and, as weather, mood and conditions allow, tend to the summer’s landscape. This summer has been an unusual one and for personal reasons (including a tonsillectomy at the ripe old age of 58 – an excruciatingly painful surgery I encourage anyone over the age of 8 to avoid) I haven’t been able to visit my garden and appreciate it as much as in summers before.

It’s August – the Dog Days are definitely upon us, oppressive heat discourages me from doing much of anything and as I slowly recuperate from the surgery (popsicles are definitely not a fabulous source of energy and for now, ice cream seems to makes things worse), I am finding myself a little more curious (and guilty) about what’s going on in the garden. Was it just a month ago when things looked so lush and full of optimism?  Perennials were plentiful, annuals still fresh and adding summer color, trees and shrubs were blooming, there was enough rain to make watering less of a chore and sitting on the patio in the evening was genuinely enjoyable.


Just a month ago, the White Chiffon Rose of Sharon was loaded with blooms, the day lilies, sundrops, St. John’s Wort and other perennials filled every square inch of the bed, Green Bed’s layers of different green tones and textures were punctuated by “winecups” – full and flowing like never before and at every turn, there was something colorful, blooming and/or lush. At that time, I was fighting back chronic tonsil pain and figured it would eventually go away – just as it had done for the majority of my life. But I couldn’t ignore it any more and after more than six doses of antibiotics, I knew it was time to take more decisive action and seek a permanent solution to my nagging tonsillitis. What better time to schedule it than summer? Knowing it meant eating cold foods and living life at a slower pace, it seemed only fitting to have the surgery during August’s “Dog Days.” I looked at the status of my garden in late July, felt it was in pretty good shape and bid it a fond, but temporary, good-bye so I could focus on surgery and recuperation. I’d seen the glory of Spring, filled the glazed pots with summer’s annuals and knew that August was the month when gardening, like so many other things, might just have to take a back seat to other priorities.

After the first few horrible days were behind me, I could only glance out the two story window and take a mild, almost disconnected, interest in the Pollinator Parade happily taking place right in front of me. I didn’t even have to get out of bed to see the brilliant yellow and dark blue swallowtails bending the branches on the Butterfly Bush. In a brief, and I mean brief, burst of energy I snapped a couple of pictures from the kitchen window. It took a lot to get me moving and I’ll admit my interest wasn’t infectious or more than cursory.


Looking out the window into the backyard, I could also pretend to be interested in the Native Bed and again, with fleeting interest I snapped a few pictures of the Cardinal Lobelia, Mountain Mint, Rudbeckia, Helenium, Butterfly Weed & other “standbys.”  It was nice to see the plants return, it makes for a lovely view and I’m glad the garden has good enough “bones” to move forward even when I’m standing still and almost deliberately ignoring the joy, and work, of gardening. When I saw branches in need of trimming, daisies in sore need of deadheading and weeds winning the continuous battle for precious real estate, I glared at the garden, decided I really wasn’t feeling well enough to be bothered, looked at the skies in hope of rain and returned to bed.  It pains me to admit this but I almost became resentful towards the garden. How dare it need me? Wasn’t it supposed to cheer me up and be a source of inspiration and solace? I just felt annoyed and all I could see was work, areas that needed attention and really dry garden beds. Yes, even turning on the hose seemed like too much of an imposition.


My absence from the garden came at a time when summer’s relentless heat and sparse amounts of rains couldn’t have come at worse time (in terms of gardening as well as enjoying the summer and all related activities).  Yes, a tonsillectomy – that “kid’s procedure” – stopped me in my tracks and kept me from engaging in much of anything, especially gardening. I let friends know I would be “out of commission for a few weeks” and read up on what my limitations would be: at least a week of intense pain, limitations on what I could eat, possible complications, intense fatigue and lethargy, difficulty sleeping, discomfort and did I mention horrific pain? Think “swallowing shards of glass for two weeks” and you’ll have an idea of what it is like to have a tonsillectomy. No, it’s not about milkshakes and delicious, creamy ice cream heaped in bowls during the sweltering heat. The cream made me choke and the area has been so swollen I’ve been lucky to get ice chips down there to prevent dehydration and taking any medication at all has taken heroic efforts. If it ravaged my body this much, imagine what it has done to my garden?

What has concerned me the most about this recent medical incident has been how it affects my mood. It kept me from my morning ritual of touring the garden, exploring the various beds, checking on the status of my favorites, excitedly looking for nests, anticipating blooms and taking pictures. Days have passed when I simply could not rouse myself out of bed, down the stairs and into the garden. It wasn’t just the physical activity, it was the initiative and interest – my garden didn’t beckon me and I scoffed at well meaning suggestions to “get some fresh air – it will make you feel better!” Pshaw. At 100 degrees outside and knowing my garden went largely untended (other than my kind husband doing some watering), I just couldn’t work up the interest or enthusiasm to see what was going on in the garden and even if I did, what would I do? Would I be frustrated by the amount of work to be done? Probably and there was nothing I could do about it because I’m still under restrictions for physical activity. In addition, although the garden has evolved over time and carefully planted to provide year round interest with an emphasis on low maintenance, there is no such thing as a “no maintenance” garden and even with “good bones,” my garden needs an assist throughout the year. Annuals are added in areas needing color, glazed colored pots need replenishing as the months go on and at the height of summer, it is especially nice to refresh the garden with some serious work, whether it’s additions, thinning things out (much as I love my Mountain Mint, it’s taking up a lot of real estate), adding some “instant pretty” with pre-planted, blooming pots scattered throughout the beds or planting a few plants that will come to bloom in the coming month.

Things started to change one morning, just a few days ago, when I was starting to feel a little better and decided to take a look out back in the Native Bed. Just by glancing out the windows I could see some color and knew, from previous summers, there would be some visual interest and a few new things had been added in Spring so perhaps there would be a few surprises. With a pretty lousy attitude and definite lack of enthusiasm, I dragged myself out to the garden. As I glanced around and saw the “regulars,” something grabbed my eye – it wasn’t a familiar flower, I know it wasn’t there last year and it was definitely an usual sight in the bed. It captured my attention enough to keep luring me into the garden for the next few days.


Over the last few days, this lovely flower – a spectacular, tall dahlia with chocolate colored, unusual foliage – brought me back to the garden. Sure, I have dahlias elsewhere in the garden but this one? This is a beauty and it’s so unique, unexpected and incredibly interesting, it grabbed my curiosity, got the better of me and helped me return to the garden with love and interest. Watching this dahlia grow, and photographing it’s beautiful progression, has helped me return to my summer’s routine of touring the garden every morning. I know there are healing gardens and no, I’m not comparing my garden to those magnificent gardens. But in its own small way, this new addition to my landscape has been my healing garden and for that, I’m grateful because now, each morning, I can not wait to go check on the status of this beautiful dahlia.


There’s more to this story and in some ways, it’s even more special than returning to my morning routine of wandering through the garden. For the last few summers I’ve tried to grow moon-vines because I’ve always been intrigued by flowers that bloom at night. In my dreams (pun intended), I have a “Night Garden” with interest, blooms, fragrance and a magical, almost mysterious feeling, enticing me outdoors in the evening. I view that garden as a bonus – I already have something to start each day, how nice it would be to have something luring me outdoors to wander through the garden each night (other than the watering chores). In years past, however, for many reasons I’ve not had much success with moon-vines. This year, I decided to plant a vine in the front of the house, climbing up the wall next to the garage. I put it there because it would be hard to ignore and if successful, it would great guests to the house if they visited in the evening (silly though it may seem, it appealed to me thinking about welcoming evening visitors with open blooms at the door’s entrance). Yesterday, as we pulled out of the driveway on our way to a doctor’s appointment, I noticed a peculiar growth on the moon-vine. Was it possible? Was it about to flower? You know the answer – yes. Last night I was treated to my first flower opening at night on the moon-vine.


Although I still have a little ways to go in terms of recuperating from the tonsillectomy, I think I’m just about there in terms of re-uniting with the garden. I’m now much more interested in going out each morning to check on the garden and look at the dahlia’s progress. My bonus track? In the evening, I’m looking forward to going outside to see the beautiful blooms on my moonflower vine. Absence definitely made my garden grow (somewhat out of control) and it also made my heart grow fonder.

by Emily Stashower, Behnke’s Guest Blogger

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this piece, and wishing you a continued recovery. I suffered an injury to my hands this summer and then a car accident, so I relate to that sense of depression and disinterest. Glad some beautiful surprises perked you up!

  2. I’m so sorry to hear of your obstacles to enjoying the garden this summer and wish you a speedy and thorough recovery, Lynn. The disinterest in my garden took me by surprise and it was a while before I reconnected to the feelings of pure enjoyment and excitement. I hope that you, too, find some gorgeous surprises that reconnect you to nature and its healing powers.

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