My Rhododendron Days
My rhododendron days are over now. When I was younger, I took great pride in my hedge of them, vibrant in the spring with huge clusters of hot pink and dark orange blossoms. In a warmer climate, that hedge probably wouldn't have taken much work to maintain. Maybe just a little fertilizer and something to keep the soil's pH level more toward the acid side of the scale. But with the northeast's bitter winters, it was a battle for anything to survive.
It took me years to nurture the hedge into something I could take pride in. Two of the first three bushes I planted never made it through the winter, and one of the replacements also died. I augmented the soil, I wrapped them in the fall, and mulched them with pine bark in the spring to retain the moisture.
That second summer, I opened up a 20 foot by 6 foot patch of my back yard and planted an herb garden. It was right outside my back door, and made it really convenient to pop out from the kitchen to get fresh herbs for cooking. All of the books say that herbs are easy to grow, that they thrive on poor soil and dry conditions. Don't believe it. Herbs are a lot of work.
On the year when I made it to spring with three bushes still intact, I decided it was time to add a few more plants. But rhododendrons were finicky, and continued to vex me, year in and year out, until finally, a healthy phalanx of them ranged along the entire front of my house. From that year forward, they seemed to thrive, growing healthier and more lush each year.
The garden shop manager, who I'd often asked for advice, asked me how they were faring. When I told him, he said that their roots had finally reached fertile soil. I argued that it wasn't the soil, they'd just realized that I was too stubborn to beat.
I'd comment on them to Chris, whom I'd tried, unsuccessfully, to interest in gardening. He'd grunt or nod, then go back to his television program or what was on his computer screen. It was clear that my victory over the rhododendrons wouldn't affect his world view.
I felt a tangible sense of accomplishment in having succeeded with them, and heartened by it, I branched out. I opened up my lawn and began a vegetable garden, then a perennial bed. Things began to take shape nicely, and the neighbors would often stop to complement me as they strolled past. Even Chris took interest in the fresh produce from the garden, and he promised he'd help me with next year's efforts.
I'd had such good results with the gardens and encouraged by Chris's offer of help that the following year, I decided to expand them. The rhododendrons were established now, and other than fertilizing them, I left them alone. The side gardens now consumed me.
I converted more lawn into garden, choosing plants that could tolerate the particular conditions on the side lawn, the only place a garden was feasible for me because of the huge maples surrounding the house and the deep shade they cast. The side lawn faces west, and only gets direct sun during the late afternoon when it's hottest. It's exposed to the wind that howls across the river from the north, and gets the full brunt of the frequent thunderstorms that form around here.
In the second year of the garden expansion, I got an early start and by the end of May, I had a full compliment of vegetables coming on and my perennials were beginning to bloom. I remember getting up early one Sunday to weed. A stiff wind was blowing from the south, which was unusual, but welcome as it kept the black flies away.
I went inside around 2:00 for lunch, and when I returned outside, it had begun to get humid and cloudy. I decided I'd done enough for one day and went back inside to watch "Twister." When I heard thunder in the distance, I turned off the television and unplugged all of my electronics. It got so dark that the outside lamps across the street came on, and I went outside onto the front stoop to watch the storm go by.
Within minutes, I knew something was different. I relish thunderstorms, but this was more violent, more dangerous. The air crackled with static, and the wind, usually parallel to the ground, now blew the tops of the trees straight downward. Limbs cracked and leaves swirled, stripped from the branches.
I began to see debris in the distance, hundreds of feet above the ground. Then I saw it -- a dull gray-green tube, swirling in a circular motion, flinging the debris away from its core. I'd seen tornadoes before, but never here, and never this close. It was less than a quarter-mile away.
The silence after it passed was deafening. No bird chirped, no dog barked. It was as if all the world held its breath. After that long moment passed, sirens erupted, and I wondered how bad the damage had been. The electricity was out, so I couldn't turn on the television or radio to find out what had happened. I immediately grabbed my cellular phone and tried to call Chris. He and his mother had gone to mass earlier, and I had no idea where they were now. But "all circuits are busy," announced the recording, and I couldn't get through.
When I went outside to look around, I discovered that the gardens had been decimated, flattened to the ground. Tall stalks of lillies and delphiniums had been snapped off and strewn across the lawn, and all the baby vegetables I'd nurtured so carefully were scattered over the ground.
The damage to the gardens had dismayed me after all the work that had gone into creating them. But at least I could take comfort from the fact that my prized rhododendrons had not been touched. By fall, I was exhausted. It seemed I had done nothing that summer except work in the gardens. I looked forward to a restful autumn.
One November afternoon, I returned home from work to find excavating equipment all over the yard and police cars in the driveway. I walked to the house, dazed, and was confronted by a sheriff's deputy with a search warrant.
He told me that the man who'd lived here before me had been arrested for rape in Kentucky, and in the course of the interrogation, had confessed to murdering his wife and three children, dismembering them, and burying them around the house before disappearing in the middle of the night, stiffing my landlord out of three months' rent.
Their excavation took weeks. The wife and one of the children were found beneath my rhododendrons; another child beneath the perennial bed. After everyone finally left, I filled in the huge holes they'd left and was reseeding the bare dirt as the first snowflakes of winter drifted to earth.
I suffered a bout of severe depression that winter. I'd devoted several years of my life to those gardens, and all of that work had been destroyed. Chris tried to cheer me up by telling me he'd help me rebuild them in the spring. But every time I thought about digging in the dirt, I saw myself unearthing the remaining child's pitiful skeleton. I couldn't do it.
So now you know why my rhododendron days are over. I've switched to daffodils and tulips. You see, you only need to plant those six inches deep.
Props to the CHPercolator list for the prompt