Partial to Home: Gardening after dark


Birney Imes



This time of year when I can't sleep, I put on my headlamp, go into the backyard and wander around in the garden. There is something otherworldly about all this natural beauty shrouded in darkness. 


By night there is a different cast of characters, odd moths, slugs and flying insects attracted to the light. 


Debbie Lawrence once called my garden a "thug garden." I'm assuming -- though didn't ask -- she was referring to the plants and not to the gardener. Most are the pass-along variety and are aggressive spreaders: spiderwort, perennial sunflowers, Mexican petunias, four-o'clocks, blue-black salvia, cannas, morning glory, cypress vine. 


Soon it will be a lovely tangle of color. 


New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, in a recent piece about the graduation of his daughter from the University of Southern California, acknowledged the foolishness of his harsh reaction years ago when one of his daughters, who had been accepted to Yale, was considering a less prestigious school. "One of the pleasures of growing older," Cohen wrote, "is the shedding of ambition." 


As a gardener I'm perfectly fine planting something that won't be beautiful until year after next. With the exception of a sprinkling of tomato cages, my efforts are devoted to flowers. 


Oftentimes during these nocturnal forays, I'll pull a few weeds. There is something deeply satisfying about that simple act. Often I'll spot something to add to the to-do list: cut cannas afflicted with leaf rollers; transplant zinnia seedlings, pull morning glories that are climbing on the tomato cages. 


Oliver Sacks, the celebrated British neurologist and author who famously postulated "the brain is the most incredible thing in the universe," found gardens (and nature) effective therapies for his patients. 


"I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains," wrote Sacks, "but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication. 


"In forty years of medical practice," Sacks continues, "I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical 'therapy' to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens."  


On the other hand, my grandma Eunice believed there was no malady known to man that couldn't be cured by soaking in a bath of Epsom salts. 


Apparently Epsom salts is good for your garden, too. This according to "365 Days of Gardening," a day-by-day guide that is catnip for the gardener. A gardening friend, the late Melchie Koonce, first told me about this book, which espouses the "waste not, want not" style of gardening Melchie embraced. 


Douse your tomatoes with Epsom salts (2 tablespoons/gallon water) and they will grow faster and ripen earlier. 


This bit of advice comes from the May 19th entry, which also advises gardeners not to throw away old shoes, rather place them in the garden to deter rabbits and save your children's plastic sleds to haul compost, mulch or debris. 


Thumbing through Melchie's book I've happened upon a gardening credo that fits my style. It comes from the late Henry Mitchell, who wrote a gardening column for The Washington Post and before that worked with former MUW professor Wild Bill Sorrels at The Memphis Commercial Appeal. 


"If we persist, I do not doubt that by age 96 or so we will all have gardens we are pleased with, more or less."


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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