Round Robin: Note from Atlanta, Georgia

Plant Politics

| October/November 1998

Atlanta, Georgia—I’m not a very political person. I’m generally oblivious to even the most dramatic headlines, and I’m a little fuzzy on who the state attorney general or my local representative might be. But even I have noticed a phenomenon among gardening circles lately. Plant one-upmanship is raging in Atlanta.

It seems gardeners are planting unusual herbs and flowers out of sheer perversity. Scentless heliotrope was the first puzzle. I am trying (and failing) to understand the allure; why might a gardener want a ‘Cherry Pie’ heliotrope that isn’t fragrant? Next it seems black single hollyhocks (Alcea rosea ‘Nigra’) are all the rage, instead of the pretty doubles that resemble crumpled tissues. I need enlightenment about the charms of the outsized lamb’s-ears (Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’); after all, they’re too big for making tussie-mussies, so what possible use might they have? And what about the double trilliums and hepaticas that look as if they’re big-time steroid users? Consider the tiny dwarf hostas that folks are making a fuss over—an oxymoron if I ever heard one. I think bigger is better in hostas; give me ‘Big Daddy’, ‘Blue Umbrellas’, or ‘Sum and Substance’ any day.

Never mind that I myself grow the dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris), a 3-foot beauty with a maroon spathe and spadix that stink of rotting meat and attract carrion flies as pollinators. Please overlook the fact that I only grow the white-flowered honesty, eschewing the more familiar magenta-flowered form. And never accuse me of plant one-upmanship, although I now boast of fifty-six species and ­varieties of viburnum and eighty-three iris cultivars.

Perhaps we can agree on compost. Herbs do best in well-drained soil, and when I add a generous amount of compost to my Georgia red clay, the resulting soil is rich and porous and grows great herbs. My compost matures in two piles: the freshly cut garden waste and the nearly ready “black gold”. I use two 11-foot lengths of hog fencing with 3-by-5-inch mesh to enclose my decomposing leaves, spent flowers, and pond weeds. Every so often, I simply unhook the fencing, form a new circle next to the original pile, and fork its contents into the new pile. I monitor the composition of the vegetative waste. Too many grass clippings tend to pack into a wet mat, but rough green branches, herb trimmings, autumn leaves, and the occasional shovelful of garden soil or handful of dolomitic lime keep the pile perking along. Now which rare treasure gets the first batch of finished compost?

—Geraldine Laufer

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