ATLANTA, Georgia–In August, my pond (which I call Glimmer Pond) is murky with a bright green algae bloom, the water lilies are thick with their chalice-shaped flowers of pink or yellow rising above the glossy lily pads, and heat shimmers above the surface of the water in vertical waves. It is so hot that my white catfish won’t touch their catfish chow at noon but prefer to wait until the sun sets and dusk cools the air a little. Then their bewhiskered mouths open wide and pink, and I can see all the way down to their tails as they vacuum up the chow that floats on the surface.
Although I have a great recipe for breaded catfish fillets seasoned with cayenne pepper and stuffed with fennel, watercress, and parsley, I have yet to eat any of my “pets”. Indeed, I think I never shall. I can always get catfish fillets from the local fish market.
Like the catfish, I, too, wait until the relative cool of the evening to see what weeds need pulling and what herbs need pinching. Often I stay out so late that my husband, David, teases me about being a nocturnal gardener who sees by starlight. Friends know not to telephone until it gets good and dark. My most indispensable gardening tool this time of year is a 44-ounce insulated tub of sweet tea with plenty of ice and two lemon wedges. After dinner, when I start mixing up the tea tub, our dog, Pepper, starts wagging her tail, knowing that we will soon be going outside.
As I trail my hand over the side of our paddleboat, with Pepper joyously crisscrossing the pond in a dog paddle all her own, the water feels tepid. The pondweed that grows under the surface, oxygenating the water for the fish, makes a great mulch when applied to my herb garden. I set out in the boat, armed with a short aluminum rake, and harvest great armloads of it. I have found that few weeds will grow in the garden under a mulch of pondweed, and it seems to make the ‘New Dawn’ roses clambering on the arbor grow at a great rate. I have to work out a few kinks, however, since the pondweed grows long and stringy and after drying turns a bright tan that is not inconspicuous. Perhaps if I nestled the pondweed under the leaves around the bases of the herbs, and then covered it with my usual weathered woodchips, it would work out better.
In Atlanta, gardeners are not concerned with cold hardiness. Instead, it is the heat tolerance of herbs that is put to the test. Day after day of 100°F heat, 100 percent relative humidity, heavy clay soils, and slow-moving air melts away some of the more temperamental performers. For example, good old garden sage often succumbs to root rot, but I replant it each fall in a different spot from before. I have had better luck with the little-leaf sage, planting it in a raised planter alongside some steps, and with this perfect drainage it has returned year after year for about eight or nine years, and rewards me with flowers. The broad, low ‘Berggarten’ variety of sage seems to do well in the South, too.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the object of envy around here. The whole plant can suddenly die, or branches will wilt. This never happens in the winter but only during our stressful summertime heat waves. When planting lavender, I put lots of lime in the soil, along with large quantities of compost and a few shovelfuls of coarse sand; this lightens the clay, sweetens the soil, and provides the good drainage and aeration essential for lavender to thrive around here. Sweet lavender (L. heterophylla) grows very well but can winterkill. Tufted French or Spanish lavender (L. stoechas) grows into huge mounds but also may not be perfectly hardy. Neither is troubled during the summer.
During extended periods of high humidity or daily afternoon showers, I am distressed to see my woolly thymes turning brown in large patches. This can often be stopped by judicious pruning or by a couple of doses of fungicide at one-week intervals. Because of the muggy heat, ‘Silver Mound’ artemisia simply can’t be grown in Atlanta; at least, I’ve never met anyone who grew it for long. Likewise, French tarragon usually declines toward the end of the summer. And sometimes the older leaves of lamb’s-ears trap moisture and turn brown, but they can be combed out to reveal fresh new silver leaves.
Many tender perennials do marvelously well in our climate. Scented pelargoniums of all types have overgrown their bounds, and armloads must be harvested for potpourri and pound cakes. I used to marvel when the scented pelargoniums came back after winter; now I am surprised when they do not. A tiny slip of lemon verbena carried back from friends in Nashville has grown into a generous woody shrub. Our rosemary hedges are surpassed only in Southern California.
And my darling albino catfish are a foot and a half long.