Hydrangeas as Cover

Admittedly the news that inspired this post has already wrapped fish and is now likely composting.  I didn’t want this page lying fallow for too much longer and so offer up this meditation on planting spies.

“They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas,” as reported in the New York Times, June 28, 2010

Maybe 15-year old Jessie Gugig was on to something when she joshed that her Montclair, NJ neighbors Richard and Cynthia Murphy, just arrested on espionage charges, couldn’t have been spies because the latter’s hydrangeas were so lush and well tended.

I live in a suburban community much like Montclair’s: solid old houses, yards whose frontage is edged by sidewalk and landscaped by lawn and enough depth for a satisfying number of flowerbeds. We are gardeners all, enjoying daily walks and taking delight in one another’s combinations of monarda, phlox and campanula. Some of us are annuals-only gardeners; others favor perennials, preferences that can tell you much about a person although the distinction never reaches red state/blue state hubris and animosity.

But all of us garden, and all of us pretty successfully.  It’s part of who we are. We are united by this love of digging in the dirt, bringing forth beauty and vegetables. We commiserate over voracious rabbits and trade tips for ridding ourselves of voles. We are thrilled to share a divided hosta or astilbe with a neighbor who’s got a spot of empty shade. Someone once offered me rudbeckia, cheery yet invasive black-eyed Susan that conquers a garden faster than you can say Cuban missile crisis. When I demurred she replied, “Aha, so you’re a true gardener.” We use this earthy pastime as a yardstick of personal preference and acumen, and experience as well. We get to know our neighbors by their gardens. If someone’s good with hydrangeas, that says something about their character.

And so maybe the adolescent Gugig with, her off-hand comment about hydrangeas, intuited something important about commitment to one’s community. Hydrangeas are picky about where they will grow and blossom profusely; they require space, lots of it and a persnickety balance of morning sun and afternoon shade. Only those rooted in their gardens for the long haul take the time to tend hydrangeas, bringing them from nursery pot to mounds of big blowsy plantings whose blossoms are bigger than breakfast grapefruit. Hydrangeas are a magnet to passersby. Anyone wanting to live sub rosa wouldn’t go for hydrangeas but swaths of ubiquitous impatiens, pots of geraniums and petunias. You walk by them, smile and keep moving. Who stops and asks, “What’d you do to those impatiens to make them get so big?”

Gardening is past, present and future. Whenever we garden, a piece of our selves stays behind, mixing in with the decaying leaves of tomorrow’s nourishment.  Our gardens are our refuge, the place where the mind wanders free, dreaming dreams of days to come; taking solace from grief, the sun on our back, the earth pliant and accepting. For twenty-six years I have tended my azaleas.  Some now span six feet wide and five feet high.  Southern gardeners might sniff a “So what?” But I live in Southeastern Michigan.  I’ve babied these shrubs as long as I’ve had kids; each spring they return me to my roots, to the place where the earth is red and the word “yall” is regularly conjugated. Whenever I’ve thought about moving the first thought is always, “But what about my azaleas?” Gardening is not for the rootless. Leaving behind my azaleas would mean leaving behind a piece of myself as well – that self compelled to preserve childhood beauty and heritage.

Gardening attaches you: to your neighbors, to the earth, to the place deep within you where God, nature and creativity meet. When you garden you grow to love the earth beneath your feet and by extension the community beyond; if your hydrangeas are stellar it says this about you too.

Perhaps these wonderful plants, flowering in rose, white and Cape Cod blue, their leaves large, their blossoms round as a cheerleader’s pompoms, were the perfect American cover after all.

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7 thoughts on “Hydrangeas as Cover

  1. Annie

    oh Debra! I LOVED this!!! As I do my hydrangeas. I feel much the same about the continuity and creativity that you so wonderfully expressed. And my first thought, when I think about leaving, is “But who will love my garden? Who will tend it?”

  2. Judi A.

    Debra – you always put into words so well what so many of us think and feel. Gardening is something that becomes very personal and you truly do leave something of yourself behind when moving on. On a recent trip back to MI I drove past the last place we had lived, where I had made a large flower garden in the front of the house. (usially planted with both annuals and perennials) It was still there, perhaps as not well tended, but some of the plants were still standing tall, showing off their flowers that were shining in the sun. It made me smile and, yes, a comfort to me that know that a piece of me is still in that place when I had to return “to the place where the earth is red and the word ‘yall’ is regularly conjugated.”

    1. Debra

      Judy & Judy,
      Great stories both. I am so glad you enjoyed the post. I had so much fun writing it.
      My mom has planted a seed in my head to consider writing a collection of garden meditations.
      I just might. Twelve per season. Challenge would be winter. Not my season. But if the Inuits have
      multiple names for snow, perhaps I can come up with multiple essays on the stuff as well.
      Thanks as always for reading and writing.

  3. Judy Bardach

    Funny you should write about hydrangeas! Bob (spouse of 56 years) fell in love with them perhaps 10 years ago. In all my innocence I went out, bought two plants, did all the obligatory digging, planting, feeding. Didn’t bother to test the soil – the couple of flowers they came with were white, so why should I care about acid/basic? We waited for years for more flowers but the first ones were the last. It became an obsession. We were on a car trip through New England and everywhere there were hydrangeas in full blossom – even in view from the dining room of the very expensive restaurant we stopped at to celebrate our two weeks of pure fun. Hydrangeas everywhere. When we got home we planted a hydrangea tree, and surrounded it with more hydrangea bushes. The tree blossomed stingily but none of the others we had planted with such hope rewarded us..
    Four years later – in our new townhouse – Bob insisted we buy some gorgeous hydrangea for our two little pea patches, front and back, one blue and one a deep luscious pink. Rain delayed getting them into the ground but we’re doing everything right – bought the chemicals necessary to sustain each of their colors. The blue is the first into the ground. The blossoms are losing color and Bob wanted to call the nursery and complain. I tried to remind him that we had bought them at their peak but he’s disappointed. I’m tempted to get out my water colors…

  4. Kay Osborn

    Wonderful piece. It really hit home with me.You know how I love to garden, and after reading this, I will look at my time in the yard quite differently. I am curious – what is a perennial gardener like? You might tell me something about myself that I do not know. It indeed was very difficult for me to leave my gardens in Birmingham, but it was time to uproot and replant myself in the south! It seems to have worked out very well. Take care – Kay

  5. Debra

    Kay and Annie, Thank you thank you for your notes. You two are master gardeners. Kay I know from enjoying your garden all those years and Annie, although I’ve never seen your garden I know from your sister’s stories how wonderful they are. (And sister Shelby’s are no slouch gardens either!) So, my sisters of the soil. Thanks you and happy tilling!

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