September 10, 2008
...when the clouds broke, and the parched earth drank, even the grass plumes were once again fat and happy.
After over a month with nary more than a spit or two of moisture from the sky, I'd begun the process of culling the weak and needy. Beginning with the annuals which I knew would be headed for the compost shortly anyway, I made my 'Sophie's Choice' of who would go and who would be given another day's reprieve.
For weeks we'd been teased with eagerly anticipated prognostications of precipitation. (Try saying that three times fast). The darkening clouds would roll in and blot out the sun's searing rays which continued to bake right through the layers of mulch and dry the soil beneath. Winds would kick up, sucking out whatever moisture remained in shriveling, wilting leaves. The cloying humidity smothered plants and prohibited my pathetic attempts at simple tasks like deadheading. It's hard to do much of anything in the garden when there's an elephant standing on your chest flogging you with a wet towel. But, the tease of rain would be just that: a sadistic taunting followed by a quick return to New Jersey's version of the Sahara.
I'd just about exhausted the paltry remnants of water in my rain barrel. No longer could I see water glistening beneath the screened lid. Now when I lifted the lid, all I could hear was the echoing "plunk" of condensation that dripped from the barrel's inside walls and slapped into the every-lowering water level below.
The daily triage of hose dragging to water perennials in distress and the meager remains of potted annuals, became mandatory and more loathesome as temperatures increased. As any thrifty, water-harvesting organic gardener might have considered, I pondered if I should have collected the sweat dripping from my brow, smearing my glasses and running down my chin to at water at least one small plant or two. But if I'd leaned over that long to catch the droplets, I'm fairly certain the garden would've started to spin, my knees buckled, and the chipmunks would've quickly taken up residence next to my prostrate body and under my garden hat . In my garden, if anything lays immobile long enough, one of them will surely stake squatters' rights. "If you lay there, they will come" and begin storing sunflower seeds and acorns in your ears.
But, mercifully, the rains finally did come. When moisture is bottled up in clouds that long, teasing the air for weeks on end, it's release explodes in of a single huge, pelleting deluge. The sky continued to drain itself in sporadic bursts over long days or steady downpours each night. The drenching sheets of rain hurled and crashed onto the dry earth- bowing, bending and breaking the already-stressed, tall stems of helianthus, physostegia, cosmos, cleome and gomphrena. It splayed open clumps of joe pye weed, spirea, phlox, boltonia, ornamental grasses just beginning to sport fluffy heads and lay prostrate on the ground soil-splashed arching buddleia panicles. Paths were blocked with toppled stems of tall ageratum and bulbous-headed crested cockscomb. But, I didn't care. Free watering was free watering, and sometimes a few plants must incur some damage for the others to survive. And there was a sense of renewed security in the knowledge that the rain's force and speed sluicing down the gutters had filled my waiting - empty - rain barrel once again. I breathed easily at the thought of not hearing that sad "plunk" any longer while also hearing the near-audible sigh of relief from my thirsty garden charges.
Yet my glee and relief was soon overtaken with overwhelming guilt that my area's good fortune had caused countless misfortunes for those in other parts of the country who'd been victimized by a seemingly endless onslaught of hurricanes and devastating storms. No sooner had waters subsided in those areas, another monstrous whirlwind would barrel up from the Caribbean making land along the eastern or western gulf shores. It was the remnants of one of those tragic storms that was at that moment filling my rain barrel and reviving my garden. Although relieved for my garden and for my body which, at least temporarily, wouldn't have to endure baking sun and exacerbate an aching back and neck by hauling hoses and hefting watering cans, I was deeply disturbed and saddened at the more perishable cost to others. My elation quickly became as deflated and flattened as the plants now strewn in beds and blocking paths. Plants, after all, are just plants.
The storms here came in relays over the next few days. After most had subsided to an occasional, sporadic trickle, I'd do reconnaisance of the battered victims in my garden. The fallen branches and huge clumps of oak leaves on the lawn, I'd leave for my husband to gather. But I knew that if I didn't attempt immediate e.r. of plants pelted down by those rains, they'd continue to grow in that sideways, pseudo-espaliered position we've all seen.
With twine, bamboo stakes, sapling cuttings, and sections of strong-stemmed-but-no-longer-useful plants, I wandered the garden making repairs, propping up the 'keepers' and pulling out those plants that just weren't worth the time and trouble. I was still making my "Sophie's Choice" - only now it wasn't the rationing of water, but its swift overabundance that guided my decisions. As I propped and repaired my garden back to some semblance of presentable life for perhaps another month or so, I couldn't - nor should I have - denied a sense of shame at my comparatively inconsequential concerns for my garden when the shattered lives of humans and animals - decidedly more traumatized by these storms - would need much more than a few bits of twine, some branches and a month to repair their bowed and broken lives.
Everything may be relative. But everything, certainly, is not as replaceable as a plant.