Sunday, July 13, 2014

Deadheading (flash post)

I think (in the garden)
therefore I blog

Today's project: cutting back the dried up blooms in my flower bed before they go all the way to seed. The practice, known as deadheading, is one I learned from my mother, who found she could assign me to the pansy bed and ask me to pinch off the wilted flower heads with their thin stems. Pansies, she told me, are called "little kitten face" in Chinese. Sometimes I filled tiny vases with pansy bouquets. Generally, I objected less strenuously to this task than to others, such as yanking out the ivy runners infiltrating the lawn to prune them back. "If that's so important to you," I spat in preteen indignation, "then do it yourself!" (The line requires exiting at a run. Apparently, I still feel a little bad about it.) 

My mother's connection to China goes back to her birth in Suzhou, where her parents served as Methodist missionaries until they fled the Japanese invasion in 1939. Her connection to deadheading comes from her father, primarily, who gardened in the yard around my grandparents' Tenafly, New Jersey home. The deep, shady backyard was a late spring paradise of blossoming dogwood, impatiens, azalea, and rhododendron: white, pink, salmon, and red against lush green and delicate tree bark.

My main backyard activity in Tenafly was the trolly swing Gramp hung across the full width of the yard behind the house between two tall trees. With handles and a seat, the trolley hung as a vertical line from a metal wire and ran on two grooved wheels, making a squealing noise as the rider went forward toward the opposite tree at high speed and backwards, slighly more slowly, to the start. At that point we had to hop off and give the next sibling or cousin a turn to climb up the step ladder and hop on. 

The other backyard pleasure was a cloth hammock strung between two trees perfectly distant from one another. Alone, or with a companion, we rocked back and forth. We played ship. We wrapped ourselves completely within the darkness of the fabric and let ourselves be flipped round and round from the outside. Over time, Gramp noticed we had caused the sturdy S-hooks to bend out of shape.

I expect we ate corn on the cob and spat watermelon seeds into the bushes. I bet we played tag and croquet. But what I remember is the trolly, the hammock, and the impressionist painting look of the grove of blooming bushes and trees in early summer.

The point of deadheading, according to Gramp as my mother tells it, is "to frustrate the plant." That is how you keep it blooming, keep it working toward its reproductive mission. Even my snail-nibbled, mildewed yellow coreopsis will bloom longer after I've trimmed these browned stubs back.

Coreopsis, pre-deadheading.
Gramp also advised removing suckers from plants, like the side branches on tomato plants that steal energy from the primary fruit-bearing stems. They look a little like a new arm trying to grow out of an armpit. The biggest pumpkin plant has a few suckers already, but I'm leaving them alone. The plants are tenuous this year. Maybe that would be an argument for eliminating side spurs. At this point, I'm eager to see survival, so I will let them be. Ten years ago, in the inaugural summer of Simon's pumpkin, the ur-pumpkin was already bigger than a softball by mid-July. There's still time before the fall frosts, of course, but I'd say this is the week for these plants to act like the garden is all theirs.

The biggest pumpkin plant, growing one leaf at a time.

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