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Admirable garden more than flowers

Admirable garden more than flowers

Posted: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 8:00 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams

The Messenger 02.21.12

Special to The Messenger
As long as the flak is going to fly, with much of it whopping me upside the head, I might as well be writing a political column. (I want to, but my editors don’t trust me with it.) I mean, whoever heard of a subject so gentle as gardening drawing withering fire? Believe me, it does.
In the years (25 plus!) I have been in this corner I have received everything from polite rejoinders on up (or down) to impolite accostings, cussings even, from some comments I have made on this plant or that which were perceived to be derogatory. Well, shoot, some of them were.
Almost always, I have noted the good points (if there are any) of a plant at hand before advising you, dear reader, to avoid it like the plague when that same plant is so ridden with serious defects as to bring on agony in years to come.
To wit: Bradford pears. They fall apart in 10 or 15 years.
To wit: Lilacs. A week of fragrance doesn’t justify 51 weeks of powdery mildew, dead stems and ugly structure.
To wit: Daylilies. Well, there is up to a month of bloom with them, and the flowers are pretty. Otherwise they are largely poor garden plants.
To wit: Bearded irises. Maybe two weeks of bloom, if it doesn’t rain and smash them to the ground. Then, 50 weeks of endless weeding and fiddling. You can’t spray the weeds away, as the wretched irises are extremely sensitive to herbicides. And on ad naseum.
You get the picture, I hope. It is not the flower, per se, that I condemn on these and other plants, but the other 98 percent of the ball of wax.
A perfect example of what I am saying occurred a few weeks ago as I was speaking to the Northwest Tennessee chapter of Master Gardeners at Martin. A very appreciative audience indeed.
At the mid-session break, one of the attendees remarked that he reads my column on our web site, which initiated a smug, warm glow permeating my heart. But then came the (rather benign, but genuine) accostment: “Why don’t you like irises?” he asked. I sensed a tightness in his throat and a tiny bit of quavering in his voice as if there was boiling just under the surface.
I could have said, “Don’t you know bearded irises are junky crap, sullying up your garden with all that ratty foliage for months on end, and contributing nothing for 50 weeks of the year?”
Instead, I reached into my diplomatic pouch and rather weakly brought out something like: “Well, bearded irises have just about the most sumptuous flowers of any plant outside the tropics, perhaps only exceeded by orchids. I guess I was talking about their value as garden plants.”
It was true, no matter how (un)forcefully I made my point. I might even go so far as to say the bearded iris flower might even win the glamour race against an orchid. Just look as those radiant colors, crinkled falls and brilliant furry yellow beards (from whence the name) lining each of the falls.
None of that, however, compensates for that 50 weeks of nothing (or worse) that must be endured awaiting that glorious reward.
By the way, I have some (a few) bearded irises, either sentimental hand-me-downs from loved ones or those that are remondant and re-bloom in the fall, when the flowers are doubly appreciated. In all honesty, none of them pays adequate rent for the space they occupy. Ditto daylilies. I have received a lot of hate mail on them after deriding their value as garden plants.
Nonetheless, we must have some 20 or more varieties at Tennessee Dixter. Their weaknesses as garden plants is minimized by adroit placement in the back of borders where their average (or worse) foliage is hidden.
Nearly all of mine are older varieties with squinny flowers and narrow petals which would be a disgrace to show-table daylily growers.
Some of them do, however, have the distinct advantage of flowering well after normal daylily time, that is to say August and September, and on very tall stems.  The latter characteristic allows the blooms, in some cases seven feet off the ground, to lord it over lesser things.
So, take it like a man (or woman) when you read here of the weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of your favorite plant. But keep reading and be sure to spell my name right.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.