I can’t remember which of the many gardening books I was reading the day I jubilantly came across the statement, “If you can garden in the Mid-Atlantic you can garden anywhere.”
My self-satisfied smirk widened further when I realized that the author wasn’t even a Mid-Atlantic gardener himself. This gave his words great gobs of credibility – for what gardener doesn’t insist that they have it worst of all?
It also went a long way toward appeasing the little voice inside my head which often murmured, “Why haven’t you got the hang of this yet?”
In many ways of course, we are blessed. We have a long growing season, and when friends in Denver are brushing the snow off the greenhouse door, we are well into the joys of spring’s bounty. When our cousins in North Dakota have stocked and shut the root cellar for the season, we are still doing magical things with tomatoes. For your average Joe Gardener, the season lasts from March to October, and for triple A personalities with greenhouses and creativity in their back pockets, it can certainly last longer.
Our blessings continue with average annual precipitation levels hovering around the 40 inch mark, and decent soil composition making up much of the region – a region which technically runs from as far north as New York state to just south of Norfolk, VA.
Yes, on the face of it, life should be made in the shade for a Mid-Atlantic gardener with a pocketful of seeds, a trowel and a dream.
But of course, that’s not the whole story.
And I’m afraid the whole story starts with deception.
I’m not too proud to say I fell for it – better men have. As a West coast transplant with much time spent in England, I was lured in by summer thunderstorms, Kew Garden-esque springs, green hedgerows, firefly summers, stone houses and of course, a burgeoning wine industry.
From the outset, it looked like we had settled in the best of both my worlds:
We could enjoy a sunny summer’s day, experience a brief summer downpour, then finish enjoying the rest of the day knowing our rain barrels were filled and our BBQ wasn’t ruined.
We could take a day trip to a point of historical interest with a full tank of American gas prices – which then made it possible to buy a bit of lunch and a souvenir when we got there.
We could revel in the glory of spring in the way that those from our childhood homes in the evergreen Sierra Nevada mountains could not – experiencing full winter devastation to glorious spring awakening in two weeks flat.
And it was that last bit – as a gardener – that really got me. I started each season – every season – believing I was back in an English climate – the winter having erased any memory of punishing heat, flying insects and dreaded humidity; and the frosted hedgerows and fields making it clear that wherever I was, it wasn’t California.
Of course the Kate Moss of garden porn that I was consuming over the winter months didn’t help. Nor did my belief in the USDA Zone map, which only concerned itself with just how bad winter was going to get in a neighborhood near me; NOT how winter hardy plants were going to survive Dante’s Inferno in what passed for August in the Mid-Atlantic.
So I would begin the season with delphinium and end it bitterly with chrysanthemum, always certain that this particular season had been unusual…that this particular season had suffered from some sort of neglect on my part…that this particular season would be greatly improved next year.
Year after year.
A turning point for me came several years ago, when I met the garden author Pamela Harper – a British ex-pat gardener who had lived and gardened on the coastal plains of Virginia for more than forty years. One of her books, Time-Tested Plants (Timber Press, 2000,2005), was a revelation to me, and helped me to start gardening for the climate I was experiencing, not the one that was being promised in the first two weeks of May.
Why did this book get through to me where other Mid-Atlantic gardening books had failed? Harper’s perspective. She wanted to grow the same plants I wanted to grow – but either had to substitute other, better suited species, or adapt via different cultivars. When it came to old English favorites like delphiniums, she contented herself with spire-like perennials such as Erythrina herbacea (Coral Bean) or enjoyed annual larkspur. Instead of watching traditional campanulas falter under intense heat, she grew C. garganica instead and enjoyed a carpet of bloom in May and June (BTW – C. glomerata is also a terrific choice for us).
Through her numerous examples, I slowly came to garden for a Mid-Atlantic climate. Which, while not without intense challenges and fluctuating seasons, also brings great joy to gardeners who wish to grow their skills.
Certainly I could dispense with the gnats, and if global weather patterns suddenly erased the humidity, I would not shed a single tear; but I have come to appreciate the wealth of water…the sunny skies…the hot summers that make roadside verbascum come to life. I adore the many shades of green, and conversely enjoy the many shades of brown come winter. And autumn? Well autumn is a book unto itself around here, and to be quite rightly envied in other parts of the world.
I have finally come to terms with the fact that some years I can grow foxgloves like an RHS prizewinner and some years my succulent troughs think they’re sitting on a California veranda. But I also know that, through it all, the Echinacea will thrive and there will always be wild-hunted mushrooms for autumn tables.
When you move, it takes time to establish what your new normal is. I think that the most interesting thing about the Mid-Atlantic is, there isn’t one. That’s the challenge. That’s the fun.