I have received more than a few emails from readers wondering why I haven’t been more active on this blog over the last three months. And for some reason – guilt perhaps – the latest, thoughtful, “Is everything okay?” once answered, did succeed in provoking a painful but involuntary spasm in somewhat atrophied blogging muscles.
As a result, I am now staring at the electronic version of a blank sheet of paper and trying to figure out how to describe recent events in my garden without blowing it all out of proportion.
It is proving almost impossible. I have been bested by this screen three times this week.
So let me attempt the task once more by boiling the explanation down to a simple sentence for the TL:DRs out there: We were recently flooded.
The experience (to use both the vernacular and the vulgar), sucked. It was frightening, stressful, smelly, unbelievable, expensive, inconvenient.…and a mental sucker-punch.
It was also surprisingly freeing. But more on that in a bit.
The thing about disasters is that, modern life being what it is, they are often the last straw on a very tired back. Though I am a writer, the last thing I wanted to do – or indeed had time for – was write about it. And though I am also a blogger, I decided it was best to just let a good crisis (that is to say, content) go completely to waste.
Thus I could post a few photos on the quick-post platforms of Instagram or Facebook with a hasty breakdown of the more stupefying moments, but until I had really absorbed what it meant for the garden, and for me, I didn’t have much to say at all.
🍃Opinion columnist @ahs_gardening 🍃Contributing editor @gardenrant 🍃Advocate for Curiosity, Courage and Joy in garden building. Virginia, USA, Z6b.
The only thing of which I was sure was that no one needed to be subjected to a collection of muck-covered selfies tagged with appropriately viral hashtags and inspiring quotations.
First some needed background:
Our property at Oldmeadow is bisected by a small creek named “Cool Spring” that runs from one end to the other. It is not only a serene, 24/7 water feature that brings great joy to us and the creatures that live here; but it is a useful and extremely valuable resource.
Our well is on one side of the creek and near the house – completely separated from the main (sunnier) gardens by the barn. That means I am often dependent on the creek to water valuable plants and fill poultry waterers during dry spells, though rainwater collection off the barn fulfils most of my needs.
Cool Spring serenely follows our gravel road like something out of a child’s picture book, and connects to Dutchmans Creek about a quarter mile down the road. After another quarter mile, Dutchmans Creek in turn connects to the Potomac River which journeys down to Washington DC, and eventually empties into the Chesapeake Bay.
We have a lot of ash trees. This will become relevant in a moment.
However, I need to rephrase the statement. We had a lot of ash trees. The ash borer made short work of them several years ago. Since that time, we have had twelve trees on the property professionally removed and we have cut down many ourselves; but if you have ever been in the unenviable position of shakily writing out a check to a tree removal service, you know that it is not an activity enjoyed by anyone other than the very rich.
In denser parts of the wood where we can [somewhat] safely let them, the trees stand and continue to rain down all manner of debris.
Meanwhile, 2021 was a dry spring. We had very few soaking rains to raise the water in the creek, wash out the gullies and periodically move that debris further down past our own bridge.
Thus, when a big storm got ‘stuck’ upstream of us, and dumped almost five inches in a few short hours, the creeks and gullies became raging torrents and logs and branches were liberated from their positions to instantly block our bridge. It normally copes very well. The bridge was breached by water that had nowhere else to go on its way to the Potomac but across the open land that is my young garden.
Flood! The good news
Let’s begin with what didn’t happen in a perfunctory attempt to keep that sense of proportion I mentioned earlier:
The house was not flooded. The garage was not flooded. No one was killed. The pets made it. The various animals that we feed and pretend are not pets made it. The vehicles were not washed away and half of the garden was not affected.
Moreover, our stone bridge stood strong under an incredible assault. The hügelkultur-based Serpentine bed I’ve designed both withstood the flooding and directed water away from the kitchen garden.
Each one of these things is miraculous and gratefully accepted. I have reflected upon each of them when I felt overwhelmed these last few weeks.
Flood! The bad news
…is basically my fault. A year before we arrived here, it would have only been a field that was flooded and a bit of the barn.
But the girl had to build gardens. Thus, a fascinating display of Nature’s power and a blip in the lives of neighbors who are normal, becomes a personal tragedy for a gardener who is decidedly not.
Here’s the breakdown:
The pergola, barn and pavilion gardens were completely flooded by two and a half feet of water and subjected to punishing currents containing everything from metric tons of silt to massive 20 foot logs. Many plants and shrubs planted within the last year were swept away. More established small trees & shrubs (under 10 feet) were battered into a horizontal position. A fetid mess of river muck, dredged from miles upstream, was deposited onto every surface.
Along the banks of the stream it was pure destruction. Though our bridge remained fast against what must have been almost unbearable weight, the retaining walls that protected the banks close to the bridge were broken and cast aside. Most plants and trees along the banks of the creek (ironically planted to hold the banks) were swept away. Recently delivered piles of compost and mulch also joined the pool party, and the hundreds of bulbs along the banks were uprooted and thrown to the currents.
New stream banks were created in a chaos of rushing water that left huge networks of mature tree roots exposed, but at the same time established banks were disappeared in places – new “beaches” created where steep banks used to separate land from stream. The woodland garden, originally created by a closed switchback in a flooding event five decades ago, became a network of water paths. To my relief, the habitat nests remained on high ground and were untouched.
Because we acted the moment the water began to pour over our bridge, we managed to save both of our beloved workhorse vehicles that had been parked on the [normally safe] bank. We also managed to save the majority of the new furniture in the pavilion by quickly dragging it to higher ground (which proved not to be as high as we’d thought, but still relatively safe).
The pavilion itself was gutted — emptied of stone, gravel, and all of the wonderful little bits and pieces that make up summer life that we’d hastily stacked on what we thought was a stable table. Croquet sets, lanterns, trays, potted plants and antique ashtrays for the occasional wicked cigar – all swept away and no doubt found incongruous and alone on a river bank between here and Georgetown days later.
Three recently purchased whiskey barrels met similar fates, as did two handmade benches and a surprising amount of ostensibly heavy pots. Perhaps the afternoon’s most stressful event came when one of the pallets that held my flat-packed newly-purchased and much longed-for greenhouse started to float and then broke free – racing down what was once the lawn on its way to the raging river.
A miracle then occurred. The pallet got caught up in the massive newly exposed tree roots on the edge of the bank and teetered there as water and debris crashed over and around it – a bit like those movies where the car sits on the edge of a cliff, tipping back and forth. Salvation or destruction.
After watching it for ten minutes, I could no longer handle the stress and went inside.
Flood! The Aftermath
Once the waters had fully receded a day later and the pallet had been chained to the nearest tree, the rotting smell from all that dredged and deposited muck felt like insult upon injury.
We had been within twenty minutes of leaving for a long overdue but modest vacation. I had been working toward that magical date with an increasingly painful back, knowing that I was hosting two garden tours a few short weeks after we were to return home. The extra effort I had put in felt like that painful sprint you know will be worth it in the end.
Except it wasn’t.
There is the ‘mental sucker-punch’ I was referring to earlier.
I’ve always understood that I’m not in control out there, but I had to come to terms with something bigger – the sobering realization that not only can Nature be exceptionally and instantly destructive, but intensely and arbitrarily unfair. It didn’t matter that I’d pushed through back-spasms to plant things I would never see in bloom. Or that I’d selectively pruned perennials to ensure bloom came just in time for tours. Or that I’d labor-intensively hand-trimmed a pergola full of carex as an experiment to avoid seeing browned foliage.
The new plants were gone. The perennials were flattened. The carex was experimenting with a new kind of brown – a thick layer of silt.
It. Didn’t. Matter.
Flood! The Lessons
So here we are. Six weeks later. I’ve learned a few things.
First, I was pushing myself too hard. That was made enormously clear to me the second I cancelled tours of the garden and immediately felt a profound sense of relief.
Professionally it has been a remarkably busy two years as I researched, wrote and photographed my second book, launched into virtual lectures, settled into my writing duties at GardenRant, and authored a new opinion column at The American Horticultural Society’s magazine The American Gardener…all while tending this large horticultural laboratory and early AM photo studio outside with any and all spare moments.
Oh…and family. That’s right, I have a family too.
Insane by normal standards but apparently not my own. The flood put me in check and forced me to take a deep breath and reevaluate.
As a lifetime high-functioning workaholic, this reevaluation is something I’m used to doing every once and awhile and it is a very good thing; but it is almost always triggered by an obvious kick in the backside, and it almost always takes me by surprise. Someday before I die I’d really like to skip the last part and back off before I’m backed off.
Second, my garden is resilient. Plants are resilient. As if to prove that, I realized yesterday that two of my washed away sweetspires had rooted themselves under the bridge where they had become wedged between a fallen wall and the water. No I’m not going to rescue them.
The carex has been rain-washed free of silt and the flattened pennisetum, panicum and miscanthus are upright and starting to push inflorescences. That troubling silt is not just filled with weed-seeds, but fertile organic nutrients, and the garden may be all the better for it.
Third, my instincts were good as I made my way through the aftermath of the floods and tried to figure out where to best use my limited time and energy. I immediately righted the small trees, cut back fall-blooming perennials like asters and anemones, and pulled inches of silt away from vulnerable trunks and stems. Those plants and trees are looking almost normal now.
It would have been pointless to resurrect crushed annuals, or pick up every last piece of river trash, or start crying.
Fourth, I made the right decisions when it came to raising up beds to direct ground water during heavy rains. What I didn’t know is that they’d also direct flood water from the creek and create a barrier for the rest of the garden. Consequently I’ve shelved the idea of a second pergola to create a courtyard, and will instead be building another hügelkultur-based bed to create a break between river and barn if the unthinkable happens again.
Fifth – and this is far more personal than I normally get – it was a reminder that people don’t always ask for help. Even our closest friends. Even when they desperately need it.
The inability to ask for help has always been a terrible weakness of mine. Though I am glad to give it where I can, I am afraid of taking advantage of the precious time of others by saying ‘yes, please!’ and therefore act like I’ve got it all under control.
I rarely do. And there are so many people just like me.
To friends that offered help, “Can you be here in 20 minutes with alcohol and a shovel?” somehow turned into “Thanks, we’re okay.” Every time.
We weren’t. Going forward, it has strengthened me to try and push down my fear of seeing someone’s eyes widen when I say “Yes! Please come over.” But it has also galvanized me to help my own friends in disaster situations by simply showing up.
Not asking “how can I?” but rather, by saying “Here I am. Put me to work.”
Flood! Moving Forward
My neighbors who have lived here most of their lives say they’ve never seen a flood like it. Perhaps that’s true, perhaps it was a 100-year flood. Another friend sees it as final proof of global catastrophe and can hardly string two words together she is so angry and scared…and helpless.
I don’t have time for that. I’ve only got one life and at best I’m half way through it.
Instead I choose to adapt to the possibility that I must plant and plan for another disaster. Not to worry, but to adapt. Not to stress, but to innovate where I can. How can I make my garden stronger and my plant choices better? How can I prepare? If the worst never comes, then I’ll have one hell of a resilient garden regardless.
I’m surprisingly calm about it, but I think that’s another gift of experiencing a natural disaster – if you’re lucky enough to come out on the other side, you realize how good we’ve got it every day and how remarkably resilient this beautiful planet is.
I’m going to build on that feeling and let it lead my choices – and my garden – moving forward.