Swamp mallows or hibiscus moscheutos have to be the most unforgivably vulgar of all perennials, more obvious than even than the most tawdry double peony or bearded iris or Jersey girl. I’d never put one near any serious architecture, but in front of my silly Victorian house, they’d be perfect. Unfortunately, I’ve bought approximately a dozen of them over my gardening career and have never seen one reappear in spring–or, as the books will warn you, in very late spring, after sleeping in without having removed any of their make-up the night before.
But there is a house a block up the street from me where nothing much happens, garden-wise, except –get this–on the hell strip in the sandiest soil west of East Hampton, three utterly stunning swamp mallows. The situation puzzled me in the extreme, until one morning, I got up earlier than usual to walk my son to a tennis lesson at the park. And there was a guy tending to these beauties with a hose.
"Man, they ARE stunning," I said to him as I passed by. "How do you do it? They always kick the bucket for me."
"Well," he said sagely, "you have to babysit them for three years. And I mean, babysit them. I actually put a baby blanket over them their first winter. And you have to water, water, water."
Hmmm, I thought, I would like those plants, but I already have three actual babies. A husband, a dog, two cats, and four goldfish. A visiting teenager from Germany. A couple of nice but demanding speechwriting clients. Enough vegetables to fill a 45 by 35-foot garden. And about a thousand plants in my city yard. What all these living beings tend to get from me resembles triage more than babysitting.
Still, I suppose there are certain favorites. My lilies–they tend to get fertilized while other things are ignored. Every spring, I sweep out the fireplace and give all the wood ash to the clematis, which like more alkaline soil and seem grateful.
Actually, I’d like to fetishize my entire garden the way my neighbor does his three swamp mallows. I mean, think how beautiful it would be, if everything were given ideal conditions. But I could only do that if I narrowed my focus radically, and I’m unwilling. I remember reading once about a 65-year old gardener in Pennsylvania who said that at her stage of life, she had no time for fussing, she gardened with an ax.
Interesting question, actually. Where do your ambitions lie? In a few things beautifully grown–or in a big landscape that will inevitably have rough spots?