What’s in Store for 2021 That Could Top This Year?

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The little gingko grove in Salvisa, Kentucky. Rose Cooper photo.

I am reading Julian Barnes’s rollicking and upending book about death, entitled Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Well, I am frightened. I don’t dwell on death, but the end is nigh—of this growing season at the very least. We had our first patchy frost a week ago.

I am trying desperately to gain a little control over reality.

Some things are simpler than others.

I ritualize fall garden cleanup by doing nothing.

Little tommies. Crocus tommasinianus. Shutterstock photo.

And then there is the backstory on both garden and life.

Bacterial wilt squashed late zucchinis, and the proverbial hill of beans never amounted to much.

While the threat of Covid is being downplayed, it continues to pick up steam again.

I hope the next few months don’t do us in.

There is a lot at stake.

For instance…

The health of the President.

The election.

And uncertainty about the widespread availability of a Covid vaccine by spring.

One thing seems certain. The annoying 17-year cicada will return to Kentucky sometime in May.

Chrysogonum ‘Superstar’ (Norman Singer’s form).

Cotton balls muffled weeks of painful droning cicada racket for me last go-around. The resurrected adults, dormant in the ground for 17 years, chiseled into tender new growth of trees and shrubs. I’m going with ear buds and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band to help maintain sanity next spring.

Keep your chin up.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on campaign promises, but I have seven plants that I don’t expect to go wrong, or create chaos, for me in 2021. A few could be standouts for you.

Plant as many Crocus tommasinanus as you can afford this autumn. Don’t be shy—a dozen, a hundred or a thousand. They’re unbeatable. Many of the showier crocus species are fodder for squirrels. Not this one. The Ursuline Campus on Lexington Road in Louisville has thousands of lavender-colored “tommies” in bloom every early March. I kiss winter’s ass goodbye when they open. The bulbs are small, and it’s tricky to figure out the top from the bottom, but it’s OK to plant them on their sides.

Rose keeps pestering me to plant more Virginia bluebells (Mertenisa virginica). This involves judicious thievery. Every April we walk through a beautiful, species-rich woodland in Prospect, KY that used to be Rose’s grandmother’s homeplace. Bluebells have pinkish buds that turn blue and flower with toothworts, rue anemones, dog-tooth violets and the early, maroon-flowering Trillium erectum. At the family cemetery, I devotedly pinch a few bluebells each year for planting at home with wild ginger and Mayapples. Virginia bluebell seeds ripen within a month of bloom and self-sow around our shade garden. The bluebells soon go dormant, once the temperatures heat up into the high 80s. I’m not ready for dormancy myself until we hit the 90s.

Virginia bluebells. Mertensia virginica.

Chrysogonum virginianum ‘Superstar’ (Norman Singer’s form) is my go-to green and gold. Some of you may wonder what’s wrong with Chrysogonum ‘Allen Bush?’ Let me be honest. It’s a clunker. I don’t have the brand name recognition that POTUS has, but like many Trump-branded businesses, the cultivar ‘Allen Bush’ is overvalued. It was, however, kind of nurseryman Andre Viette to distinguish my namesake from another cultivar he grew, named for his son, ‘Mark Viette.’ While both are good groundcovers, they don’t have dark green foliage or the proliferation of perky golden blooms like ‘Superstar.’

The Oxford orphanage plant is a perennial in need of a home. Please adopt this durable, long-blooming aster relative. Your kindness will be rewarded with an abundance of semi-double-white blossoms that begin in June and don’t shut down until frost. I was given a piece in 1982 by the legendary gardener and author Elizabeth Lawrence. She called it Asteromea mongolica. I could find no justification given for the name. Eventually, Pamela Harper, author and gardener, figured out that the proper name was the equally clunky-sounding Kalimeris pinnatifida ‘Hortensis.’  So be it. If you don’t believe this Allen’s recommendation, take it from another Allen—Allen Armitage: “If gardeners are confused about what plant to begin with, I usually recommend this one.”

Oxford orphanage plant. Kalimeris pinnatifida ‘Hortensis’.

I thought the heirloom ‘Mr. Stripey’ would steal the best tomato honors in our vegetable garden this year. What a fine slicer he was, but ‘Black Cherry’ tomato stole the show. Jamie Dockery gave me small plugs of this delicious heirloom and a newer yellow fruited selection, aptly named, ‘Chef’s Choice.’ A late freeze in mid-May knocked out any hope for my first tomato sandwich by July 4th, but ‘Black Cherry’ ripened six weeks after planting new plugs. I was thrilled with my first tiny tomato sandwich of the season. From then on, I would graze on these juicy fruits every time I walked by. I had to grab them fast. The raccoons took a shine to them, too.

The littlest tomato sandwich of 2020.

I may be heaped with scorn for recommending a native annual called the Redwhisker clammyweed. I can take the heat. Sarah Owens, gardener, artist, teacher, world traveler, baker and James Beard award-winning author, gave me seeds several years ago. Sarah thought it was an unadulterated, wild cleome species. So did I. Like cleomes, this annual flowered non-stop and self-sowed adventurously. The PictureThis phone app brought a bit of clarity to the true identification. Polansia dodecandra, an 18” tall species, is native to a wide swath of North America. It blooms all season long. I pinch the old blooms, and many of the seedpods, to encourage new blooms and to prevent a flood of clammyweeds the next year.

Redwhisker clammyweed. Polansia dodecandra.

There are only a few weeks left before the gingko leaves will cover the ground like a golden robe in a single day. I pay homage every October to an extraordinary gender-bending hermaphroditic gingko in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery. Ash trees have taken a pounding from emerald ash borer. Walnut canker is out there, while laurel wilt threatens sassafras and spice bushes, but Gingko biloba has stared down atomic bombs and will be tough to take down. I’m excited about our new, little gingko grove, but Rose is impatient. She asks, “How long will it take before your grafted ‘Autumn Gold’ buggy whips amount to anything?” I answer, “Baby, you can’t hurry love.”

The historic, hermaphroditic Gingko at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, KY.

I hope your excitement for gardening continues to flourish in 2021 as it did last spring. Don’t be frightened, as Julian Barnes would say—at least not about this.

Tell me what vegetables, annuals, perennials, bulbs, trees or shrubs will guarantee your happiness in 2021.