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Where the Red Fern Does Not Grow

I need to re-invigorate my soil.

I hate gardening, so I fervently wish this was a metaphor. It is not.

Here you see a pretty picture of the loamy dirt bed outside my office. It is rife with azaleas. I show you this to make it less humiliating to show you the NEXT picture, lower down, of the loamy dirt bed in front of the dining room window.

The loamy dirt bed in front of my dining room window has become, over the years, a bush graveyard. The azaleas THERE have been sticking their sad, dry, brown-n-branchy arms up in dead supplication for quite some time.

You have seen my before-after garage pictures, so you know I have, um, a little room for self-improvement in my life. (And I continue to miss Five Full Plates as a driving means of self-improvement)

Which, forget the parentheticals, let’s go into a FULL BLOWN digression here. I am slowly but surely doing ALL the plate challenges, silently, on my own, with gritted teeth. JUST SO YOU KNOW.

Let’s review—here are all the challenges I left incomplete to one degree or another during That Time I Almost Died, or, as I like to call it, The Year of Fail.

1) Organize a significant mess. (DONE! In fact, DOUBLE done: Basement AND Garage! Winwinwinwinwin!)

2) Lose 10 pounds in 10 weeks (In Process – yadda yadda South Beach, yadda yadda Yoga, I have now lost 6 pounds in 4 weeks.)

3) Learn something new. (In process, I am going to learn to REINVIGORATE SOIL, which you are going to help me do and what this entry will eventually be about if I can stop digressing for two paragraphs.

4) Dare myself to do a thing way outside my comfort zone. AND THEN DO IT. (Not yet attempted. I have an idea, though.)

And I am almost back on topic but first I must digress from my digression and say: Sometimes the blog is a curse. I see from the archives the death of the Azaleas was first brought to my attention in February of 2009. Yes. Two years and change since I acknowledged they were dead, which mean, given my well documented ability to SIMPLY NOT SEE things that do not interest me, they easily could have been dead for four. Or heck, it may have died two days after we moved in, which was a good seven years ago… (Don’t you wish you were my neighbor?)

But for two years I have KNOWN, and instead of digging them out, I named them. I called them “The Corpse Hands of the Unrescued Azaleas.” Scott planted a teeny romantical gardenia two years ago, and now that sad little bush has his own name: “The Little Corpse Fingers of the Single Unsaved Gardenia.”

Now you can see in the pic that the Monkey Grass has gone yellow-y brown, so you KNOW something is bad wrong. Monkey Grass is immortal. You have to keep beating it up to keep it from taking over the whole yard like flossy kudzu.

You can’t even kill that stuff on PURPOSE. If you pour toxic, radioactive sludge on it, the monkey grass just bristles cheerily in it’s thick green coat of slime—-sure maybe it grows chitonous wings and starts eating the yard squirrels, but it doesn’t DIE.

SO, this spring I have a project; to pry out the bodies and “re-invigorate the soil” and plant something that won’t die. I know how to do exactly none of this as I loathe gardening.

OH! Yes, Virginia, it is ANOTHER digression: I just noticed that I had all written “reinvigorate the SOUL,” instead of SOIL. Seriously! Excuse me while I tug down my skirt. My Freudian slip is showing.

Which makes me go HMMMM, maybe none of these digressions ARE digressions. Maybe this whole thing WAS a metaphor the whole time without me noticing. Perhaps MY inner soil is getting reinvigorated in the cheerful post-unapocalypse of NOT DYING AFTER ALL; my beautiful garage I CAN PARK IN certainly implies this. My desire to NOW do all the plately challenges (Alone! *SNIFF!*) seems like confirmation.

And now let me tear my gaze away from my enticing navel and ask my most gardeningly inclined best beloveds: What do you do to bad soil if you do not own a horse who might obligingly poo into it? What kind of bush can live in a place where the sun almost NEVER shines?


35 comments to Where the Red Fern Does Not Grow

  • Kenny

    Get you a bag of peat moss and a bag (or 3) of manure and work it all in good with some kind of tiller/cultivator (don’t try it when the ground is hard). You need some small shade-loving bushes in the background in front of the windows and then load the rest of the bed with shade-loving hosta. Done! You’ll be the envy of the block.

  • JulieB

    ” What kind of bush can live in a place where the sun almost NEVER shines?”
    Why does that sound like the beginning of the dirty joke?
    Take this with the grain of salt it merits; my gardening strategy has always been “stick something in the ground. If it lives, it was the right plant. If it requires more care than it gets as I walk past and dies, try something else next time.”
    OK, it’s not that bad, I do make more of an effort, but I’ve never had much luck with rhododendrons, azaleas’ bigger, cool cousins.
    It could be that the spot was too windy, but if everything else is dying, I think your instinct that something is wrong with the soil is probably right. Martha Stewart suggests rotted leaf mulch and mushroom compost, but we don’t have any fancy options like that out here (or at least none I’m willing to pay for) so I suggest compost, and maybe some peat moss.

  • JulieB

    Oh yes, what Kenny said. But if you get manure or manure compost, make sure it’s been rotted before you plant anything, or you will burn up the roots of the plant.

  • Nancy

    Buy some compost and mix a bit in (not TOO much). If you know anyone who composts, you can probably get some for free, or sometimes there are community composting centers, too.

  • JulieB

    AH! Looking at the pictures, I see that the azaleas are in a raised bed. Probably your builder took off all your topsoil and then sold it back in the price of the house. Usually when they do that, they don’t put enough back, and the plants don’t have enough good dirt. I live east of White Pines State Park. Can I grow a White Pine, a native species, in my yard? Nope.


    I have to buy PRE-ROTTED compost?????

    That sounds….zombie-ish.

  • Melissa Montez

    Try blending up your fruity and vegetable-y food scraps and pour it into the soil. Works miracles with dirt that can’t even support a bug.

  • Go to Lowe’s or Home Depot (whichever flavor of home improvement store you prefer) and buy composted manure (several bags). Put this on the ground where these poor skeletons previously resided and “stir” (takes more effort than that, but you get the idea). And then do as Kenny mentioned and plant azaleas and hostas. Boom! Instant-ish Garden of Growing Greenness!

    My addition: Then go back to your aforementioned store of choice and buy mulch. Hardwood, shredded is best (imo) and will hold the moisture in the soil so YOU don’t have to water. Yay!

  • Oh, we have the exact same blocks in our retaining walls!

    As for the garden issue, the only thing I could add to the excellent advice you’ve already gotten is that it would be helpful to know if the soil in your area tends to be acidic or alkaline, because that will affect what sort of amendments will help the most. You wouldn’t want to work peat moss into soil that’s already very acidic, for example, unless you’re growing shrubs that REALLY like acidic soil.

  • Kacie

    When all else fails, select pretty outdoor tile and make a patio. : )

  • linda j

    Ok this project is going to take a little bit of research. First off you need to find out what flowers you like and don’t like if not partial to a certain flower then go with color. Then trot on down to the local…(fill in name of place where you go that sells quality flowers and plants). Tell the wonderful people there your situation. Bring pics. There are plants available that you can plant and almost forget, others need alot of upkeep and replanting. Take notes with you too about what area has sun and shade when. Make it a family project. They will help you. One weekend and you will have 2 wonderful areas outside your home.

    If all else fails hire a landscaper.

  • Mit

    lol – I am such a gardening looser I just jumped to Linda J’s last suggestion. Hire a landscaper. Tell him you want “xeriscape” for Georgia. Make him take care of it for 3-4 months – until it’s clear it’s sustainable. Then “no longer need the landscaper’s services” … and have an established plant that grows/lives with minimal intervention. *dusts-off-hands*

  • Since I can kill off any plant anywhere, all I can offer is when you’re digging up the dead spindly fingers, pretend you’re about to bury a body under there, and use the digging as research for how hard it is to dig up plants in order to bury bodies.

    Peat moss, loam, manure, and then follow JulieB’s advice, keep planting stuff until something grows. Best I can suggest.

  • Lulu

    Honey, I’m full up with gardening assvice here.

    Compost, compost, compost. As bare as that dirt looks, I don’t think you’ll put too much on! But don’t put your kitchen scraps just into the dirt — that attracts all kinds of pests (oppossoms! rats! neighbor dogs!) (and, yeah, composted compost is redundant. and repetitive.) Composted manure is good for a fast jolt of fertilizer, but there is a chance of burning the plants. Plain old compost is kinder and longer lasting–and doesn’t smell like manure.

    Consult your local Extension office (through U of GA) for a list of plants that will do well in your gardening zone. http://www.caes.uga.edu/extension/anr/

    (I live in the Inland Northwest — very different climate. F’rinstance, our last frost date isn’t until June 1.)

    Good luck!!

  • Lulu

    Oh, and cultivate friends who like to garden and will come play in the dirt with you! And drink wine while playing in the dirt!

  • Alas, I have no gardening advice to give you.

    But! I do want to tell you how awesome you are for doing challenges AFTER the challenges are done. If that doesn’t say winning then take this imaginary vile of tigerblood to then halucinate and realize you are the winningest of winners.

  • Brigitte

    I tried mushroom compost from the local (now gone) mushroom farm once, but was too dumb to know it still had to sit and stew in its own juices for a couple more years. It was HOT and killed my plants! But after a couple years, it worked great.

    We now have an acquaintance with horses, sheep, etc. that has declared we can come take some poo whenever we want it, he has PLENTY! Perhaps you know someone like that? But again, it would have to compost properly a few years, which is why the pre-composted kind is more for instant gratification. 😉

  • DebR

    I would say go w/ “hire a landscaper” as a first choice, not an “if all else fails” option. You said you hate gardening. There are people in this world who LOVE gardening as much as you love writing, so much they’ve chosen to make it their life’s work. Why not give one of those people some money to make your yard all pretty while you do almost anything else that you would find more fun. Life’s too short to spend any more of it than you truly absolutely HAVE TO doing something you despise if you have another option available!!

  • Peggy Fry

    Hire professionals to come and Make It So (Pretty). Gardening is fun but this is WORK and if you don’t really like it in the first place – you will REALLY hate it afterwards. They should probably do what you see in the things above. Compost is great (and very easy to make on your own – I use the dead leaf sludge that accumulates in the leaf gutters) and mix it up but good. Let the Professionals handle it. Let the professionals balance the soil ph and all that goo, and dig in the dirt. plant hostas and maybe caladiums and/or elephant ears next to the window (pricey but stunning in the hot summer) and bask in the neighbor’s compliments. You do have to take them up in the fall, but you can hire the pro’s to do that too.

    My advice, for what it’s worth.

  • sillyme

    throwing in my “me too” into the ring. I love my gardener/Landscaper. I have serious allergies (the kind that can mean no more breathing for me), but still love a beautiful garden. I give him a budget and tell him he can plant anything he wants as long as:
    1. It fits into the budget and
    2. He realizes that he is the one who has to keep it alive.

    I love my yard. (sometimes it’s better to love it through the windoww, though)

  • Jill W.

    I agree with the “hire a professional” contingent. I hate gardening. I admire people who do it, but I can’t stand the thought doing it myself. Just reading the comments from the real live gardener people about digging, and ph, and mulching, and notes, and zones makes me tired enough to take a nap.

  • Jill W.

    Hey… My monster changed! I don’t knwo how I feel about the new one, although she really works as a representation of the alarm I feel at the idea of gardening…

  • I love gardening. But I can live with my mistakes, and I don’t care what the neighbors think of my pitiful attempts. But if you hate it, then definitely hire someone who can make it happen. Then you can just enjoy the results!

  • *sigh* Does it tell you much about my particular mental illness that I am envious of your gardening challenge? It would be fun! A fun Saturday’s worth of work!
    But then again, I could just be pining to escape from the mountain of tasks around here that are threatening to avelanche upon me. What I really need is a task with a retaining wall. Borders. At first I wrote “boarders” but LORD, do I not need boarders.

  • Er…and what I MEANT was GOOD JOB, with all the ACHIEVING THINGS! Heh. Not more complaining about my life.

  • Carrie (in MN)

    Yeah, I would either hire someone or, as someone notes above, go to a local nursery (not Home Depot or Lowes because those will be staffed primarily by pimply-faced teenagers who don’t know their azaleas from their petunias) and throw yourselves on their mercy to help you pick plants for your particular spot. There’s no such thing as too much compost and I’d go the easy route and buy bags of composted manure. I also agree about getting your soil pH tested. Usually alkaline leaches off of house foundations and since azaleas like acidic soil, that may be part of the reason they didn’t do well. Best to figure out what your soil is and buy plants that like it, rather than trying to “fix” the pH of the soil to cater to the plants. Again, ask your local plant nursery whether they do the soil testing (or, more likely, ship it off to the extension service for a small fee) for you.

    Other design tips: pick a couple of different plants/shrubs you like and use multiples – three or multiples of three; I know you’re not a flower-loving girl, so look for different colors or textures; think about including something that keeps its leaves in winter so it isn’t totally bare.

  • Jeaneva

    Step 1: You need a tarp…one of those blue or brown ones. Spread it down next to and abutting the (presently pretty ugly) azaela bed. Have Scott (!) plunk down a foot on one side and you plunk yours down on the other… to hold the tarp tight.
    Step 2: Give a rake to each of your children and have them go at it. Rake all the UGLY onto the tarp. If they are wearing garden gloves (hint, hint) have them rip dead plants out by the roots. Have them comb their fingers through the grassy stuff and pull off the dead.
    Step 3: Trim back the azaelas and hope for the best.
    Step 4: Have Scott(!) pour a few bags of dirt on it. What kind? Really!? Whatever is cheapest or on sale of course. Oh! And your contribution will be pulling out a scissors to neatly open the bags of dirt.
    Step 5: Let children with rakes have at it, spreading the dirt around.
    Step 6: Sprinkle some fertilizer around the plants yoy’ve kept
    Step 7: Scott(again) empties bags of pretty brown or red mulch on it. Bags that you have kindly scissored open.
    Step 8: Let children with rakes get it in place.
    Step 9: DONE! Go drink some wine and admire your hard work!
    HINT: Azaeleas likey like love coffee grounds!!
    HINT: Use cypress mulch, NOT pine. Scorpions like pine mulch. Nuf said.

  • Kati

    Try hostas. They love to lounge in the shade.

  • I have no gardening advice, but I DID want to say how GLAD I am that you FAILED to die. That was a good, good call. In the process of FAILING to die, you actually had to WORK to live, so I think your Year of Fail was rather successful.

    That AND the alive azaleas you have look great–Formosa if I’m not mistaken. We have about a gazillion of them in our yard. That is hubs forte. Not mine.

    (And also. . .did you get my “it’s a small world” and snail mail addy combo e-mail? Sent last week, but I NORMALLY do no correspond with you other than in comments which is just, after all, commenting–so I’m not sure as to the shelf-life of replies. 🙂

  • gilly

    I have to agree with the advice to get a professional. You don’t need a grand designer but someone who can do the digging and mixing in of the compost etc and plant the plants that y ou have found out that you enjoy the look of by going to a gardening centre and asking them to show you.
    You do need to know if the area gets water or stays dry as a bone
    Tell them you want a low or no maintenance garden
    Hostas are great for the shade but there a lot of others.
    I live North North in Canada so can’t give you that kind of advice.
    I want to add that I LOVE gardening.
    However, after I had my hip surgery i was not allowed to garden for a year and then minimal the next. The weeds came and looked around and said hey, let’s settle down and get busy being fruitful and multiplying.
    When i was able to get into the garden again it was too much and i hired someone to clean it all up for me.
    You do not like it and neither it seems does the One True Scott.
    So let someone who likes it and knows what to do do it and you get on with writing your glorious books, or some other engaging task

  • If you have a horse barn or stable any where near you then they probably have “matured” manure. It’s compost from the pens that has been left long enough to cure into usable compost without burning the plants. We get ours from the GA National Fairgrounds.

    That said hiring someone to do the work is NOT cheating and is still working. You have to investigate and find someone who knows what the heck they are doing. Talk to your neighbors and see who they use. Follow the advice of the your other commenter. Tell the landscaper that you are willing to put in no work and they plants have to be self-sustaining.

    It will look great.

  • So, this is going to be kind of a strange comment, I think.

    I originally read your first sentence as, “I need to re-invigorate my soul.” (Also, being Texan-Alabamian, I pronounce “soil” as “soul”, so it didn’t really get any better as I reread it.) And then I glanced at the azalea picture. And then I ABSOLUTELY KNEW you had just buried a body under your azaleas. Because (A) you’re a murderer like that and (B) you’d put it on your blog after having committed the crime. Obviously.

  • Christine in Los Angeles

    Really not cheating, to hire a professional/lover of gardening, after all, we pay you to write for us, because you are a professional, and do it better than we could.
    Call in the hired guns, and write another book, please Joshilynn-Dear.
    God bless, Christine

  • I just know you are as ADD and impatient as I am. So do this: don’t even compost anything yourself. I do not have the patience to wait a week, much less months, for things to rot and get chummy with worms, etc. Just build up your soil — i.e., pile on a big fat pile of garden soil and compost. I do not even have patience to dig or double-dig or even scrape sticks around in my gardens. So I just pile soil on top of the grass inside my garden boxes. I would do 2 bags soil for every 1 of compost and just sort of mix it up in a desultory way. Then buy a few shady characters (like the new blooms-all-year hydrangeas), plant them in a triangle, add some hostas at the front sides of the triangle, and maybe throw in a few impatiens to fill in gaps. Water daily or so in the hottest part of summer. I amble out back with coffee in one hand and a hose or milk jug full of water in the other and make it rain every morning or so. Although now I have to do this with real clothes on and not PJs now that the empty house behind is is full of nice neighbors.

  • Michelle-who-is-Shelley

    We had to buy new dirt. We are not gardeners, and thus were advised to dig out all of our dirt and BUY new, good, dirt to replace it and then fill the dirt with the most hearty of perennials. It worked, but I can’t believe we bought dirt.