My father (1921-99) was a sage. Not the horticultural kind, but the philosophical sort.
He faced life with a well-stocked arsenal of wise truisms that could be applied to multiple situations. Two, among them: “Often the most difficult people make the most interesting friends,” and “With the most fragile violins you can make the most beautiful music.”
Fast-forward to 2018.
My friend Lynn Frink asked me to help her make a container garden on the deck of her new lakeside condo at the north end of Madison Park. I selected a group of large pots, and a few smaller ones, which could be clustered in the two outside corners of the deck, where they’d get maximum light, leaving room for a small table, four chairs, and a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi nestled a bit above it all. I figured we needed a saint, if for no other reason than to remind Mrs. Frink to water, feed and groom her collection of pots.
She’d moved from a neighborhood house with a generous in-ground garden, which would tolerate a bit of neglect that a potted garden could not.
Combing though the selections offered at area nurseries, I spotted an enticing shrub with masses of tiny cream and evergreen leaves and faint pinkish margins on a twiggy structure.
Myrsine africana “Scarlett Marglin,” commonly called African Boxwood. Visually, it would bubble up like a little geyser. A shrub, which grows from 3-8 feet in height, it gets luxuriously bushy, thriving happily in light shade, tolerating some drought. Overall, this little-known treasure is considered easy to manage.
That radiant foliage would light up the garden, making a bright background for pots abloom with summer begonias, a hardy fuchsia, ferns, hellebores and even a couple of pots of hostas with dramatically colorful leaves. I even found the perfect container, a 3-foot-long, 18-inch-wide and deep terra cotta rectangle that would fit right along the brick wall surrounding the deck.
But there was a problem.
According to the tag, the plant was only hardy to 20 degrees. “Dang!” I thought. “Nice idea, but why take the chance? Our temperatures can dip that low.”
That’s when I felt the clamp of a hand on my shoulder and heard the voice in my ear.
It was Dad.
“Look kid, that plant is exactly what you want. The roof over the deck, which is the floor of the unit above it, will shelter that African Boxwood from the coldest overhead temperatures, and the brick of the building will keep it all from freezing. Go for it!”
So I did.
You’ll remember last winter. Snowy, with prolonged drop in the thermometer, and days where the brutality of the season was not mitigated with cloud cover. I fretted, making regular forays to examine the plant.
Dad was right!
That African Boxwood flourished. As the year warmed and marched on, it is doing everything I hoped it would; in fact, so vigorously, that Mrs. Frink has suggested pruning it back. Ha! Over my dead body.
So, there’s a tip here about a wonderful plant.
But there’s more.
If you have the right conditions — a micro climate, as it is called — this and other tender plants can flourish. They’re well worth the risk. And, to paraphrase my father, often the most fragile plants can make the most stalwart garden focal points and the most beautiful music in your garden.