It was 1944. America was at war. Any end to the madness seemed far into the future. Then Johnny Mercer penned these lyrics to a very upbeat song. Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters sang it to the nation:
“You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between”
There, in the face of the losses, the sacrifices and shortages and the uncertainties, bands struck up, radios blared and our parents and grandparents (who came to be known as The Greatest Generation) sang and danced their way out of darkness.
No doubt about it. This pandemic is a negative. We’ve got to accentuate the positive and latch on to the affirmative. About week ago, I was walking down McGilvra Boulevard, in full accordance with social-distancing policies. I spotted my neighbor and friend Michael. “How you doin’?”
He beamed me a big smile from the far edge of his parking strip, a rake and a bucket of pruning tools close by. “My garden has never looked better!” There he was, hard and happily at work, eliminating the negative.
Another friend, Candace, is planting sunflower seeds all over her garden. Quick to come up, easy to grow, given ample sunlight and water, the huge flowers, she says, “affirm my faith in the bounty and goodness of nature.” There’s that word affirm, the root word of affirmative, onto which she had latched.
This is the month when the majority of rhododendrons explode in floriferous splendor. Mid-May is usually the peak. If you have blooming plants, gingerly cut blossoms to take indoors, removing the branches that you want off in order to shape the plants. A rhododendron blossom cluster on a table or counter is a real blues chaser. Once the flowers on outdoor plants fade, deadhead. The sticky petal-less blossom stems should come off before they develop into seed, sapping energy from the plant. With your thumb and forefinger, snap them off, where they’ve emerged from the branch. Be careful not to rub off the new growth buds along the stem, just below. The flowers stimulate positive feelings. The hard work is life affirming.
Mask yourself and walk the neighborhood, taking note of plants you might want to add to your garden. Smart phones make photographing easy. Once nurseries reopen, take the picture in and find out what it is you’ve fallen in love with and order it. That’s investing in the future.
As you walk, make an effort not to miss all the things that are not as attention grabbing as rhododendrons. There are surprises as you discover more subtly flowering shrubs and trees, all the early perennials that will open this month, plus clematis and other flowering vines. The list is enormous. I’ve grown culinary rosemary for years. I find the plant handsome. I like the herb for cooking. I’m slightly chagrined to admit that only this year, I noticed how beautiful it is in bloom, in fact, that it bloomed at all. The generous chains of blue flowers up the ends of the dark green boughs are rhapsodic. The flowers come out in April and last well over a month.
Think about propagation to add plants to your garden. Nothing is quite as satisfying as harvesting a shoot, getting it to root, potting it up in sterile soil, nurturing it through the summer in a container, and carefully setting it out in autumn … to enjoy forever. I’ve cut sprigs of forsythia, fuchsia and sarcococca, stuck them in vases of water just for a spot of greenery on the kitchen table. I’ve kept the water changed and, to my utter delight, discovered roots in a month or so. My garden is full of these bonus plants. I have a special affection for them.
On Memorial Day, I’ll gingerly scatter the third of four annual applications of granular fertilizer around the garden. I’ll wet the garden thoroughly, lightly broadcast a 12-12-12 and then sprinkle the ground again. You can do the same with a top dressing of compost. As I’ve shared before, I fertilize by the holidays: Valentine’s Day, April Fool’s, Memorial Day and the 4th of July. I feed potted plants with a liquid plant food solution monthly or semi-monthly using the mixture at half strength.
If days in May are chilly and soggy, use the time to get your garden tools in shape. Sand the metal parts. Paint the wooden handles. I like to use bright yellow enamel. Lay a tool on the ground while you’re working and it will hide, just for orneriness. But if the handle is a bright yellow (or red or orange) it’s quick to spot, and any frustration will be short. Once the paint dries, put some motor oil on a cloth and wipe the metal parts to slow rusting.
Take pictures of your garden and the discoveries you make on your strolls. Share these with friends. Do a bit of research in the evenings about the things you’ve seen and enjoyed and make your communications sing.
So there’s a start. There’s much to do, much to enjoy in this period of social isolation, which I’ve come to view as blissful solitude. But you must find and accentuate the positive, latch on to the affirmative and chase off the negative. As far as Mr. In Between? Be gone with you! We’re the descendants of The Greatest Generation. We have no time for mediocrity, and we’re gardeners to boot! We’re gonna win this war!