Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Best Laid Plans

The Scottish poet Robert Burns has written, "The best laid plans of mice and men, Go often askew." He says that as if it were a bad thing.

Take our Butterfly Garden for example.

When Mars and I bought our house thirty-three years ago that particular spot contained a portion of the low growing, non-flowering, non-identical, green leaved bushes that, formed a border between two other sections of our lawn area.

Then, soon after she came to live with us, this undergrowth became the favorite hot weather, resting spot of Nicole Marie, our Labrador Retriever/Irish Setter mix. At fifty-five pounds "Nic" was able to fit comfortably into the indented area she had created for herself in the cool soil beneath the low hanging branches. She would coil her body into a ball, sigh loudly, bury her nose into the earth, and relax -- while I went about my various gardening chores in that part of the yard. It was her way of helping.

At that time all of our floral gardening was done with annuals. One spring we bought too many of the one-year-wonders and had a few extra plants that were looking for a home. After studiously observing Nic's wear-pattern in the dirt we decided to surround the depression with some shade tolerant Impatiens, hoping to add a little color to the picture of the black dog lying on the brown background.

After that it officially became "Nicole's Garden".

The dog herself immediately accepted the pink, red and white bedding plants and worked carefully to position her body so as to inflict minimal damage when she settled in. Still, in spite of her carefulness, she frequently emerged from the nesting area with several small petals affixed to her short, inky fur -- which she promptly retuned to their earthly home with one enormous, cascading shake of her torso.

The spring after Nicole died Mars and I still planted her garden. But by mid-summer we knew that we needed to do something different with the area. We decided to put in a butterfly garden.

"Decided" actually makes it sound as if we discussed the pros and cons, analyzed what was needed, and determined the best possible way to convert the land its new purpose.

In reality, our son Bram sent us a butterfly house -- an overnight stopping place for migrant Lepidoptera -- but not, we discovered when we researched the subject, an attractant for the colorful insects. For that you need the right flowers.

So one of us said, "Why don't we get rid of some of these bushes?" And the other one of us -- the one who will agree to do pretty much anything that involves digging ferociously in the earth -- said, "Sure".

An hour later several woody plants and their deep-running roots were piled on the grass. I was sitting next to them -- drenched with sweat, marked with scratches, covered in dirt -- and happy.

Mars and I both had careers in Information Technology. So we realized how difficult it was for someone who wanted a custom made computer system to tell a designer, at a sufficient level of detail, what he or she actually wanted their system to do. We would have been like those neophyte "end users" going to see a horticultural technologist. And the resulting garden would have had more "bugs" than blossoms.

So we opted for an "off-the-shelf" garden. That is to say, we showed up at our local nursery, said the words "Butterfly Garden", and all of the necessary plants showed up in our shopping cart.

Chinese buddleias (butterfly bushes), coneflowers, balloon flowers and a wispy white prairie perennial that survived the hostile plains weather by swaying in the wind (something the nurseryman acted out for us with his sun-tanned arms) suddenly appeared in our little red wagon. We planted them. They grew.

A friend also gave me some "butterfly-attracting" Cardinal plants. We put them in too. They were instead "False Dragonheads", a mint-family land-grabber that, to this day, muscles its way into any available space. They flourished. And the bees and dragonflies seemed to like them. In addition we scored a few daisies that we also added to the mix. In the end, scores of colorful, four-winged insects, and a couple of hummingbirds, visited. The system worked. Life was good.

But some of the plants did not return the next year -- most notably the diaphanous balloon flower whose designated place was taken over by several of its more aggressive brethren. The Chinese Buddleia also died. Others might think that an omen. Mars and I simply planted another. And we replaced it again the following annum. Then we gave up on it.

Still we didn't stop adding other perennials to the garden -- including a ground-hugging Lady's Mantle, some real Cardinal plants, as well as a towering yellow Tansy transplant -- all unsolicited but welcome gifts needing a good home. Other flowers, not all of them nectar suppliers, have also come and gone over the years. The (at first glance) crowded garden always seems to have room for one more something.

Although neither the eponymous house nor any of the flowers from the original design remain Mars and I still refer to this plot as the Butterfly Garden -- and it does indeed attract them.

But now I am thinking that it rightfully should once again be called by its original canine-themed honorific. Nicole was after all the one with the first plan for the flower patch. And she was the one who willingly modified that blueprint in order to add a little color and texture to the scene.

The best plans, and the best planners, are adaptable.

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