The Dangers of Last-Minute Garden Maintenance

It's not so bad to put off gardening chores — until the weather turns bitterly cold, and then there's a danger in leaving them until the eleventh hour. Commentator Julie Zickefoose discovers that in trying to do her best, she accomplishes exactly the opposite.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We all know the old saying about good intentions - the road to hell is paved with them. Well, commentator Julie Zickefoose recently found out that the garden path can be paved with them too.

Ms. JULIE ZICKEFOOSE (Commentator): On the day of our first big snow, when it was forecast to go to 18 degrees at night, I finally faced a big fall gardening chore, digging up my tuberose bulbs. These are tropical plants that we trick into growing in temperate zones. And while a few deeply buried bulbs might survive the Ohio winter, you want to get them inside before the ground freezes.

And so after a few frosts have stopped their growth, I go out and dig them up, crumbling the dirt away, revealing their firm, shiny bulb flesh. I don't like the digging, but I do like handling the bulbs. I like putting them in a bucket and stashing them in a cold corner of the basement. And I like thinking about the hefty fragrance of two burrows lofting across the lawn on a warm August night.

So I went out in a down parka in work gloves and rubber boots. The snow was coming like a comforter being shaken out and kept hitting my bare back when I'd bend over to grab bulbs out of the soil. My gloves quickly got soaked and clumped with mud and my fingers got so cold I had to keep putting my hands against my warm belly to keep them moving. An hour went by and I finally had a bucket brimful of bulbs.

I carried it down the hill and tried to open the basement door, which my husband locks every night. I said the words I usually say when I've got an armload of something and find the basement door locked, put the bucket down and trudged around the side of the house to go in and unlock it. And the bird feeders were empty. So while I was suited up in parka and boots, I slopped the cardinals and strewed corn and sunflower seed all over the backyard. I went inside, frozen, almost stiff.

At 3:30 the next morning, I awoke, listening to the furnace, whooshing away. I thought about what I had accomplished the day before and started to sigh happily that I'd finally gotten the bulbs pulled and sat straight up in bed. It was 18 degrees out just as predicted, and I had left the bucket full of tropical bulbs so treasured, so hard won sitting outside the basement door.

I ran down the stairs in my pajamas and hauled the bucket inside. It was covered with snow, the contents frozen solid. I could have left them all in the soil and they would have been fine, but trying to save them, I killed them all.

The next morning at breakfast, my daughter asked me why I was so quiet. Well, I dug bulbs for an hour in the freezing cold, and these aren't just any bulbs, they're my tuberoses, and there's nothing I love more than the way tuberoses smell on an August night, but I left them outside all night and they're all dead now. And I've been growing them for years and years, and they were mine and I loved them. And if I'd left them in the ground, they probably have been just fine. Phoebe paused a moment then said, but you can buy more, right?

It hadn't occurred to me even once that I could buy more. At 2.75 a pop, that was about $100 worth of tuberoses turning to mush in that bucket. But she was right. I could. I looked at my 11-year-old daughter. Moving forward is what the very young do best, and she's pulling me along already.

BLOCK: Commentator Julie Zickefoose writes, paints and gardens on Indigo Hill, her nature sanctuary near Whipple, Ohio.

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