I swear that Kay, one of my neighbors (and by “neighbor” I mean she lives a half-mile away) could grow coconut trees in her yard, she has such a green thumb. But if a green thumb means someone is good at growing things, then I must have a brown one, because everything I try to grow eventually turns that color.
Last year, when I was walking my dog by Kay’s house, I noticed these huge, flowering bushes in her yard. They had so many flowers on them, I could see them two blocks away. When I asked Kay what they were, she said rhododendrons.
I knew I’d never be able to remember rhododendrons by the time I walked back home, so I did what I usually do when I want to remember something – I used word association. The first thing that popped into my mind was actress Valerie Harper. Why? Because she played a character named Rhoda on TV for years, and I figured if I could remember Rhoda, I could remember rhododendrons.
Although I have a long history of killing plants, sometimes just by looking at them, I became obsessed with having a rhododendron bush/shrub on my front lawn. As luck would have it, I was in the garden department at Walmart one day and there was a huge sale on bushes and shrubs.
“Do you have any of those Valerie Harper shrubs?” I asked the clerk.
He looked at me as if I’d just been beamed down from another planet.
“Oh! I’m sorry,” I said. “ I mean a rhoda, um, rhododendron.”
He led me to the selection. There were white ones and pink ones, which were nice, but then I spotted a bright red one. It was marked down to $12 and was already about three feet tall and in a big plastic tub.
“How big do these things grow?” I asked the clerk.
“Oh, they can get to be as wide as 25 feet across,” he said.
Excited, and picturing my front lawn overrun with beautiful red rhododendron flowers, I bought it.
The minute I got home with my precious shrub, however, I started to have a panic attack. I just knew I was going to kill it. No matter how kind I was to it or how much I babied it, experience had taught me its days were numbered. Soon, it would be brown and shriveled, gasping for its last breath, all because it had been unlucky enough to be purchased by me, the Lizzie Borden of plant caretakers. So I put it in the garage for the time being.
When I told Kay I’d bought a rhododendron, she said, “Great! When you’re ready to plant it, let me know and I’ll help you!”
I felt much better. I knew she could grow plants and flowers that looked as if they had jumped off the covers of landscaping magazines, while I couldn’t even grow mold on bread, so if my rhododendron received her magic touch, it just might receive a stay of execution and survive.
But just as I was trying to pick out the perfect spot on my front lawn for my new shrub, the guys arrived to install my new home-generator system.
“We’re going to have to run a gas line from your underground propane tank to the generator,” one of the guys said, “ so we’re going to have to dig a trench across your lawn.”
The next thing I knew, construction vehicles descended upon my property and my front lawn ended up resembling the Grand Canyon – if someone had filled it with mud. It was not a good time, I decided, to plant my precious shrub. I would have to wait until I actually had a front yard again instead of a giant sinkhole.
So the rhododendron remained in its plastic tub in my garage. I watered it, I talked to it, I begged it not to die.
And for a month, it grew, and I got excited. Every bud, every new green leaf felt like a personal victory to me. And as my yard finally began take shape again, after new loam and grass seed were put down, I was counting the days until I could call Kay and tell her the shrub was ready to be planted.
But then something unexpected happened. The temperature outside shot up to nearly 100 degrees. That meant the temperature inside my locked-up garage was hot enough to roast a Thanksgiving turkey. Even worse, I’d forgotten to water the rhododendron for two days. I should have been arrested for plant abuse.
When I finally went out to the garage, there was my once lovely shrub, brown and dried up. There wasn’t one green leaf left on it. Panicking, I called Kay, but there was no answer. So I called another friend who’s also good at growing things.
“Dig a hole, fill it with water and plant the shrub right away,” she told me. “It might be able to revive, if the roots are still good.”
So I rushed out to the front yard and dug a hole, filled it with water and planted the shrub. Then I waited for it to show any signs of life.
That was a year ago. I’m still waiting. It’s so brown and dried-up looking, even the squirrels point at it and laugh.
Still, I’m seriously thinking about buying another rhododendron this year and having Kay plant it for me…in her yard.