The Darwinian gardener stared intently at the top of his favorite oak tree while the tree service guy waved a laser pointer. He was pointing at what looked like a bunch of small bushes growing in the treetops.
“This tree is screwed up,” the tree guy said.
The Darwinian gardener is used to hearing a lot of pessimism from tree guys, so he was dubious. Still, the little green bushes. They looked weird. There was a lot.
But let’s stop at this terrible statement and explain to the people in the back who this Darwinian gardener is.
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The Darwinian Gardener is Florida’s leading representative in lawn and garden care. It won’t act as a lifestyle coach for finicky flowers or an on-call waterboy for demanding varieties of thirsty turf. No, that’s tough horticulture. And February, his favorite month of the garden year, is the perfect time to ask the Darwinian gardener:
Q: So what are small bushes?
A: The plants in question were mistletoe. He puts a small plastic version over his door every Christmas. It’s because of the druids and the solstice or something. Do not ask. But it’s featured in the big romantic scene of many Hallmark Christmas movies. Unfortunately, the real thing is like a leafy vampire to its trees.
Its roots burrow into a tree and suck up water and nutrients. They weigh on weakened limbs that fall in storms. And a bunch of them were in clumps atop his 40-year-old water oak tree.
“It’s dead on top,” the tree guy said. The Darwinian gardener heard the same observation addressed to himself but tried not to take this assessment personally.
It turns out that mistletoe can live for a while on top of a host tree. They like the tops of tall trees because they get plenty of sunlight. But a big infestation is a kill on an oak tree, especially one of those old ones.
The tree guy adjusted the cost of the removal, and the Darwinian gardener reluctantly agreed. Mistletoe, who knew it wasn’t so festive after all?
Q: Why the hell did you plant a water oak? They fall in storms, do damage and don’t live very long.
A: The water oak came with the place. And though he dropped a few major limbs in the 2004 hurricanes and threw buckets of acorns all over the driveway every year, the Darwinian gardener regarded him with unusual affection. Just like garden squirrels.
Rolling over all the acorns while backing up his car was like rolling over bubble wrap, something he found oddly satisfying.
If you plant a water oak or a laurel oak, you can expect to get 30 good years out of it. If you sell the house in that window, then they will become the best kind of problem – someone else’s. The Darwinian gardener didn’t think he would still be around in 2022 tending to the oak trees that grew under the Reagan administration.
Q: Do you now enjoy a yard free of troublesome trees that could break down your home and kill you in any hurricane season?
A: No, the Darwinian gardener immediately replanted. A living oak this time. This may be a problem around 2120 or so, but he expects to be out of the house by then. He also planted a red maple, or swamp maple, as people who don’t sell it call it. It looks forward to future winters when its fallen leaves cover the crabgrass from view.
Normally his philosophy with transplants is three waterings and they are on their own. Better not give a newcomer the wrong idea of the sprinkler service here. But with good-sized trees, these are investments. The rule here is three months of watering and they are on their own.
To the Glory of February
Q: Why is February your favorite month? Much of my garden still looks dead.
A: Because azaleas are in purple bloom. These are plants that demand almost nothing from the Darwinian gardener, what he is looking for in landscape design. Rule of thumb: just cut them back a bit after the Florida legislature passes a budget. It’s a good idea to go outside during the session anyway. Shake it up, as philosopher Taylor Swift advised. Get rid of dead wood.
And even as the azaleas bloom, plants that seemed to have been killed by the cold twelve days of winter are beginning to come back to life. Against all odds! And as a bonus: it is not necessary to mow the lawn yet.
Q: Really, no need at all?
A: A person mowing the lawn in February is simply looking for something to do. Excessive leisure is not a problem that the Darwinian gardener seeks to solve.
Mark Lane is a News-Journal columnist. His email is [email protected]