Friday, March 7, 2008

March daylilies

There are good reasons to look forward to March in Durham. We can now taste spring in small but regular doses thanks to more daylight, pink cherry trees, daffodils, and white spiraea bushes. Other things are blooming too but I am excited about my daylilies which, like most everyone else's, will not release flowers until early summer. But this first week of March is when their flat green swords gain a few inches of clearance above last fall's mulch and this season's lawn weeds. Another first week of March, three years ago, is when I inherited my first crop of plain tawny-orange daylilies. They were part of a severance package that I picked out after I left a job managing a house museum near downtown Raleigh.

For eight months, beginning in the summer of 2004, I was charged with running Mordecai Historic Park. The main attraction was an antebellum plantation house. Furnishings (especially portraits) drew a large share of questions and content for the docent-led tour. Busloads of school kids made frequent class trips to participate in crafty programs and wonder about chamber pots, kitchen fires, slavery, and the Civil War. Master gardeners and their friends had created an old fashioned kitchen garden based on recollections from a long time ago. My workplace was a good spot to take a walk, help stage a wedding reception, or ponder several complex themes of Southern history and culture. As an employee, sometimes I got to do all of these things in one day.

On my first day at work in early June, the modern air-conditioning system broke inside the big house. A condensation line routed in the attic had become clogged on an extremely muggy day and water had shorted out a smoke alarm. The air handling unit outside was terribly silent as the heat index screamed 97 degrees at 5pm. Even though I was far from comfortable, I fondly remember the stopped fan and its metal housing sitting in a sea of glorious and peak-blooming daylilies. It was the perfect low-maintenance perennial for disguising this utilitarian piece of the property. A repairman fixed the AC and the outside fan stirred the flowering scapes crowding closest to it. Looking from a window, that was our visible sign that things were working again and part of only one pleasant memory from my introductory shift.

I got used to an enjoyable job. As I memorized the house tour, read about the history of the ancestral family, and thought about future exhibits, I became drawn less to the architecture on site and more to the landscape. An overgrown thicket hid an old spring near the visitor’s parking lot. It was to this water source that generations of enslaved residents must have walked millions of steps, down a hill and back again. Old shrubs and trees dotted the small park that was once a part of a huge holding. One tree, an Osage Orange, won an award for being one of Raleigh's most notable historic specimens. Reprints of an old hand drawn map showed me and the staff that it was probably one of many that formed a hedgerow when it was small enough to be used as a livestock barrier. Another tree, a Cedar of Lebanon, stands large in front of the house today. It is visible from a 19th century sketch as a much smaller planting.

As my stint at the historic park carried from summer into winter, I began to plan a future landscape tour of the property. I had also begun planning a future garden in my own Durham yard. An interest in horticulture was growing as my future at the house museum was dimming. My non-profit employer was resigning from the larger role of managing the place for the city of Raleigh. I did not wish to fill out a job application for a post I already held, so I put in my notice and left on good terms.

My last day was in early March. A week earlier, a past garden volunteer was wandering around the grounds talking to a friend about the old kitchen garden. I stayed a few steps behind, hoping to pick up on some inside advice and looking for an excuse to show them I knew a thing or two about plants. We stood near the east porch of the main house, beside a low fence which screened the air-conditioning unit. Thick masses of daylily bulbs grew in tight mats on both sides of the fence. To these green thumbs, the sight may have held the same promise as an NCDOT highway median. To me however, this was a reminder of my tenure's beginning when I was enamored by the plantings, their perfect location, and the incredible number of reddish-orange flowers. I offered the professional opinion that, “these could stand some dividing.” It probably sounded about as expert as having shared the knowledge that, "some trees lose their leaves in the winter, but not all."

Before leaving my job in Raleigh, I got permission to take some of these overgrowing daylilies with me. I put my clumps in two large plastic trays and the next weekend, my dad and I planted them at the top of a ditch bank near my driveway. An adjacent oak, leafless in late winter and early spring, allows for their new growth to soak up enough sun so that the old tree’s June shade does not steal the power of our daylily border. Thirty plants have given birth to many more. Next spring, some of them could stand to be dug up and moved elsewhere.

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