Midwest: A Spicy Experiment

Cincinnati, Ohio, USDA Zone 6

I did something bold, and I love the result. I cut a circular flower bed 15 feet across out of a patch of lawn only 20 feet by 30 feet.

On the Fourth of July weekend, I picked my spot and drove a stake into the ground in the center of my imagined bed. Then I took about six feet of rope, tied one end to the stake and the other end to the mower set low to the ground. With this device, I was able to mow a nearly perfect circle. I then dug out the grass and turned over the soil. It was five hours of strenuous work, but when I stood back to judge the effect, it seemed satisfyingly bold, like cutting the first piece out of a cake.

The next problem was what to plant. I was not ready to make permanent choices, and thought that annuals would at least establish the bed for this year and give me a chance to evaluate the soil. I know some people at a nearby greenhouse and am in on the secret that they start throwing away unsold flats of annuals sometime in July. I usually don’t mention this fact because it tends to upset gardeners, just as avid readers get upset when they learn that libraries discard books.

Surprisingly, the Dumpster-bound flats that looked best were not the flowers I was looking for, but fresh, healthy hot-pepper plants, which I was able to buy for ten cents a plant. I crammed 200 plants of ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ into my 15-foot circle, and within a few weeks they filled out quite nicely. The dark leaves and small white flowers soon gave way to a prodigious bearing of fruit—hundreds of long green peppers turning first orange, then red. I had the new pleasure of estimating my yield. I also had the pleasure of having created a neighborhood curiosity. One day I stood up from weeding to be confronted by a man I had never seen before standing in my driveway.

“Peppers?” he asked. “I’ve got a few peppers in my yard, but…man, you must really like peppers.”

“No,” I replied. “They’re hot peppers and I can’t eat them.” His curiosity deepened to apprehension. “I just like the way they look,” I said. That was too much for him. He shook his head, turned, and walked out the drive.

I found a certain pleasure in exciting the curiosity of an innocent bystander. And there was the dubious pleasure of watching the ripening of fruit I would never eat. Add to this certain comments my kids made—I’ll call it unintended ridicule—and what do you get? Not much perhaps, but it’s a start, and I believe in starts. I have my circle, which I think of as an open intention full of possibility. So what if it’s a little vulgar in its current manifestation, a little ridiculous even? There’s always next year.

WORTH GROWING: Zinnia linearis
A useful flowering annual for establishing a new bed is Zinnia linearis (also called Z. angustifolia). This is not the temperamental but sometimes spectacular garden favorite Zinnia elegans, the “cut and come again” type. In my area Z. linearis is often called the landscape zinnia. It is a tough, heat- and drought-tolerant groundcover that produces modest, one-inch, white or orange daisies all summer long. Sources, page 67.

TO DO IN THE GARDEN: Summer

  • Summer is the time to do nothing in the garden but sit in the shade and enjoy the results of your labor. It’s a good time for what a friend calls “piddling”–brief forays of light exertion to pull a weed, deadhead a daylily, or pick a tomato.

  • Plan next spring’s project sitting comfortably on-site instead of waiting for your winter confinement to make plans.

  • Buy lots of quart perennials on sale at your local nursery, bump them up into gallon or two-gallon pots, and overwinter them in a cold frame or unheated garage. They will make mature plants for next spring’s planting.

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