The Holy Bible tells us the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are war, famine, pestilence and death. It is not the apocalypse, as of this moment anyway, but there are deadly horsemen affecting gardeners, and more than four of them.
We have two-legged ones, four-legged ones, six-legged ones and eight-legged ones, and even others I won’t mention. Let us look, though, at the two-legged ones first. I could name a bunch of them, but among the most common are birds. Yes, they can be part of the pestilence brigade.
Not the innocent wren or even the quarrelsome cardinal, mind you, but, say, the starling, which swamped us two winters ago with 3 inches of guano over our place as they roosted by the hundreds of thousands in our woodland and pine groves. There were blackbirds among them, but they were the minority. Anyhow, I lay it on the starlings as to why my mixed borders have this year ballooned to gigantic proportions, i.e. summer phlox six feet tall, and other species just as vigorous. Guano, bird poop, is rich in nitrogen.
Two-legged Homo sapiens can even be a serious pestilence. I have (had) a big ‘William Baffin’ shrub rose at our corner on the street. A few weeks ago I noticed it was smashed down with tell-tale auto tracks there. Somebody had driven right over the thing. I did get at least this year’s bloom.
Then there is the army of four-legged pestilence. I can’t decide whether it is deer or voles that are the worst, but both rate right at the top. Deer you’ve heard me slander before, and they deserve every bit of slander they can get. Horned rats, I call them. They are not grazers, it is said, but browsers. Yes, indeed, they browse on anything they can get their filthy tongues on. Hostas are their favorite, but this year they have eaten hydrangeas to the ground, this in a year that many were frozen and were heroically trying to rebuild. Alas, they are right back where they started in April. The problem is not a deer or two, but too darned many of them, especially in the city. If you want to know about deer damage, ask Carolyn Griffey. She is an expert on their devastation at their lakeside home overlooking the Scott Fitzhugh Bridge.
About a month ago, friends Mike and Judy Garner were in Nashville, and I had them look for a nursery that carried a plant I had lusted after for a long time, a baptisia with maroon flowers accented with yellow. Well, glory be, they found one, but at the astronomical price of $20. I said go ahead, I may never find it again. Long story short, I planted it immediately in enriched soil with some filter media for drainage.
No more than a week later, I noticed it had fallen over. Upon giving it a light tug, it came clear of the soil with no roots. Instead there was the evidence of vole (or, more probably lemming) damage indicated with a large cavern where roots used to be. I tried replanting the thing, along with a good bait of rat poison, of course to no avail. The horse was already out of the barn. It was one of the most prominent cases of sudden death syndrome I have ever seen.
Deer work the things above ground while subterranean pestilence does the rest of the job. I once had an area some 15-by-15 feet hosting the excellent hosta ‘Honeybells’ in our woods, fronting a nice antique statue of an angel. When the hostas sported hundreds of white, fragrant flowers every year in late summer, it was a picture worth a thousand words. Voles wiped out the whole plantation in one winter. Got ’em all.
Next week we will go to the six- and eight-legged pestilence.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.