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Azaleas

Frank Melville Memorial Park. Photo by Heidi Sutton

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

“Did you hear? Ted has come down with COVID and is in the ICU.” 

The words hit me in the gut.

This gentleman, with whom I serve on the board of directors of a local community group, has now been admitted to the local hospital. I sat next to him at the monthly meeting a couple of weeks ago. We exchanged pleasantries and made small talk. Neither of us wore masks. (Ted is probably in his 70s. I have not used his real name.)

Just when we think our virus-riven world may be returning to some semblance of normal, the pathogen acts up again. We seem to be going two steps forward and one step back as weeks and months go by. Yes, we have the vaccines, the boosters, the antiviral mediations and plenty of test kits now. But the contagion is not over, not even close, no matter how much we would like it to be and pretend it is. Neither is the fear that rises and falls. Those of us who have been spared thus far really don’t want to catch the disease, and those who have fallen ill don’t want to be the virus’s victim yet again.

It’s spring. Finally, spring, with the flowers and leaves, the emerald green and the birdsong. The comfortable temperatures allow us to sit out on our patios and back decks. Once again we can feel the joy spring brings. But it is also the third spring we are living under the black cloud of a pandemic.

Yes, we have learned a lot as a result. We have become more aware of the tiny miracles, the blossoming of each flower on the azalea bushes along the roadside as we walk, the warbling of the mockingbird stationed on the top of the tree beside our garage. The pace of life has slowed as a result of COVID, allowing us to become more appreciative, more mindful of our existence from moment to moment. Many of us have embraced remote work habits and thrive with more at-home time. These are silver linings.

But I can’t help mourning the loss of our before-virus lives. We haven’t been to a Broadway play in three spring seasons now. We have dropped our opera subscription. Contemplating a performance of Carmen at Lincoln Center, preceded by a scrumptious dinner in a Manhattan restaurant, makes me feel a bit dizzy with desire. 

I am still not relaxed enough, even with a mask, to indulge in my former existence. If we have been fortunate enough not to have lost a loved one to the disease, nonetheless, the virus has stolen from our lives, stolen not only events and spectacles but more painfully, time with family members and friends at those events. Time missed with those we are closest to, as we live our lives, cannot be made up. Our dear ones don’t live forever. Sometimes loved ones die, from the infection or other causes, and the hours we would have spent with them are lost to us forever.

Recently, researchers have interviewed thousands to answer the question, “How many close friends can one have?” The answer, the mean average and not counting family, is 3-6. Those friends are irreplaceable. When one dies, there isn’t another to step forward and take his or her place because such friendships take years to develop. I know. When I read that study, I immediately fell to counting my closest friends and came up with four. It would have been six but two have died, though not from COVID. I want to spend as much time with those who remain as possible, and I deeply resent the virus for getting in the way.

Friendship, we know, is important for good health. The opposite, isolation and loneliness, often the by-products of COVID, can be as harmful to us physically as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to Psychology Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, at Brigham Young University.

We must make every effort to stay connected to our family and friends.  

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Azaleas, above, as well as rhododendron do well in acidic soil. That means that most Long Island gardeners, who usually have very acidic soil, don’t have to spend time liming the soil. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Are you planning to renew your landscaping, put in new plants, or take out some old ones? As a gardener you need to know about plants, but you also need to consider your lifestyle and how much time and energy you’re willing to put in to achieve the effect you desire.

Do all the adults in the house work full-time jobs, some even with overtime? Do you frequently take trips during the warm weather? Are you away from your home on vacations? Do you spend lots of time at the beach? If so, you probably want to enjoy your garden when you’re home and not spend time working in it. If, on the other hand, you’re newly retired and just love getting out in the dirt, then gardening is not work — it’s a joy. Now, some things to consider.

A lawn needs to be mowed once a week to 10 days. An acquaintance of mine, many years ago, had two acres of property, almost all of it with a lush lawn. On more than one occasion I heard complaints about how much time he had to spend every weekend mowing his lawn. One alternative for him would have been to hire a service to do this weekly chore. Some people go this route, but it does cost more than putting a gallon of gas in your mower. In fact, if you have a service, you don’t even need to own and maintain a mower.

The best alternative, however, and definitely my preference if I had two acres of lawn, would be to cut back drastically on how much lawn I actually had. Plant trees and shrubs that need minimal maintenance. It’s better for the environment and better for wildlife, which will soon make your garden their home. And you will spend a lot less time mowing.

Another area to consider when deciding how much time you want to spend working in the garden is plants that are prone to diseases and insects. Roses, for example, are gorgeous but notorious for their problems with aphids as well as black spot and powdery mildew. If you absolutely adore roses and have the time, sure, plant them, knowing that you’ll need to spray for insects and diseases periodically. Look for disease-resistant varieties. Another consideration with roses is their thorns. This is a special problem if you have children or grandchildren who will be running around the yard and possibly tripping into them.

A third consideration is pruning. If you select lots of plants that are quick growing and need lots of pruning, then you’re going to use up your weekends with the sheers in your hands. This is especially true if you have topiary, which must be carefully and artistically pruned periodically to maintain the look you want.

Then there’s watering. If you have the average Long Island garden, you have one that periodically needs watering. If you go away a lot during the mild weather, what happens to your garden? Do you ignore it, only to come home to a disaster? Pay someone to come periodically and take care of it? Install an irrigation system? Remember, container plants dry out more quickly than plants in the ground and need more supplemental watering. Or do you plant only native plants, which need minimal maintenance and supplemental water.

If you don’t want to spend time adding lime to the soil (sweetening or raising the pH), use only plants that thrive in acidic soil such as rhodies, azaleas, blueberries etc.

There’s no right answer for everyone. But, you do need to look at your own time and energy level and decide which works best for you. If you love to be out in the garden, enjoy the sun on your face, get your hands dirty and love to see those little green sprouts grow and thrive, fine. If because of finances, time or energy you can’t spend that much time working in the garden, then simplify by putting in native plants, which need minimal maintenance, and spend your time enjoying your garden.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.