When I returned home to NJ from a three-week vacation, I found that the flowers I had planted in May were spent. They had a tired, wilted look from being too dry too often. There were dried up leaves and flowers clinging to the stems. The blossoms were small and sparse; and new green growth was minimal. This is not unusual for the end of July. Annuals and perennials are often past their peak, but they are especially so after a period of neglect. I resolved to do something about it asap.
I dedicated the first few mornings after my return to the re-beatification project. I rose at six to avoid the heat and yanked dead plants, trimmed dried-up stalks, gave out long, soaking drinks and spoonfuls of fertilizer. I knew my efforts would take some time to pay off, so there was also the lure of a quick fix: new plants would provide instant gratification.
I found a spectacular hanging pot with two colors of verbena at my favorite local garden center: it was deep scarlet and rich purple. This plant appealed to me not only for its health and beauty but for another important reason: hummingbirds like it. The hummers had abandoned the empty feeder while I was away- and rightly so. The supply I left them probably lasted only a week and they had been without the sweet nectar for two weeks or more. Fresh flowers in shades of red would advertise Mueller’s Fueling Station was open again for business, and the hanging verbena was the perfect billboard, or so I thought. I also bought some other flowers that are known hummer favorites like fuscia and anisacanthus.
Since the hummers were already mad at me and I wasn’t sure I could appease them, I figured it was time to try and make other friends. So I got out a few of my favorite bird feeders — a suet cage, a tray feeder and window feeder to see if I could attract any attention. The squirrels were immediately delighted. They have been the only customers so far. I’m hoping their enthusiasm will spark some interest in my local chickadee, titmouse and cardinal populations. No luck yet.
I was fairly self-satisfied with my gardening efforts. It looked nice again. Last weekend, I proudly showed off the verbena basket to a friend, even though I had nothing to do with its health or beauty. I did note that some of the tired looking annuals were starting to perk up a bit. But on Monday morning, I looked out at the hanging basket and was shocked to see it drooping and sagging with that all-too-familiar neglected look. When did I last water it? Surely it hadn’t been more than a day or two! Didn’t I water it on Saturday? However long it had been, it was longer than the TLC provided by the garden center. I grabbed the watering can and a plant saucer, took it down from its hook and let it soak for hours. I peered out at it every now and then; hoping it would spring back to life. It didn’t. A full twelve hours later, it had only partially recovered. Instant gratification is never the right solution. It only causes complacency. I ruined a perfectly good and beautiful plant because I wanted a quick fix. That’s not easy to admit.
Not only had I shirked my responsibility in the watering department, I now had to essentially destroy a once gorgeous plant. Double the injury, double the challenge. I knew if there was any hope for the verbena, I had to dead-head every last withered blossom. There were hundreds of them. But if the plant was to stand any chance of recovering and bloom again I had to take the shears to it.
Every gardener knows it is hard discipline to dead-head flowers, but it is absolutely necessary for the plants’ health, well-being and growth. It is the same principle as thinning seedlings and pruning vines: you have to sacrifice some healthy parts in order to encourage new, more fruitful growth. Good gardeners are brutally efficient at this. Wimpy gardeners don’t do it thoroughly enough and their results are never as good.
This phenomenon is rife with Kingdom of God realities. Sometimes, in order to get at the really good stuff, we have to let go of the not-as-good stuff. "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2)
Sometimes it’s necessary to trim the dead wood from the vines of our lives. Sometimes it’s necessary to remove the dried up blossoms of our relationships. Sometimes it’s necessary to cut something off that we’re not completely finished with. It is hard to do and contrary to our nurturing instincts. It doesn’t seem quite right. But in the economy of the Kingdom of God and gardening, dead-heading is absolutely essential.
The Verbena Incident has caused me to consider what I might need to dead-head in my life - and I don’t mean tackling the shoe rack to make room for more. It’s time to take a healthy whack at the parts of my life that aren’t bearing fruit, even if I’m not completely done with them yet. It may grieve me and cause some pain, but it’s absolutely necessary for my health, well-being and growth.