Saving Azaleas

There’s an episode from Andy Griffith that is classic. The out-of-town businessman gets stuck in Mayberry with car trouble on a Sunday. Gomer is his only hope because Wally is gone fishing or something. The point of the story is about slowing down and learning to take life easy. Don’t be in such a hurry that you miss the simple things.

But the part that intrigues me is the conversation about the car. It goes something like this.

Gomer: What’s she doing?

Mr. Tucker: I don’t know. It just quit on me.

Gomer: Hmmm? What did she sound like just before she quit? Was it making a noise like ka-chunk, ka-chunk? Or was it hissing more like a snake and then nothing?

Mr. Tucker: Uh? Maybe a hiss and then a putt-putt-putt. Then it lunged and just died.

Gomer: Uh huh. Uh huh.

Andy: What you think Gomer? Reckon you can fix it?

Gomer: Could be a fuel pump. She might need a new set of points. I don’t know. We better wait ‘til Wally gets back.

Every mechanic who has ever lived has had this same conversation. It goes with the territory. If you’ve got grease under your fingernails, you spend half your life fielding questions about cars.

I’m a plant guy, not a mechanic. But I have had this very same conversation about a thousand times over the years about trees. I get a text message. There’s a picture of a leaf or maybe a tree trunk. Followed by a question about what’s wrong with my tree.

I have wished that plants made diagnostic noises so that I could ask if it ever went ka-chunk, ka-chunk.

I have had customers bring me a stem off a shrub and lay it on my desk. “What’s going on with my hydrangea?”

I’ve been in the parking lot at the grocery store, in my work truck, and had total strangers walk up to me and say, “Hey, I’ve got a question about my trees, if you’ve got a minute.” Sure, why not?

The local county extension agent is supposed to be the resource for all manner of homeowner questions about everything from plumbing to pansies. But Steve is a cattle guy. That’s his background and schooling. He’s not necessarily up on trees. So, guess what? He gets a question about trees; he gives out my number.

I know some guys who get annoyed by all the questions. But not me. Not really. I kind of like playing Sherlock Holmes or Gomer. I like the challenge of trying to figure out the mystery.

But not every question is a real mystery. Some just require a little bit of common-sense plant knowledge.

My phone dinged this morning. A text from my neighbor. There was a picture of a black Nissan truck from the last century with plants in the bed. His daughter had been gifted nine mature azaleas. All she had to do was dig them up, and obviously this gal had the spunk to do just that. It was implied that her husband was along for the ride.

The question: What can they do to make sure they survive?

The first thing to know when answering questions that come from would-be-gardeners who venture out beyond the edge of no return, is to be sensitive and tactful when replying to their questions. No question is a dumb question, right?

My reply: Oh Lawd! You do know that this is July?

The plant sleuth in me began to gather information just from the photograph.

For one thing, people who drive old trucks that have scratches and dents and a little bit of rust around the edges are my kind of people. They are not impressed with glamour. They don’t need new things to feel like life has meaning. They are willing to drive old trucks and rescue old plants that need a home. Why buy new when you can have old for free with just a bit of effort?

Second. These azaleas are huge, standing 3 or 4 feet above the cab of the truck. The bed is absolutely crammed full of God’s handiwork. This means that this young couple is already invested. They didn’t just find these plants dumped in some compost pile. They leaned into the rhythm of the shovel. They tugged against the earth. They put their backs into it and sweated until their drawers were soaked. This is personal.

So, yeah, I’ll answer their questions. The odds aren’t great, but better than dismal. And since they’ve gone this far and since they have such high hopes, I’m not the guy to blow them off.

I got comfy in my chair. Adjusted my hand-held device. Pondered for a moment and went to work with my right index finger at blazing speed.

The art of giving good advice is found somewhere in the balance between giving too much information and not enough. As the advice giver, you have to sort things out between the essential and the unimportant. The temptation is to pontificate. I hate it when I ask people for advice and they either treat me like I’m a 3rd grader, or they talk so far over my head that I start daydreaming about unacceptable and illegal ways to get them to shut up.

Choking comes to mind.

You should know, I really want this young couple to succeed with their dream for these plants. These are azaleas, for goodness’ sake. There is nothing more southern than azaleas in spring. Pride of Mobile. Formosa. George Taber. The names roll off the tongues of southern gardeners like syrup off pancakes.

Azaleas are as deeply ingrained in our culture as Co-Cola and peanuts. They grace the landscapes of 150-year-old plantations, and they sit beside 12×60 homes on wheels along dirt backroads. They show off their colors against the limestone walls of the state capital building, and they watch over the dumpster behind Roy’s service station on State Route 341.

Nearly every town in Georgia and Alabama plays host to an annual Azalea Festival every April. The Azalea Queen rides in the back seat of the mayor’s convertible and waves to small children with ice cream drooling down their chins.

There’s a local chapter of the Azalea Society in town. They meet once a month to discuss such things as the latest hybrid that appeared in the last issue of Southern Living Magazine. Plans are made to add a few azaleas to the WWII Memorial across from the library. And, of course, there is a discussion about paying Miss Ernestine Watson a visit. Hers is the only house on Oak Street without any azaleas out front, which is troubling for the tour of homes during the festival.

So, I have a vested interest in helping these azaleas survive. My southern heritage and my mama are counting on me. It won’t be easy. Not this time of year. Did I mention, it’s July? But with the right care, you never know.

My neighbor replied with a polite thank you. He added, “You think of anything else they should do, let me know.”

I didn’t hesitate.

“Pray. A lot.”

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