Garden Blitz

Patrice Peltier

In 2019, I wrote about three Japanese maples I planted the fall before the polar vortex. That winter of unrelenting subzero temperatures was hard on Japanese maples, which are not reliably hardy here. In spring, the top of our stately maples were barren, but new shoots sprang up from the base and lower branches. I rejoiced that there was at least a smidgen of life left in them and spent most of that growing season hoping against hope that the tops of the trees would survive, too.

By August, after consulting with fellow gardeners and other experts, I oh-so-reluctantly admitted the upper branches were dead. I cut them back to where I could see growth. Now the once stately, multi-stemmed trees would spend the rest of their lives as shrubs.

This year, all three trees put on new leaves. The two planted in the shade were growing taller and looking vigorous. The Japanese maple planted in the blazing sun seemed to be struggling. It put on new leaves in spring, and then seemed taxed just to maintain the status quo. In the off-kilter summer of global pandemic, I understood how much it takes sometimes to just hang in there.

In September, I decided the sunburned Japanese maple deserved a break. I resolved to move it to a shadier, more protected location. Looking at what was left of its original trunk and its somewhat misshapen physique, I had further reason to identify with this tree.

A month earlier, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s a frightening phrase for anyone to hear. It was especially unnerving for me. I had breast cancer 16 years ago and had felt I was safely beyond its reach. Now it was back in the other breast, more aggressive than before.

I never really made peace with the scars and other changes cancer made to my left breast. Now further disfigurement — or the prospect of multiple reconstructive surgeries — lay ahead. I trusted that the surgeon would cut away the diseased tissue in my breast just as I had cut away the dead branches of this tree to give it a chance for renewed growth. I had a little pity party for the lushness both of us had lost.

Then, I stuck my shovel in the soil and began to unearth my tree. It had only been in the ground two years, and what was above ground had not flourished for most of that time. I had expected it to come up easily, but it did not. All this time, my tree had been sending its roots deep into the earth. Although I couldn’t see this, it was growing vigorously.

With more effort than I anticipated, I managed to move that Japanese-maple-tree-turned-shrub to a more protected spot, one I can see from the kitchen. Now, every time it catches my eye, I will try to remember this: Regardless of how things look on the surface, life is pulling out all the stops to heal and to grow, to affirm the strength of its will. It’s another lesson in blitz. 

Patrice Peltier lives in Spring Green and writes regularly for Wisconsin Gardening, Chicagoland Gardening and The Landscape Contractor magazines.