The stuff of voodoo rituals and secret mutilation cults, the primal ingredient of demonic potions, a talisman against powerful spirits. A sanguine secret whispered in dark cobwebbed corners by shadowy sorcerers.
True, indeed. Only my circumspect confidante with the occult wisdom was the friendly and experienced manager of the local gardening shop. She didn't exactly whisper the magical remedy, either; I'm sure a few other customers at the counter overheard the advice.
The concoction was not to do battle with the forces of evil, but with a pair of cottontail bunnies. The rabbits had been nibbling away at the roots of our purple clematis that is struggling gamely to wrap its green tendrils and damson-hued blossoms up around our mailbox stake.
Animal blood, or dried blood or blood meal, is a commercially packaged product that is supposed to scare away unwelcome critters looking for a fresh lunch in your garden. The stuff (no specific donor is mentioned on the label) is mixed with soil around the plant (no incantations required) and rabbits will presumably be repelled by the suspicious, yet unobtrusive, smell.
That was the beginning of a puzzling, sometimes frustrating initiation into the mysteries of the dedicated gardener's pharmacopoeia.
All I really wanted to do was to grow a few pretty flowers in the yard, something other than the impatiens that last a short colorful season and then die, requiring replanting of new stock all over again each year. Such annuals, which need minimal attention and, more importantly for our tree-shielded patch of earth, only partial sunlight, demanded too much yearly effort, I thought -- like fireworks that thrill and inspire with their ephemeral beauty but never afford a second look.
Perennials, those flowers and plants that spring up from bare soil renewal every year without fail, seemed the answer. That choice was to be a step into a new dimension of time and space, as Rod Serling used to intone, where the old rules have limited value and there is a quantum leap in the level of competition.
So we paid the higher price for perennials -- dianthus, snapdragons, columbine, bleeding heart, primrose and others whose names are known only by the plastic identification stakes at their base.
We called in the truckload of mulch, spread bags of topsoil by hand and spade, tilled and dug, cultivated the plantings, watered and fed them with liquid fertilizer. Support stakes were implanted to hold up the taller growths, rock borders rebuilt to segregate the pampered flowers from the incursions of common weeds and grass.
Then the new neighbors moved in.
The nascent primrose withered and shriveled up, its green arms crinkled and dusty white in abject resignation. Cause of the demise was traced to a telling hole in the ground nearby. Moles, voles or chipmunks was our diagnosis. "Mole pellets" was the prescription from the dispenser of horticultural cures and nostrums at the store.
After stuffing the poison pills down the apparent holes of the garden, we read the small print on the package. The product is potentially harmful to small children and dogs, with which we are doubly blessed. So up came the pellets, along with our hopes of eradicating the underground nibbler.
The fate of the snapdragons was a swift and certain end: desiccated blooms, brittle stems, no survivors. Describing this rapid pestilence to the garden center wizards, we were advised that root-sucking aphids were the likely culprits, so tiny and beneath the surface as to escape human detection. A pesticide powder was purchased to dilute with water and sprinkle on the problem. The plants could rebloom this year, despite their sepulchral appearance, we were told.
The browning of the purple clematis blossoms gave rise to new fears, that we had perhaps been sold an inferior, feeble plant. After all, the rabbits were no longer seen hunkering around the mailbox. The spell of the blood meal had apparently worked its nonlethal magic, for they were still scampering about the woods and the shrubs while the base of the flowering vine was no longer disturbed.
The nursery that provided the plants had another idea, however. Sounds like it could be slugs or snails, said the guru of the flower section. Try some snail bait and see what happens.
So snail bait was applied in the hope that this would at last sound the knell for all pests that would destroy our garden of Eden. Thus far, we have seen no tell-tale shells of dead mollusks in the vicinity, but it is too soon to tell if this threat has been vanquished.
The garden center manager, however, left open another possibility for the decline of several plants. Reports of mold and fungus attacks have been common this spring, he said. If the browning continues, we can bring back the sickly sprout for replacement, and another chance to renew our hopes and the battle against our voracious neighbors.
But we have learned some valuable lessons. In gardening parlance, perennial does not mean forever and annual does not mean every year. There is no magic bullet. There is much to be overcome or, more accurately speaking, accommodated if the plants are to fulfill their vernal promise of flowering color and beauty. Nothing is as glorious as the garden of opportunity that we eagerly cultivate in our mind each spring.
Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.