Of Love and Death and Ranunculus

They say that youth is wasted on the young.

That old adage has been on my mind a lot lately for various reasons, most of which relate to my melancholia at the approach of middle age, but that’s a subject for another piece—maybe one about all the expensive eye creams that don’t work.

The saying applies here because this story includes youngsters—one in particular, me—and illustrates, I hope, the virtues of getting older. I’ve been grabbing for those virtues in the dark lately as I wonder: Have I been wasting my life? Am I doing it right now?

I was twenty-six when I married. We’d been together for ten years (I’ll spare you the stories of me at sixteen!). We were living in Los Angeles but the wedding would be back home, in Pittsburgh, where both our families still lived. I was in graduate school, working full-time, and though none of us acknowledged it, my mother was dying. So it was that the spring of 2008 found me planning my wedding many miles from home, in the midst of taking my Ph.D. exams, and losing my mum.

All brides are ripe for nervous breakdown. Planning a wedding can transform even the loveliest, most serene and mentally sturdy girl into a controlling, details-obsessed monster.  I, of dubious mental sturdiness at that point, was no exception. Planning from the west coast required me to recall the layouts of establishments I’d not visited in years, to trust to others the auditioning of bands and DJs, to take the word of friends regarding photographers and other vendors, and to leave the most important detail of all (other than, you know, the marriage stuff), the flowers, in the hands of strangers I’d never met and whose work I’d never seen in person. As the Big Day approached, my mother’s health became a terrifying rollercoaster of middle of the night hospital calls and impromptu cross-country trips. I was studying 18 hours a day for my exams, and everything around me was completely out of my control.

My wedding flowers became extremely important. I came to see them as the one thing in my life over which I could exert dominion. They needed to be soft blushes and creams. They needed to be old-fashioned and romantic. They must somehow reflect my future husband’s and my personalities and our story and our future. This is a lot to ask of any flower, I realize, but I was asking it of a very specific few kinds of flowers that I knew would be up to the task, most importantly, the ranunculus.

You’ve seen a bunch of soft pink ranunculi, right? They are incomparable—so ruffled and delicate and beautiful and bridal.  I’d been living and working in LA long enough to have dealt with some truly first-rate florists so I’d seen the ranunculus, and I knew its power. I had to have them at my wedding. Of course, there would be hydrangeas and roses and many other beautiful blooms, but there must also be ranunculi. They grew to mythic proportions in my mind, and I insisted on them.

Somehow I managed to keep it together when our florist said curtly, “No, impossible” to the ranunculus. They were simply unavailable. He reminded me that we were marrying “in Pittsburgh, not Hollywood” and that for my “hometown wedding” (ouch) I would need to adjust my tastes and lower my expectations. I did, and we had a lovely and memorable day.

But it’s always bothered me that I didn’t even try to fight. I’d wanted those flowers so badly and when somebody told me “no,” I accepted it because what could I do? No amount of fit-throwing would’ve enabled this man (who was lovely, by the way; I don’t mean to disparage him or his work) to produce the flowers I wanted. But I didn’t ask any questions, I didn’t seek out alternatives, I didn’t conclude that something must be done to change the fact that ranunculi weren’t available to me. I just gave them up.

This is a long way of explaining that I’ve loved the ranunculus for a long time and that it’s always been out of my reach.

No more, friends!  Ten years later I find myself in a position to grow these beauties myself, which I’ve done for the first time this season. Here’s my account of the experience:

August: soil test (don’t skip!) and amendments (don’t skimp!)

September and October: I ordered the corms and stored them in a cool, dark place. This isn’t the easiest thing in the world when you’re a small-timer. Unless you’re purchasing huge quantities from a wholesaler, you’ll really have to search high and low and long and hard, competing with all the other small-timers, for corms. I ended up with nine varieties of varying desirability.

October 22: I pre-sprouted my corms by 1) soaking them in mesh bags in buckets of water with a fish tank bubbler for four hours; 2) burying them in pots filled with a dampened 50/50 mix of peat and perlite; and 3) storing them in my dark garage at 55* for ten days.

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November 1-3: I prepared beds and planted out sprouted corms (in the rain, as it turned out). I covered them with a low tunnel made of one layer of Agribon. Our plan for feeding and watering will be as follows: so long as it stays about 25* at night for at least 3 nights in a row, we’re watering and feeding once a week and we’re lifting the Agribon on warm days to allow for more light.

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November 19: I added a second layer of Agribon because it’s starting to dip down into the 20s at night.

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November 28: Most of the plants have emerged! How is this possible? The whole concept of cool flowers is blowing my freaking mind. It’s so counterintuitive!

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December 15: We’re in the throes of 6a winter. Cold temps, gusting winds, some snow. We’ve covered the tunnel with a layer of greenhouse plastic (but we’re keeping the ends open for ventilation), and we’ve tied everything down securely. We don’t plan on getting in there for a while.

January 5: We’ve had plenty of snow by now and it’s been quite cold. The tunnel is sagging a bit, but we’re hoping the plants inside are handling the falling temperatures of this so-called “bomb cyclone” well. It’s been below zero for several days with no snow for insulation. I feel sick thinking that the ranunculus dream might be dead for this year. I’m trying to chill, but it’s so so cold!

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January 10: I made my husband look in on them because I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing their lifeless little stems sprawled out on the landscape fabric! … They’re alive! A few leaves are brown from frostbite, but on the whole, the plants have made it! We rewarded their pluck with a hearty dose of fish emulsion and seaweed and a rousing, locker room-style pump-up talk (I’ve just realized they’ve taken Friday Night Lights off Netflix—I’m devastated! Clear eyes, full hearts, everybody.).

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January 21: it’s warming up—this week will be in the 40s-50s with lows in the 20s. We fed and watered deeply (three gallons worth of fish and seaweed).  They’re looking beat-up, but they’re alive and some are showing new growth sprouting up from among dead foliage. I feel good and hopeful—like they’re probably doing great in the ground—and there’s a chance they’ll actually bloom! Because it’s going to be in the mid-sixties tomorrow we rolled the plastic all the way back so they get some air and light all day tomorrow.

January 28: It’s warm again! I fed and watered and let in an hour’s worth of sunlight then shut them up tight for coming cold and snow.

February 13: We’re making it through winter! Today I rolled back everything—the plastic and both layers of Agribon and let the plants soak up an afternoon’s worth of direct rays, for which I suspect they’ve been starving. They’ve been bundled up tight for the past two weeks.

February 19: We’ve had insane rains for the last few days and the next ten days are going to be unseasonably warm so I pulled back the plastic outer layer of our tunnel. Spring is coming!

February 25: It’s amazing what a week of warm temperatures will do! All the plants are up and lush and green! Is this actually going to work?!?

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March 17: Despite the calendar, winter has been unrelenting here in Pittsburgh for the past few weeks. It’s been bitterly cold and they’re forecasting a major snowstorm. Hooray! (psych) It’s not getting me down because…drumroll…we harvested our first ever official Summer House flower today! It’s an anemone growing out in the field under the ranunculus tunnel, and it’s glorious. Glorious! I rolled back all the plastic and fabric and there it was, so lovely and luminous in the light. Can the ranuncs be far behind? This is the first time I feel we might actually have flowers this spring.

March 26: I took the plastic off for what I hope is the last time. Five or six anemones were flowering under the tunnel. The ranunculus look healthy and vibrant but no signs of buds yet.

April 11: I spotted our first ranunculus bud! Looks like it’s a pretty burgundy one, though I’m not sure because my half-a**ed labelling system has failed me over the course of this horrendous winter.  A bud!  I can’t believe it! Am I actually going to succeed at this?

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April 18: This is a nightmare of a spring, I tell ya. You know how in Beauty and the Beast it’s always winter at Beast’s castle because of the enchantress’s curse? Is that what’s happening here? Are we cursed? The weather simply REFUSES to round the bend. Seriously, where is the sun? Can I get several consecutive days in the 70s? In the 60s even?

April 28: Well. Here she is! Our first one! GORGEOUS, no? I can’t wait til this field is a sea of dancing ranunculus blooms. Seems certain at this point and nobody’s more surprised than me!

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Is youth wasted on the young? When we’re young and beautiful and energetic we’re also clueless and impecunious and helpless and ungrateful.

My mother died three months before my wedding. But she was with me on that day, I know. I wish so much that she were here today because so I often I feel desperate for her advice. If she’s been watching, I hope she’s proud of me and I hope she knows I’m learning there are good things that come only with age, like the courage to demand the things we really want, the wherewithal to know how to go about getting them, the resources to acquire them, and the gratitude born only from truly and totally earning something.

I’m no longer the fresh-faced milquetoast I was when I married. I’m a mother now, to babies who are growing up much too fast. My forehead is lined, my sciatica is a nightmare, I feel at times quite wilted, and I’m sometimes overwhelmed by regret for the time I’ve wasted.  But, know what? I finally have my own ranunculi.

That’s not so bad.