I’m not a fan of daylilies. Some may find that strange, since daylilies and bearded irises are superficially similar — a group of three petals and three sepals, for instance, and a wide variety of hues — and I have a lifelong affection for irises. Put aside the fact that daylilies are introductions in North America and considered invasive in places, where the orange ones have a habit of crowding roadsides with cloying popsicle color: they just have no style. In any of the innumerable hybrids there’s a kind of slack petal-splaying, feet-on-the-coffee-table tactlessness. And they compound all that with durability — they grow almost anywhere, tolerate drought and frost, and take advantage of my chief operating principle of benign neglect. I ignored them in a patch directly outside the front door for years, never watered them intentionally, and certainly never covered them through the winter, hoping they’d succumb. But up they came the following season.
(Irises, by contrast, have dignity. More than two dozen species are native to the U.S., including the mighty Iris missouriensis. All of the irksome qualities of Hemerocallis fulva — the color, the survivalism and self-propagation — are virtues in the iris. I don’t apologize for the bias. It has a rational basis: daylilies are extremely toxic to cats. Seriously toxic. Water from a vase, or pollen licked off the fur, can trash the liver. I sometimes wonder that we called our girl-cat, the Russian Blue, Lili. An unconscious talisman, perhaps, an apotropaic eye, co-opting the name to ward off the evil thing itself. And yes, I know that irises are also dangerous for cats. Sue me.)
Still, it took me ages to dig up the noxious plants. My attention was focused nearby, on a plot of herbs about the same size. The blue spruce just off the south deck was growing over the herb garden (see Colorado Blue Spruce). The bee balm was already in shade; it had migrated a few feet to the west, into sun. The others — several Nepeta racemosa, Melissa, lavender, common sage, rosemary, two varieties of oregano, and so on — were threatened. I ceded the herb garden to the spruce and prepared to move the plants. It wasn’t difficult to decide where, and after putting it off until this year, I finally got to the task of pulling up the daylilies, building a raised bed in their place, and designing a cold frame to cover it. In addition to the transplanted herbs, I hoped there would be space for new starts in the spring, or a holding area for bare root saplings, which always seemed to arrive in November, days before hard frost.
Easily decided, less easy to execute. The stolons and tuberous roots of the Hemerocallis ran inconveniently along the lower edges of the deck, where they were tough to eradicate. So the campaign took place over several seasons, beginning with a half-hearted excavation, and then more recently with a grim, determined massacre. I grabbed the root system’s goblin fingers, the bloodless ampules of cat death, and tossed them in a pile on the wheelbarrow. Once dried in the sun, they were handed over to my cousin, Joey “The Animal” Palmieri, each fitted with concrete galoshes, tied up in trash bags, and dropped in the deepest part of the reservoir.
Constructed from 8-foot lengths of 4×4 rough western red cedar (magical stuff) and cut to make a typical 4′ by 8′ frame, the raised bed is only fourteen or so inches high. Dowel and carriage bolts kept everything together. Somehow that simple-sounding process involved the purchase of multiple auger bits, a portable compact table saw, cordless sander, power planer, and more than twenty trips to the Home Depot on Magnolia. During one October errand I was pulled over by the cops a couple of blocks from the store. I’d just had a tail light replaced at the dealership earlier in the morning, along with a complete maintenance check, and so I found the policeman’s reason for the traffic stop odd. He explained that the brake light (or driver’s side parking light? it was unclear) was staying on after I’d driven through the intersection, something I was unable to duplicate later. Meanwhile his partner, a young woman, had pulled up in another patrol car and had taken a position on the passenger side, with her hand above her sidearm — no exaggeration — and a clear view into the vehicle.
“Could I see your driver’s license and insurance?” said the officer. I handed over the license and made a pointless gesture in the direction of the glove compartment for the other. The glove compartment was obscured by eight 2×4 kiln-dried studs, occupying the full length of the Jeep from dashboard to console to rear window. To his credit, the policeman took in the situation immediately: “I think you’ll have trouble getting to that. This will do. I’ll be right back.” His partner relaxed her gun hand almost imperceptibly. It seemed everyone would be going home to their families that afternoon.
The officer returned, looked again at the lumber, and said, “What are you building?”
“A raised bed,” I answered.
“It’s a little late in the year for a raised bed, isn’t it?” he asked, one eye cocked suspiciously. I mumbled something about taking advantage to the excellent weather to get a jump on the next season.
“Well, I’m going to let you go with a warning,” he said. (Instead of…a citation for gardening out of season?) And the warning is this, I expected him to say: if you don’t cover your rosemary it’s not going to make it through the winter in Zone 5 — you’ll need to bring it indoors, or get some burlap on it immediately. Have I made myself clear? Yes, officer. Burlap. Understood.
The partner walked back around to her squad car, which had been sitting, lights flashing, in the single lane of northbound rush hour traffic, did a quick U-turn, and headed off in the opposite direction. I still don’t know why I was pulled over. Perhaps a misleading reflection on the tail lights? More probably, the Jeep may have looked similar to another they were after, or it was just traffic stop practice for a new rookie partner. Do they do that sort of thing?
I finished the project without further police questioning, and shortly after our first snow, using more red cedar, Douglas-fir, and acrylic sheet, I also built one of two planned 4′ by 4′ cold frames. It sits waiting for spring, serene, unaware of daylily violence and its outlaw pedigree.