The Blossom Butcher of Bavaria

18 April 2019

One of the joys of strolling through Alpine villages in Bavaria in the summer is admiring the balcony flowers. Red, pink and white geraniums spill out from every window, lending color to the traditional   white and brown half-timbered houses that line the streets.

It’s enchanting! This beat the big yards with barking dogs and driveways from where I grew up – by a long shot.

“I can grow those balcony flowers, too,” was my first thought after moving here. “I’m from the suburbs; we had a garden. I know all about spring planting, weeding and fertilizing.” Tomatoes need to get a head start in little boxes inside the house before you plant the seedlings outside as soon as the last frost is past. Picking green beans in the rain will cause them to rust. I even had insider knowledge: The smell of a ring of chives encircling the garden would keep rabbits out.

There’s no danger of rabbits getting to anything growing on my balcony, even if there were anything edible. The only wildlife outside the balcony door is the occasional bird searching for an errant twig for its nest, although I did once catch a squirrel swinging from a blouse that was hung there to dry.

But back to the flowers. With my deep gardening expertise, planting a few flowers in some boxes would certainly pose no problem. What could possibly be challenging about buying potted plants from the local nursery, transplanting them and hanging them from the balcony railing?

The geraniums that are standard Alpine flora would be too boring. No, it had to be something much more exotic. Walking through our Munich neighborhood, I saw all kinds of dazzling flower combinations and started dreaming up floristic fantasies of my own. Purple and violet flowers intermingling with small, delicate white ones; evenly spaced across multiple window boxes. Cornucopias of flowers spilling down, interspersed with miniature, heart-shaped green leaves competing for space. Flowers in deep purples, luscious reds and sparkling whites bursting out of boxes and draped over balconies.

I criss-crossed the neighborhood, craning my neck to inspect the perfectly sumptuous bouquets that everyone had. Everyone but me.

“I can do that, too,” I thought. A snap. There’s obviously nothing to it: Everyone around here has perfect flowers in their window boxes, so it must be easy. Otherwise there would be at least a few failed specimens around somewhere.

Actually, there are a few. They’re hanging from my balcony. Despite years of assiduous balcony flower tending, I just can’t get the hang of it.

My first choice of flowers was marigolds. Everyone knows that these grow pretty much like weeds, sort of like a more noble version of dandelions. Like a cloth shopping bag instead of a plastic one. I had seen these on neighborhood balconies and in flower beds, so they must grow well around here. We had these back home in Ohio, too, which was a plus point. It’s hard to make a mistake with marigolds; they’re practically indestructible. Seems like their unpleasant odor also used to keep some kind of animal away – or am I confusing them with chives? Whatever.

Somehow, I managed to destroy them anyway. The soil in the window boxes dries out so fast that I would come home from work on a summer day and discover it cracked and dry like fossilized dinosaur turds, the flowers toasting in the sun. Worse yet, if I went out at night and didn’t remember that the flowers had been frying all day, I’d forget to water them. For a day. Or two. Or five. And voilà!

The summer in Bavaria is usually mild, but on those few days when it’s really hot it will kill your balcony flowers, swiftly and silently with customary German precision. It lures you into thinking that a once-a-week sprinkling on Saturday morning, wedged in between a leisurely breakfast and going downstairs to get the laundry, will keep the flowers alive.

Zap! While you’re not paying attention the temperature suddenly climbs up to a dizzying 40°. Poof! The flowers are dead. You go out on the balcony to fill up the watering can and just as you turn the handle to open the balcony door you see the frazzled brown heads of the flowers fixing their accusatory stare on you with their dying eyes.

“Oops! I did it again,” I think, to quote Britney, except I’m in my bathrobe and nobody would ever fall in love with me looking like that, nor be impressed by the parched flowers that I of course must water anyway, as long as I’ve got the full watering can in my hand, just in case they are revivable (they aren’t).

Keep your eyes peeled if you’re ever in Bavaria in the summertime. They make it look so easy to have those beautiful window boxes. You will never find one with unhealthy, dying flowers. Unless, of course, you happen to be in my neighborhood.

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Expat chatter

An American from the Midwest, I landed in Bavaria many years ago. It's been an adventure from day one!

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