Winter Losses: a garden “In memoriam”

Despite a slow start, spring is sufficiently advanced that it’s time to declare dead any plant that hasn’t shown signs of growth. In my garden there have been two surprising deaths — Verbena bonariensis and Gaura lindheimeri.  The verbena is supposedly hardy to Zone 7, which I understand to be 0 to 10 degrees F.  The gaura is rated to Zone 6, so should survive a low of -10 to 0 degrees F. Last winter we had a couple of instances of -10 Celsius, which is 14 F. Therefore I am somewhat miffed that these plants gave up the ghost. Both were utterly reliable until then; in fact, the verbena threatened to become a weed, with its prolific seedlings. The gaura also self-seeded, but not as vigorously. Its primary fault was a sprawling habit that could become annoying in plants that weren’t well-placed, which is why I got rid of all but one.

Now both the verbena and the gaura are gone, and their faults have receded into the background. I will miss the verbena’s slim, trim profile that permitted it to squeeze into a crowd of other plants and hover over them with its clusters of purple flowers. I remember the elegance of the gaura’s white flowers fluttering in the dusk of late summer evenings. It’s a pity that it died just when I had learned how to manage it too — cut the stalks back by one half before bloom to achieve a bushier, less sprawling form. Maybe it resented that treatment and decided that death was preferable.

Fortunately, the pink form of the gaura survived — two plants are sprouting, although somewhat feebly. And of course, plants (unlike deceased people or pets) can be replaced. A quick trip to the nursery or, for those with more patience, growing new plants from saved seeds, and all is well until the next harsh winter.

Also deceased, but not as a result of winter weather, is a plant I thought of as something of a rarity, although I suspect it isn’t really — Saxifraga fortunei, dark-leaved, fall-blooming, with panicles of little white star-like flowers. I had it growing quite well in a pot (my solution when something appears to be struggling in my rooty ground). In fact, last September it bloomed better than it ever had. Then one day, it wilted. Investigations revealed an evil gang of little white grubs, which had devoured the roots. I sacrificed the blooms, got rid of the grubs and replanted in fresh soil — to no avail, as it turned out. It didn’t help that a squirrel dug it up a short time later, because I had forgotten to put rocks on the soil surface to discourage such depredations. I suspect that what really did it in was losing its roots just after it had expended a lot of energy in blooming, followed by the onset of cold weather a month or so later.

Saxifraga fortunei, RIP

On the other hand, I had a pleasant surprise this week when the dahlias sprouted. I have only three plants — one planted in the ground, a pinky lavender with great big flowers, and ‘Bishop of Llandaff,’ with scarlet blooms and dark red foliage. My two plants of the Bishop are both in pots. I wrapped them both up in November, but until sprouts appeared just a few days ago, I had given up on them and was castigating myself for not bringing the smaller of the pots inside during the really cold weather. So with this small miracle, maybe the Bishop will bloom again here.

Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'

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