Death in the Garden

Death is perfectly at home in the garden. It is, after all, the other half of the circle. Gardeners, therefore, become rather intimate with it.

Plants die. Sometimes the gardener kills them deliberately. That’s the way it is.

Death by Nature, or (Lack of) Nurture?

In my garden shed, I have a tin can stuffed with plant labels. Every one of the plants they represent is dead. As each death was confirmed, I stashed the label in the can as a memento mori.

Tags of the Departed

Tags of the Departed

Looking through them today was a sad little walk through the garden’s past. Two golden hostas, two kinds of pink Gaura, a number of blue-flowering plants (anchusa, veronica and balloon flower), and Cosmos atrosanguineus. I tried that one twice — an elegant small plant with dark, velvety flowers that smell like chocolate. But there were also plants I had almost forgotten. That lovely Coreopsis, “Moonlight” — pale lemon yellow flowers and dainty foliage. Years ago, I knocked myself out trying to make it happy, but it perished. So I tried another variety — “Golden Showers” — darker yellow and not as elegant, but that died too. Goodbye, Coreopsis. It all comes back to me now — the ecstasy, followed by agony.

Why did they die? Who knows? Probably not all for the same reason. Some of the obvious ones are poor site choice, insufficient soil preparation, winter-kill, too little water (or too much), or some sort of underground root-chewing creature. Or verticillium wilt. The list of plants susceptible to this organism is quite long, and I see a species of Coreopsis (tickseed) among them. On the other hand, foxgloves are also on the list and they grow well here. My first inclination is to blame the Norway maples whose roots spread throughout the garden. This is likely in the case of plants that prosper at first, in well-prepared soil from which the roots were removed, then dwindle as the roots return. But some of the plants whose tags repose in the Memory Can may have been duds right from the start. Among them is Rosa chinensis “Mutabilis,” a rose whose description made me think it was just the thing. Sadly, the plant I purchased died right out of the pot it came in, and I actually obtained a refund from the nursery, who assured me it came from a bad batch.

Whatever the cause of death, the gardener just has to get over it and move on — try again with a new plant, or give up on that species altogether. As Henry Mitchell said, “…the whole system rests essentially on death,” and, “If tender folk go to pieces for fear a plant may be hurt (even before it is hurt, and it usually isn’t), then how do they cope with the death of a dog or a person? We are not born to a guarantee of a voluptuous bonbon-type life, you know.”

No, indeed.

Death by Gardener

Gardeners are generally thought of as mild-mannered and harmless.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! In fact, after farmers, gardeners are almost the only everyday, non-special folks who get to exercise the power over life and death routinely, every day (if they weed that often).

Every gardener has an arsenal of potentially death-dealing implements, among them the human hand.

Garden tools, or instruments of death

Garden tools, sometimes used as instruments of death

Most of the time, these things are used to plant or trim (well, not the Swede saw). Occasionally, however, they are called upon to dispatch (i.e., kill) and remove unwanted plants. Not always weeds, either.

Every spring and summer, I pull up dozens of maple, laburnum, cherry, holly, spurge laurel and cotoneaster seedlings. Infant trees and shrubs, denied further existence by a gardener who does not want a small forest on her 50 by 120 foot patch of ground. Somehow, I have no problem with snuffing out their lives, but when it comes to dispatching a well-grown, healthy-looking specimen, it’s a different matter.

I actually hate killing plants.

Take these weeds, for example. There is a clump of them right by the door of the garden shed.

Great looking weeds.

Great looking weeds.

They are quite attractive, with their fresh, jagged foliage and little yellow flowers. Right now, I’m reluctant to pull them up. Once the flowers give way to seed pods, but long before the seeds ripen, I’ll cut them down. I’ve been doing that for years, and this small clump is all that’s left of a flourishing patch.

Then there’s campion, Lychnis coronaria, a weedy but utterly reliable plant. It grows and blooms in sun and shade, even in dry, rooty ground. The white form — and we’re talking a really bright, assertive white — is actually quite elegant.

White Lychnis coronaria and unknown Epimedium

White Lychnis coronaria and unknown Epimedium

The magenta kind looks good against green, and clashes well with other bright colours.

Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) and other summer blooms.

Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) and other summer blooms.

But both forms seed themselves enthusiastically, which means there are way too many of them here.

Note all the campion plants. especially the assertive white ones.

Note all the campion plants. especially the assertive white ones.

I’ve decided to remove any campion plants that are hard to reach for the purpose of deadheading (properly done flower by flower). I’ll do the deed once they’ve passed their peak of bloom and start to show their true weedy natures, but before the seeds ripen, of course. At that point I’ll have less compunction about digging them out. (Hmm. Seems to me I had the same plan last year).

It’s even harder to destroy shrubs or trees, especially if they look happy and prosperous. Take this Cornus sericea, a native plant related to dogwood. It popped up in one of the tomato pots several years ago. At the time I thought it might actually be a dogwood, so potted it up and watered it faithfully through the next few summers. Somewhere along the line, it rooted down into the ground and took off. Now it’s starting to be A Problem, slumping into the rain barrel.

Cornus sericea

Cornus sericea

This shrub can grow to 20 feet. I’d rather not have it right next to the house foundation. It’s also called Cornus stolonifera, which means it spreads by rooting where branches touch the ground. The kind thing would be to transplant it to a suitable spot, but I don’t have such a spot. So it has to go. One of these days, just before a trip to the municipal yard with a load of garden waste, I shall dispatch it. That way I won’t have to watch it wilt and shrivel, like these branches pruned last week from a ceanothus and a magnolia.

Ceanothus and magnolia prunings.

Ceanothus and magnolia prunings.

Back to tree seedlings, I’ve noticed three or four that popped up last year in different parts of the garden. I have no idea what they are, but last fall their few leaves turned interesting shades of orange. I thought at the time I had been blessed with some sort of desirable plants, and decided to observe them until I could figure out what they are. No luck there as yet, but the seedlings are growing well.

Seedling of unknown tree, possibly oak.

Seedling of unknown tree, possibly oak.

The leaves look different this year, bigger, darker green and not as deeply lobed. I’m wondering if they are some sort of oak, but not the native Garry oak. They must have originated locally, but the nearest non-Garry oaks are about half a kilometer away. Gardens are full of small mysteries.

The thing is, I will likely have to pull out some or all of these little trees someday. I’m not looking forward to it. The power over life and death is not held lightly.



  1. Good morning Audrey.
    I did enjoy the visit to your garden and the wealth of information. Thanks for the lovely pictures too.
    We always mean well, but our gardens tend to run wild and just go their own way (such as bulbs suddenly sprouting in places we were sure we didn’t plant them….I pretend I styled it all as a patch of nature.

    Liked by 1 person

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