Plant Deaths and Grief

To a gardener, the deaths of plants are in a category of their own. They’re not like the deaths of people or pets, but some of them have similar effects.

Over the years, many plants have lived and died in my garden. I’ve even dispatched killed quite a few — those I considered weeds or otherwise undesirable. Too big, too ugly, potentially invasive, or just in the way.

Many plants come into the garden for one reason — to produce edibles. The whole point of growing them is to harvest and eat them. Many, such as tomatoes, are not cold-hardy in most parts of the northern hemisphere. Once the frosts hit them, they’re done. And that’s fine with the gardener, as long as they produced tomatoes before exiting the scene. This is also true of summer annuals such as marigolds or petunias. Bloom hard, die young, that’s their story.

But other plant deaths are disasters for garden and gardener. The death of a valued tree or shrub that was the focal point of a garden leaves a big hole. Or the demise of a perennial the gardener spent time and/or effort nurturing. Those are painful. Even the memories continue to twinge years later, when the gardener is reminded of them by photographs.

pink and white double tulip
This pretty little tulip succumbed to “tulip fire” disease.

When a valued plant dies, the gardener questions their skills and calls themselves a bad plant parent, for failing to provide the necessary care and attention. It’s especially tough when the plant was part of the garden or household for years or even decades. And especially if it was beautiful.

“Star Gazer” lily with Agapanthus in the background.

Plants whose deaths have hit me hard: a pink African violet, all those blue poppies, the “Stargazer” lilies, a big old jade plant that was left outside on a night of -3 degrees C, several Japanese maples killed by verticillium wilt, several delphiniums that succumbed to root rot.

A sudden plant death is easier to deal with than a long, lingering one. A saxifrage with reddish leaves and a cloud of starlike white flowers went from full bloom to wilted to dead in just a few days. A post-mortem revealed a gang of small worms around the roots. (The plant was in a pot.) I promptly discarded both the victim and the apparent cause of death.

Saxifraga fortunei October 2010
Saxifraga fortunei in October 2010, shortly before its demise.

Then there was the pink African violet. Reliable as a rock for twenty years, it decided to turn limp and fade away over a several weeks, no matter what I did.

Right now I’m going through that again, with a second African violet, a blue one I’ve had since 1993. It hasn’t made up its mind to die as yet, and even perked up for a while after I repotted it into fresh soil. But for weeks now it has looked feeble. Thinking its usual location was too cold, I moved it to a warmer spot. I administer water sparingly, hover over it every day, but its prospects aren’t good.

"Fragrant Cloud" rose fallen petals, fruit bowl, purple African violet
The blue African violet in better days. Barely hanging on now.

Because plants can renew themselves by growing offsets, or gardeners can perpetuate them by divisions or cuttings, it’s easy to think they should live forever. But they’re no more immortal than we are.

Plant deaths are evidence of a gardener’s failings. I selected the wrong plant for a particular location. I failed to dig a deep enough hole. I failed to supply adequate water or nutrients. I allowed other plants to overwhelm the newcomer. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Beats fist on chest. Thump, thump, thump.

There are as many rules for gardeners as there are for writers, and I’ve broken most of them.

But then, why did the stupid plant decide to die? Didn’t it know how much work I put into digging that hole, adding that compost, running out with the watering can to make sure it didn’t dry out? Those blue poppies, for example — why did they turn up their noses at what I offered them? First their noses, and then their toes. How dare they die! To hell with them!

Gardeners go through the stages of grief too: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sometimes acceptance is slow to arrive.

When it does, I find myself valuing the dead plants more than living ones. They become the fallen heroes of the garden, more worthwhile than the living plants simply because they are no more. If I have pictures of them, I can look back and remember.

These delphiniums are no more, but they looked gorgeous in their day.

In the meantime, I’m still at the bargaining stage with the blue African violet.

53 comments

  1. Oh my. This is quite affecting. Since I’m not a gardener and have no interest in plants, I’ve never thought of plants like this. It seems to me you are a very good plant parent. You care deeply!

    I really like the “bloom hard, die young” line. And also this quite profound bit:
    “Because plants can renew themselves by growing offsets, or gardeners can perpetuate them by divisions or cuttings, it’s easy to think they should live forever. But they’re no more immortal than we are.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have had lots of gardens over the years from a one acre plot to, now, a small collection of plants in pots. Strangely I found it easier to have a healthy garden in the big space. This current tiny garden is very difficult. What does manage to grow in the shade of the huge ash tree that dominates the space is often consumed by possums. The death rate is huge. You are right. Having plants die is really upsetting and demoralising. Good luck with the African violet. Having one stay alive since 1993 seems like as remarkable achievement to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gardening near a big tree is challenging indeed. We don’t have possums here, but the urban deer cruise by and snack on their favourites. My purple crocuses, for example. I’m learning what needs to be netted or sprayed with smelly deer repellent, so we can coexist. The African violet is hanging in there. I’d hate to lose it because I’ve lived with it so long. It’s almost an heirloom!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. That did occur to me. In fact, I realize I don’t know much about the natural life spans of plants. They have different ways of reproducing both sexual (seeds) and asexual (offsets, suckers, etc.) which makes it hard to say just when an individual plant dies. And the violet is hanging in there. Maybe with more warmth and light in spring it will start to grow again. Thanks for thinking of it, Suzanne.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve gardened this patch of land since 1992, almost as long as I’ve had that violet. It was a rescue from the office where I worked and has survived all these years, so I’d hate to see it give up. As of today, it’s still alive. 🤞

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  3. All so true about plants that struggle. You’ve certainly presented this in an entertaining manner, Audrey! I also feel guilty about plants left behind when I’ve moved. What’s become of them, especially those that had been transferred to my garden from my parents’ collection. I’ll never know…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point, Becky. I’ve had only one other garden besides my present one, but haven’t thought about it much since we left in 1992. I hope someone is still growing vegetables there; it was a much better spot for that than where I am now.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. To a gardener, plants are their babies- it hurts to lose them. This is a wonderful post, Audrey, I so love your garden! Where we are, all of our plants have to be in pots, which brings on a whole other level of difficulty- especially with our dry summers.
    We’ve been having issues with black rot on our roses. Hubby trimmed them back hard and made sure no branches cross, and other advice?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jacquie! I realized that most of the plants on my RIP list were growing in pots. I have to do that too, because some just can’t tolerate the maple tree roots. I’ve figured out that potted delphiniums have to be removed from their pots every year (after the first bloom period) and replaced with fresh soil. Otherwise the drainage gets poor and the roots rot over the winter. About your roses — are the black spots on the leaves? Black spot is very common on some types of roses. Spraying with a fungicide soon after they leaf out might help. Also not allowing water to splash onto the foliage when watering in summer. Of course right now, there’s a lot of water splashing around everywhere. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the delphinium tip. I’ve tried to grow them without much luck, maybe that’s why 🙂
        Yes, the rot is on the leaves. We try to remove the worst ones, but it’s a neverending chore. Last year, hubby cut them back to the root ball and amazingly enough, they came back! Now to see if the fungus is gone.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I am not an expert, but as a last resort, I’d take the violet out of the soil and see if it would grow new roots in water alone. I have done this with the offshoots of my violets, were the rhizome (if that’s what it is) had no roots of its own. In any event, good luck. House plants are like old, faithful friends.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s true, Chuck. We see them every day, even more than plants in the garden outside. They’re not quite like pets (no playing or purring), but they can be old friends. The violet seems to be developing some tiny new leaves in the middle, even though the outer ones are limp. Maybe there’s hope, but I’ll keep your last resort suggestion in mind.

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  6. A very thougthful post Audrey, never thought of things that way.
    As you know our small garden is feral and very proud of itself. At the onset of this winter by coincidence a large part was dug up to replace a drain, we take comfort from the fact we hadn’t spent the time on it we had planned to, back last spring.
    Who knows what will happen this year?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. My heart almost broke when a rose I’d planted over my beloved dog Kush was pulled out by the alpacas. I’ve never had much success with either grafting or taking cuttings, but I tried both and lo, one of the cuttings survived and is now as lovely as the parent.

    Most of my roses commemorate a beloved little friend so getting Kush’s rose back feels like getting him back, at least a little. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Audrey, I’ve gone through the self-recriminations as my plants die … and too have enjoyed the beauty of delphiniums and many other plants in our garden. I wondered if they have a natural life span. Wow! You’ve had an African violet for 20 years. That is amazing. I’m so sorry it it looking poorly … you are doing everything you can. My father in law bought me one many years ago which I nurtured for a decade before it succumbed – I felt silly for being so sad but reading you post understand my feelings more. Xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think we get more attached to house plants that we see all the time. They’re sort of like silent green pets. And of course African violets bloom regularly, so we come to expect that too. Thanks for reading and commenting, Annika!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I live in a rainforest, Audrey, where everything grows like weeds, including weeds. It’s like an alien invasion. I can’t keep up with the killing of plants and have definitely developed a cold heart. I did plant some fruit trees that the deer are snacking on. I’ll be sad if they don’t make it. Your garden is lovely – I do hope that this year it thrives. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh my gosh! hands up! I can relate with your blog regarding plant deaths! if only they have spirits they will haunt me.. I get emotionally attached to them as well and that’s the reason I made a poem/love letter in my blog dedicated to those poor plants that died under my care.. the title is “To all the plants I’ve loved before” LOL!

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