Rescue Plants

You hear a lot about rescue dogs these days, but what about rescue plants?

Near my garden shed I have a motley collection of pots containing unintended plants. They might be called rescues. One way or another, they were displaced from their original growing spots and ended up in pots. Some will be planted in new, hopefully appropriate, spots. Others are just marking time, subsisting in their pots until I plant them somewhere or, sadly, decide to dispatch them. (In the garden, one can’t have a 100% “no kill” policy).

The motley crew.

The motley crew.

Rescue plants arrive in a variety of ways.

Accidental cuttings. Convolvulus sabatius came from a bit broken off the main plant while poking around. It had flower buds so I put it in a vase for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, it grew roots, so I potted it up. It’s always good to have a spare of this plant, because I nearly lost it a couple of times. The rose “Fragrant Cloud” came as a cut flower someone gave me years ago. I must have been so impressed with the scent and colour that I intentionally rooted it. Then there’s a possibly pink (it’s never bloomed) iris. A chunk of the rhizome was snapped off when a hose snagged it. Once potted, it grew a fan of leaves. I intend to plant it (in a better spot, of course) and see if it is indeed pink. The “Dusty Miller” type plant (don’t ask me for the botanical name) visible in the above picture must be another accident. The main plant is in a big pot near my front door; I have no idea why I rooted another one.

Volunteer seedlings. I grow my tomato plants in pots these days. It’s amazing what else sprouts in those pots, from seeds that come from who knows where. Well, in the case of the peach tree, it was a pit that ended up in the compost and so in the soil for the tomato plant. When the Cornus sericea (red osier dogwood) popped up, I thought it was a Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii), an attractive native tree that has been struggling with disease of late. Then there was the walnut that sprouted at the edge of one of the perennial beds. I know of no walnut trees in the neigbourhood, so a bird or other creature must have brought it some distance before dropping it. I foolishly dutifully potted up all of these tree seedlings, thinking they deserved a shot at life. Trouble is, I have no room for more trees on this overgrown patch of ground, and the volunteers, now saplings, struggle along in pots, except for the Cornus sericea, which has grown roots through its pot’s drain holes and is now solidly rooted right next to the house foundation. This shrub tends to sucker. Not good.

Experiments. I have a habit of picking up seeds of roadside or trail-side plants that look interesting. A few years ago I saw what proved to be great willow herb, Epilobium hirsutum, in bloom by the bike trail I used regularly. I had never seen this plant before, so made a point of collecting a few of the fluffy seed clusters. Seedlings resulted. By that time I had identified the plant and was aware of its designation as an “alien invasive” and a noxious weed in Washington State. So I’ve kept it a prisoner in a pot and really don’t know what to do with it, because it’s obviously not happy and is no ornament. Lilium columbianum, on the other hand, is a desirable native lily, with elegant small yellow flowers. I managed to sprout three seeds a couple of years ago. The seedlings actually resprouted this spring — one minute leaf apiece. Then they were discovered by tiny slugs. Valiant rescue efforts ensued. The tiny sprouts died down about midsummer. I’m hoping this was normal — summer dormancy, you know. I’m hoping it isn’t permanent.

Gifts. Over the years I’ve been given some brightly-coloured mixed lily bulbs — brassy yellow, screaming orange, deep red. I couldn’t see them blending into my perennial beds, somehow, so popped them into a couple of pots where they bloomed happily for several seasons. Then they started to dwindle. So this year, I turned all the little bulblets out of the original pots and transferred them to different pots with fresh soil, all the while wondering if I was wasting my time.

Intensive care.  Another lily, another story. After my potted “Stargazer” lilies bit the dust a few years ago, I bought something called simply “Oriental Lily” that vaguely resembled them, but wasn’t as good. In the way of lilies, it bloomed well for a while, then went downhill. So last week I did pretty much the same thing as with the gift lilies described above. The difference is that in this case, I hope for success. Another salvage project was the hostas in a bed recently invaded by rapacious Norway maple roots, whereupon the hostas went from flourishing to feeble. I rescued a few divisions before they faded out altogether, with the intention of re-establishing them someday. In the meantime, they are quite happy in their pots near the pond.

Spares. Some plants are so useful it’s always good to have a few extras on hand. Lamium maculatum “Pink Pewter” is one of these. When I refurbished the Meconopsis bed a few weeks ago, where “Pink Pewter” was prospering, I saved some for future considerations.

Unrelated (but nifty) recent garden photos.

Trellis and witch hazel in fog

Trellis and witch hazel in fog.


Front garden and neighbouring trees in fog.

Front garden and neighbouring trees in fog.


Those asters again.

Those asters again.


Ailanthus leaves and rain drops in the pond.

Ailanthus leaves and rain drops in the pond.


Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) and Lychnis coronaria foliage.

Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) and Lychnis coronaria foliage.

The last dahlia bloom ("Bishop of Llandaff").

The last dahlia bloom (“Bishop of Llandaff”).





Acquiring Plants

My route to work often takes me along a walking trail with wildflowers growing nearby. For the past two or three years, I have observed a lone clump of shooting-stars (Dodecathon) growing in a rather shady spot, surrounded by fawn lilies (Erythronium). I first recognized it by its clump of basal leaves, which looked different from other plants in the area. Last year it managed a few blooms, and this spring there were many — a small cloud of purple near the trail. Too near, it turned out, because a few days ago it was gone, leaving only a shallow hole scraped in the soil by a plant thief. i don’t know how fussy shooting-stars are about their growing conditions, but transplanting wildflowers from their preferred habitats is not always successful. The poor thing may very well be dead by now.

This is not a good way to acquire a plant for one’s garden, but there are many legitimate ways. They illustrate beautifully the maxim “Good, fast, cheap. Pick two.”

You can make your own plants, growing them from seeds or cuttings. Sources of these are varied, ranging from purchase to collecting them from other gardens (with permission) or from natural areas. This option is somewhat suspect, but may be justified when the plant in question is abundant and the amount of seed collected is small. Cuttings are a good way to increase numbers of a plant you want more of, or as insurance. For example, I drastically pruned a curry plant earlier this spring, hoping that it would send out new growth from the old wood. So far it hasn’t really done that, but I do have three cuttings that appear to have rooted, and which will make three new plants. Grey-leaved, drought-tolerant plants such as lavenders, helichrysums and senecios often become woody and awkward in old age. Cuttings are a good way to replace them.

Gardeners often give surplus plants to others, especially to those new to gardening. If you have a lot of empty space and want to fill it quickly and cheaply, a generous neighbour may be a blessing. But consider that there is a reason for that surplus, and a few years down the road the blessing may become a curse.

Seeds and plants may, of course, be purchased from a variety of retail outlets. Mail order (or more likely internet order) is an excellent source for items such as rare or special bulbs or seeds, since those are fairly easy to ship. I am of mixed minds about obtaining non-dormant plants from sources that involve shipping by postal mail or even courier services. For one thing, the shipping charges are hefty, adding considerably to the cost of an order. For another, the supplier quite understandably takes measures to reduce the weight and volume of the items being shipped. This means removing most of the soil the plants grew in and wrapping them in plastic. Some endure this treatment, and grow quite well once planted; others don’t, and languish or die forthwith. If you are intending to plant a specimen obtained in this way into a spot with any challenges at all (vigorous surrounding plants, a hot or dry spot), it’s a good idea to pot it up after unpacking it, and coddle it until it appears strong enough to withstand the rigors of its permanent spot. Another thing to keep in mind is that once delivered, the plants must be unpacked and planted immediately, in temporary or permanent spots. It’s not a good idea to dump the box in a corner until the weekend.

My preferred way to buy plants is in person from a nursery. You can select them yourself and transport them to your garden in their pots. Happily for gardeners in my area, there are numbers of general and specialty nurseries close by, where one can obtain a good variety of plants, including new varieties. Another option is the plant sales of botanical gardens or horticultural societies; rarities may be available from these sources at reasonable prices, along with advice from expert growers. They are generally once-a-year events, and quite popular, so planning and early arrivals are recommended.

The only real hazard of plant-shopping in person is the impulse buy which results in a frantic gardener racing around with spade in one hand, new plant in the other, searching for a spot in which to accommodate the newcomer. My advice — don’t shoehorn the poor thing into a too-small space. Sacrifice a few tough plants of which you have lots and prepare a good site. For example: toadflax, campion, lamb’s ears, peach-leaf bellflower, yellow corydalis, etc., etc. You know the ones.