dead plants

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.

Lily-flowered magnolia "Susan" in April 2014

The Rites (and Wrongs) of Spring

Spring has settled in and I’ve done the usual things associated with the season: edging the perennial beds, distributing enriched compost, cutting the grass, seeding tomatoes (indoors), cutting down old dead stuff, and, of course, pruning. Pruning is always a challenge, often involving ladders, rose thorns, and holly prickles. Then there’s disposal of the trimmed off stuff — more thorns and prickles.

But now all that’s done, and the deadheading and watering phase hasn’t started. The garden is looking pretty good (except for certain spots to a discerning eye). Time to list the good and the less-than-good (i.e. bad) things I’ve noticed so far.

The Bad

  • poppy pagoda to protect blue poppies from winter rainAll except one of the blue poppies (Meconopsis) perished over the winter, despite (or maybe because of) being transplanted to deluxe quarters in half-barrels last autumn. Even the specially built roofs on legs, intended to protect them from winter rain, didn’t do the trick. I think my mistake was the pea gravel mulch, which kept the soil too moist through the winter. The sole survivor looks a bit feeble, but I’m letting myself hope it will survive. Local nurseries don’t as yet have any plants in stock, but I plan to give this fussy species another try.
  • The reliable-as-furniture ferns (Dryopteris species and others) haven’t unfurled their fiddleheads yet. Usually by mid-April they are well under way. They’re alive but dawdling. Why? The past winter wasn’t that harsh. Could it be because I cut down last year’s fronds too early, before the last hard frosts?
  • A potted delphinium has, like the blue poppies, succumbed to root or crown rot, probably because I didn’t repot it into fresh, uncompacted soil last year. Delphiniums need that near-mythical combination of “moist but well-drained” soil. If they’re grown in pots, the gardener needs to keep in mind that the soil becomes dense and less well-drained over two or three years. The next winter administers the kiss of death. Goodbye, delphinium.
  • A couple of tulips appear to have “tulip fire,” a disease caused by the fungus Botrytis tulipae. They will have to be dug up and disposed of. This problem is new to me. Those particular tulips have occupied their spots for years — which, I understand, is the problem. The longer they remain undisturbed, the more susceptible they are. If I decide to replace them, the new bulbs will have to be planted in different locations.

The Good

  • The winter massacre of crocuses (most likely by rats) wasn’t as bad as I thought. Some areas escaped completely.
  • A potted hosta I thought was a goner after it was dug and dumped by some creature (probably a raccoon) has sprouted out nicely.
  • The pretty blue* bindweed relative, Convolvulus sabatius, has survived the winter well, unlike other years when it didn’t show above ground until June. I also have hopes that Gaura lindheimeri made it. I still don’t know why this plant, supposedly hardy to Zone 5 or 6, has a habit of dying here in Zone 8. My soil is sandy and well-drained, which is supposedly what it needs.
  • Daylily “Hyperion,” which I dug up and divided in February because it seemed to be in decline due to pushy maple roots, appears to be doing well, both in its old spot (from which I removed a lot of roots) and the two new ones.
  • Clematis armandii foliage and flowers in holly bush

    Clematis armandii and holly

    I managed to prune both Clematis armandii and the holly that supports it without inflicting major unintended damage to the clematis. It tends to grow in loops and figure eights, so if pruning is needed (best done as its blooming period ends), you can’t just snip anywhere. My rule is never to make a cut unless I can see the end of the thing being cut. There’s nothing worse than seeing a whole section of the plant wilting a few days later because of a blind cut.

  • After a dry March, we’ve had an abundance of rain in April. The real test, of course, will be June, July, and August. At least one of these months will be rainless. If it’s two consecutive months, there will be groaning and gnashing of teeth by this gardener.
  • The pink magnolia is blooming heartily. So are forget-me-nots and bluebells. And gentians, which are intensely blue.*
  • The apple tree and lilac have obvious plans to bloom soon. In general, the garden looks fine.

Back garden spring 2018 birthday birdbath

Part of the back garden, featuring the birdbath that was this year’s birthday present. A few birds have actually used it for bathing purposes.

April 6, 2016

Gentiana acaulis

* Like many gardeners, I have a thing for blue flowering plants, many of which are hard to grow (blue poppies and delphiniums, for instance). One type of gentian (Gentiana acaulis) seems to do fairly well here, and forget-me-nots are practically a weed. For them I am grateful.

White daffodil with pale yellow middle near pond

Plant Material

Now that spring is imminent, perennials are poking their noses above the ground, telling gardeners that they are alive and ready for another growing season. Gardeners hover anxiously over spots where particularly fussy or cold-intolerant specimens were last seen, hoping for a sign of life.

003I’ve been hovering over my blue poppies. Late last summer, I transplanted them to what I thought were deluxe accommodations in half-barrels. Excellent soil, no tree roots, and a pea gravel mulch intended to prevent crown rot. Custom made roofs on legs to keep away winter rain. No efforts were spared. The plants settled in nicely and made new growth before they went dormant for winter. So far this spring, things don’t look good. I’m beginning to think the pea gravel was a mistake; it probably kept the top layer of soil moist enough for the dreaded crown rot to do its thing. If all seven plants are dead, I’ll have to acquire new ones and try again.

The white and yellow daffodil in the featured image has bloomed faithfully each spring since the mid 1990s. At first there was only one flower; a few years later, there were two, and the past two or three springs, it’s produced three flowers. So what? Daffodils are planted out by the thousands in parks and even in some private gardens. But this one plant is easily identifiable, and so regular, that I have come to recognize it as an individual.

This picture — of a gardener fussing over a few plants, or even a single one — is completely removed from the way plants are sold and handled on a commercial scale. We’ve all seen hundreds of potted plants for sale, not at nurseries or even garden centres, but at grocery stores, hardware stores, and discount consumer outlets. No one fusses over these units produced by mass propagation. They’re given minimal attention by busy staff, wheeled in and out of display areas daily, get knocked over by windstorms, and finally start to look a bit stressed. Plants that don’t sell by the end of July are put on deep discount and finally trashed. At least they’re compostable.

Then there are instant gardens installed by landscape contractors driving trucks with graphically designed logos on the doors. In a week, the job is done. A multitude of perennials and shrubs has been plugged into the ground in pleasing patterns. The operation has more in common with laying carpets or interlocking bricks than with my kind of gardening. Freshly finished, such gardens look lovely and (on a bad day) make me think mine — the result of a quarter century of earnest digging, planting, watering, and anxious hovering — looks pathetic by comparison. Of course, if not maintained by someone who knows what they’re doing, those installed gardens go downhill pretty fast. I’ve seen it happen.

Those who do large scale garden work seem to have a utilitarian or even disrespectful attitude toward plants. Often, it starts with razing and removal of every growing thing on a city lot — and of the original house too — followed by digging a great big hole, maybe a bit of blasting. A huge house is erected and landscaping installed by a contractor. Another contractor provides an irrigation system, probably programmed and controlled with a smartphone app. A truck pulls up once a week, disgorging fast-moving people wielding power tools who buzz through the place, mowing, trimming, fluffing up the soil and adding mulch. As long as the bills are paid, the place looks fine. In such gardens, you don’t see any shabbily-dressed figures (i.e., resident gardeners) drifting around, peering at plants and scuffling inefficiently, making repeated trips to the shed for yet another tool, a couple more stakes, or a ball of twine.

I want to say that the instant garden isn’t really  a garden, and those yard maintenance folks aren’t gardeners. I suspect this idea may be tainted with irrational sentimentality, but I’m clinging to it anyway. To me a garden is a patch of earth sweated over by someone who knows almost every plant that grows from it, who rejoices when those first shoots appear in spring and mourns when they don’t.

I suppose what I’m really talking about is analogous to the difference between the backyard chicken flock where every hen has a name, and the industrial poultry system. The small, personal garden and the installed landscape are really two different (if related) things. Each has a place, but in me they evoke opposite reactions.




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.


Garden Nostalgia

A couple of days ago I finally deployed some really nice plant ID markers that I was given last Christmas. Since there were only 20, I decided to use them to mark plants I would hate to lose, but which are threatened by nearby tough, pushy plants. I walked around the various beds and made a list of possible subjects, then narrowed it down to 20 and made up the labels. Written on with pencil, they are reusable and correctable, which is a good thing.

Label for Gentiana acaulis

I couldn’t always remember the names of the plants, not well enough to write them out, anyway. It’s like names of people you know; they may be friends of many years’ standing, but you can’t spell their surnames correctly without looking them up. That is especially true of botanical Latin (and of course I had to use it to demonstrate to anyone that happens to see these labels that I know my stuff).

So I turned to a beat-up notebook in which I’ve written down garden notes for the past 20 years — mostly lists of things to do and helpful hints gleaned from various books, but also lists of plants purchased and seeds sown. And there’s that pile of old nursery catalogues, many of which contain long lists of Plants to Order, and packing slips showing which ones were actually ordered.

I found the information I needed, but the whole experience was a stroll through the garden’s history — list after list of plants, many of which are long gone to a better world. That Itea virginica purchased in June 1994, for example, perished after a few years of struggling along in my dry, sandy soil. Cosmos atrosanguineus, the chocolate cosmos (the flowers really do smell like chocolate), acquired with great excitement in 1998, is now long dead. At least it bloomed before it gave up, unlike a white fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium “Album”), which never settled in here. (The common purple variety comes up regularly all over one of my perennial beds). Another total failure was Rosa chinensis “Mutabilis,” which croaked while still in the pot it came in. I think I got a refund for that one, but I still regret it, because descriptions of it sound delightful. I see that I tried a couple of types of blue Corydalis — “Blue Panda” and something called “Dufu Temple Form,” which I vaguely recall as more purple than blue. They are now gone (but the ordinary yellow Corydalis lutea is firmly established and spreading). And finally, there are a few things I don’t even remember. Anemonella thalictroides? Something that has qualities of anemonies and of Thalictrum? It must have died neatly and quickly, leaving no trace in my memories. The saddest thing is that the nursery from which I bought most of these plants is gone too — either out of business or at least out of the retail trade. I still have copies of all their catalogues from 1994 to 2001. Looking at them, I remember my twice-yearly visits to the place, returning to my garden with new plants and new hopes.

On the plus side, many of the plants in my notes and listed in those old packing slips are still alive and thriving, or at least surviving. Euphorbia characias “Humpty Dumpty” is a big, fat thing in full bloom right now. The Dryopteris ferns I bought in 1994 are sending up fiddleheads yet again. Hosta tardiflora bloomed last October, and I hope will again in future Octobers, having survived being chomped by the deer that visited the garden a few weeks ago.

That’s the thing about gardening in the same place for many years. Plants come and go; some succeed, others fail, quickly or slowly, depending. Others do well and become part of the furniture of the garden, only to vanish suddenly in a hard freeze or a worse than normal drought, shocking the gardener who took them for granted. But if not for all those records — scribbled lists, packing slips, records of seeds planted — I would very likely have forgotten a lot of this stuff forever. Remembering those vanished plants (most of them, anyway) reminds me of how rich and complex the life of a garden is, even a small and modest one like mine.

Plant ID

Managing an undisciplined perennial bed is rather like keeping track of a bunch of unruly children. It’s impossible to keep your eye on everyone and almost certain that someone is perpetrating mischief when you’re not looking. Plants get bigger, die suddenly, seed exuberantly and send out sneaky runners that pop up in spots never intended by the gardener. In a mixed border that contains shrubs, perennials, grasses and bulbs, it can be hard to tell who’s who, what’s where and whatever happened to that.

I’ve done a lot of raking lately, including pulling leaves from the perennial beds, working around cut stalks, standing stalks, shrubs and stakes. Not infrequently, I find plant labels among the leaves I’ve raked out. Geranium macrorrhizum “Album,” one proclaims. Brunnera macrophylla “Jack Frost,” says another. With luck, I’ll actually remember where these plants are and restore the labels to the correct spots. But not always.

Years ago, I bought a supply of plant tags made of thin copper. The idea was to impress a plant’s name into the soft metal with a pen and attach the label to the plant using the wires at one end. That’s fine for shrubs, but doesn’t work so well for herbaceous subjects that die down when dormant. For those — tulips and lilies, as I recall — I fastened the tags to short stakes which I inserted next to the plants they designated. The problem was, of course, that over the years the stakes rotted and fell over. Occasionally I rake them up, with the copper labels still attached and pretty much illegible due to oxidization. So much for that. (Most of the lilies have succumbed to tree root competition, so it really doesn’t matter).

Some will ask — why bother with plant labels at all? Why make your garden look like one of those meet and greet sessions where the participants all wear a sticker that says “Hello my name is …?” Can’t you tell what the plants are just by looking at them? Yes, when they have top growth. But when they go dormant — and of course a lot of bulbs are summer dormant — they may as well not exist, until the gardener jabs a fork into their midst to plant something else. Then there is swearing and lamentation at the impaled lily bulb or whatever.

Many gardeners draw up maps of their perennial beds, usually at the planning stage. In theory, these maps can be kept up to date and referred to before doing any digging, but let’s be realistic. It’s hard to keep up with all the antics plants get up to on their own, and it takes a pretty obsessive-compulsive type of gardener to note on the map all the changes that happen over the years. I’ll bet most of us have no idea where these maps are after a while.

Plant labels are the logical choice, but it’s hard to find good ones. Wood rots, plastic becomes brittle and snaps. Any label stuck in the ground is vulnerable to being yanked out by a rake or raccoon (seriously!), or buried. The best labels are probably ones made entirely of aluminum or zinc. I understand they can be written on, and presumably the writing won’t fade. I note that permanent marker pens are recommended, but really, is anything permanent when subjected to outdoor conditions year after year? Those metal labels are quite pricey as well — about $2 each for oversize aluminum ones, although somewhat more modest zinc ones are less than $20 for a set of 25.

I admit that after my experience with the copper tags, I’ve pretty much given up on labelling my perennials. When I plant something new, I dutifully stick the plastic label it came with into the soil beside the plant, consigning it to its fate. Ironically, if the new introduction happens to expire in short order, I retrieve the label and put it into a tin can in the shed — a kind of memorial to plants that didn’t make it. Looking through this catalogue of failures is humbling and disheartening. Cimicifuga racemosa, Ajuga reptans “Burgundy glow,” Imperata cylindrica “Red Baron,” Coreopsis verticillata “Moonbeam.” It’s a long list of plants that simply could not face the thought of life in this garden and made an exit to a better world. Requiescat in pacem. At least all those labels have given me something to remember them by.

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'