dead plants

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'