garden losses

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.

The Rigors of Winter Begin

Here on Canada’s west coast, the first snowfall always seems grossly unfair. “It’s not supposed to do that here!” we grumble, looking frantically for ice scrapers and snow shovels. This year’s first snowfall was kind of early — mid-morning on November 22. The interesting thing was that the temperature dropped significantly from 9 a.m. to after noon, from -2 Celsius to -5. This meant that the snow didn’t turn to slush in short order, even on well-travelled roads. It became ice instead and traffic chaos ensued. Now, four days later, the snow is pretty much gone, but its effects linger on.

I thought my garden was ready for winter. I had brought inside a few frost-tender plants I wanted to preserve, and wrapped up the pot containing the dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff.” Its ungainly overcoat is made of an old bath mat, toilet clothes — an absurd invention if ever there was one — and bubble wrap, topped with a couple of old car floor mats. This wrapping has saved the dahlia through several winters during which the temperature hit -8 C. On November 23 it flirted with -10 C, so I’m a bit apprehensive, but won’t know until spring whether the Bishop has survived.

Pot with Dahlia and Senecio wrapped for winter

That’s the thing about these cold-and-snow events — you often don’t know what damage they’ve done until months later, when plants that were teetering on the border of winter hardiness fail to come up. I leave dahlias, both potted and grown in the ground, out all winter, and they have survived for years. I used to half-bury pots with various perennials and shrubs in the vegetable garden, but got lazy and now just move the ones I suspect are especially tender close to the exterior walls of the house, where they may have a bit more shelter than in the open garden. Somehow I haven’t had any devastating losses — yet.

What is immediately distressing after the first snow is the decline in the aesthetics of the garden landscape. It’s one thing to see bare trees and cut down stalks replacing summer lushness, but that’s just the transition to the autumnal scene. The basic structure of the garden is still there. Until this week, leathery hellebores and stalwart ferns maintained spots of living green among the dormant perennials and fallen leaves. Today everything looks battered. Hellebore leaves lie flat on the ground, fern fronds are broken, making tent-like messes around the crowns of the plants, and blackened flags of Japanese anemone foliage stir feebly in the breeze.

Winter wreckage in the perennial border

As with most garden-related distress, the solution is to do some work — cut down anything that looks really ugly, like acanthus foliage turned to mush and the dessicated, broom-like stalks of Gaura. Saw down the mulleins that are way past their best, looking like pathetic scarecrows. Rake out the leaves packed in between perennial stalks by the wind. Pull out or straighten leaning stakes and cut down or tie up whatever it is that they were supporting.

Inevitably, moving around in the garden, doing whatever needs to be done, improves the gardener’s outlook. As you work among the plants, you see things that don’t look too bad, despite their seasonal decline. Once the worst offenses to the eye are dealt with, you even find a few sights worth admiring. As always, the gardener serves the garden, and vice versa.

Mixed border going into winter

Pot with Athyrium niponicum var. pictum by icy pond