stages of grief

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.