tree seedlings

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.


Maple Massacre

Every spring, I fell a forest. Or, more accurately, I uproot it. Trees by the hundreds perish at my hands. Hand, rather. It takes only one, because the trees are only an inch high when their lives end.

Sprouting Maple

My garden is dominated by two large maples (Norway, I suspect). There is also a giant red maple in the corner of my neighbour’s yard, right on our common property line. Maple seeds rain down in the fall, and although I rake up thousands of them along with the leaves, plenty remain to sprout in the spring.

When we moved here the 50 x 120 foot lot had six more trees than it does now. We cut down four of them (three young maples and a cherry) just about immediately, and had another huge cherry removed a year later. Another big maple, hogging a ten foot wide strip between our house and the one next door, was taken out ten years ago, freeing up land now occupied by hostas, lilies, ferns and hellebores.

I suspect that most of these trees were not planted deliberately, but were self-sown and overlooked until removing them became a major project. If not for my wholesale slaughter of innocent maple seedlings every spring, this lot would be a small forest of maple trees competing with one another for light, water and nutrients.

I don’t go on systematic hunts for maple seedlings, but every time I see one, I yank it out. A few always get missed and survive for a year or more, especially in unvisited corners of the garden. Eventually, though, they get big enough that I see them when they leaf out in spring, whereupon they are doomed. The instant I see their fresh, red-tinted green leaves, with the characteristic maple shape, out they come. I admit to a twinge of guilt for ending all these promising young tree lives. As a Canadian, I get an extra jab of guilt because of “The Maple Leaf Forever” and all that. There’s a maple leaf on my country’s flag, and here I am killing all these maples! At least they aren’t species native to this area. If I had a bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) or a vine maple (Acer circinatum), I would have a real dilemma when it came to destroying their seedlings.

The sad truth is that it’s either the maples or the garden. I can’t have both, and the garden suffers enough from the roots and shade of the maples that are already here. I tell myself that most of these seedlings wouldn’t survive anyway, but would be crowded out by the fortunate few. Superfluity seems to be Nature’s way — to sow the earth with multitudes, most of which are doomed to a brief and offspring-less existence. The big maples I live with are winners, and it’s possible that a few of their children will elude me.

I yank out seedlings of other woody plants as well — cotoneasters, spurge laurels, laburnums, hollies and the odd cherry. Garry oaks (Quercus garryana, also known as Oregon white oaks) are the great exception. They are sacred here, actually protected by law. These oaks are near the northern limit of their range, and too many are lost each year due to our habit of messing around with the land, building condos on it and so on. The Garry oak meadow is an endangered ecosystem, and efforts are being made (almost too late, as is typical of such efforts) to preserve and restore these meadows on southern Vancouver Island and the nearby Gulf Islands.

There was a young Garry oak, about a foot tall, on this lot when we moved here in 1992. It was about a foot from the house foundation, obviously not a good spot, so we moved it. Now it’s 20 feet tall and has been producing acorns for a couple of years. Last fall I found two baby oaks near its foot. Needless to say, I didn’t yank them out, and am anxious to see them prosper, never mind what will have to make way for them as they grow.