If you do something consistently for over 30 years, it is inevitable that you will learn a few things along the way. Sometimes you learn against your will, sometimes by accident, occasionally by intention, and frequently by repetition. I’ve learned that plants are individuals – just as we in the animal kingdom are – with their own unique characteristics. Some plants are demanding and fussy – they seem to expect the best and on their schedule. Hybrid roses come to mind. Other plants can take it on the chin and keep growing all the same – for instance, cotoneasters can take anything a gardener throws their way and thrive. Some get along well with their neighbors while other plants make their displeasure known in dramatic ways. For example, some years ago I bought a lovely peony and planted it in a place that matched its requirements perfectly – or so I thought. I watched it fail quickly and dramatically. It suffered for three years – nothing I did seemed to help it. As a last, desperate attempt to save the plant, I moved it. Within a month I saw new growth and improvement in overall appearance. The only reason I could find for its improvement is that I moved it away from a large group of dusty millers (Senecio cinereria) it had initially been planted near. It’s thriving now. Go figure.
Plants interact with each other and learn from each other. Some years ago my Ribes rubrum, Glorie des Sabions, was being eaten down to the stems by some nasty bug infestation. The Ribes was planted in my alley bed (a rough neighborhood!) next to a stand of goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) and Spiraea japonica. As I don’t use pesticides, my only solutions were to spray the plant with a blast of water to wash off the bugs and to search out the hangers-on and squish them (wearing thick garden gloves). This infestation went on all summer. The next year, I noticed that the goldenrod had a small infestation of the same bugs but the Ribes was clean. I checked a remote stand of goldenrod but that seemed unaffected. This time I left the plants alone and discovered that the following year none of my plants were being eaten, but the garden bed immediately across the alley from mine was being chewed to the stems. Apparently, my plants had learned to flush their tissues with chemicals that were so unappetizing to the bugs that the plants were free of infestation thereafter.
Some plants are so easy to get along with that the gardener forgets she planted them until weeding and mulching a bed and coming upon a gorgeous frilly pink Dianthus in full, glorious bloom! Good for it because it didn’t received water after it was planted. It loves me anyway – even more so now that I take care of it. My Dianthus mooiensis has reminded me of the need to Pay Attention, also known as being Mindful. (How old is that lesson?!)
And plants are forgiving. Some years ago I bought a gorgeous Rhododendron occidentale, Western Azalea, at the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden (a favorite garden of ours). I planted it under the dappled shade of a large, mature Rosa glauca, watered it well, and then promptly forgot about it. In my defense, that spring and summer were particularly unpleasant due to sibling issues, and the lovely little azalea was part of the extensive collateral damage of that year (2016). When I finally came upon it while doing some late summer clean-up, it was so wilted and forlorn I was convinced I had killed it by neglect. I dug it up, placed in it a container with fresh potting soil and lots of water, and by late September it had fully recovered (although with a few less leaves). It didn’t bloom the following year but it gave us a gorgeous bloom in 2018, and each year since. It is now in-ground and thriving.
Lessons from a garden are infinite – as many lessons as gardeners, really. I thought of this as I ended my work on a recent cold winter day. What we read from the results of our actions are as important as the actions themselves, and an illiterate reading of a garden harms the gardener and the garden residents.
As evening arrived I gathered up my tools as the sky gathered up the light of day and I went inside for the night.
I wish you a successful, productive and peaceful new year.