Editing The Garden

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Knowing When To Let Go

The past decade has been full of challenging weather events, from massive snowfall, ice  and wind storms to heavy rain and flooding. Summers have been equally difficult, with cool, cloudy months giving way to sudden heat and drought.

All this is not news, of course, but the list is worth a moment’s review. What it all adds up to is remarkable and continuing stress for our plants. Even native trees and shrubs are affected by wild weather swings that ravage pampered garden beauties.

Resist Rescue Temptation

I get a lot of questions about how to resuscitate plants that have had more winter than they can handle. I know, it really is tempting to coddle frail, weather-worn plants. However, the result is rarely worth the extra work involved in garden rescue missions. First we modify the soil, perhaps root pruning and resetting a collapsing belle. We spread compost and top dress with aged manure. We add stakes to hold the failing stems upright, finally creating a web of ties like a cat’s cradle.

Perhaps we brew special blends of humic acids and kelp extract, adding a dash of mineral elixir and an aspirin tablet. Such a concoction may work wonders on tomatoes and roses (it does, in fact) but rarely suffices to restore a frost bitten tropical perennial. It may limp along for a while, looking awful all summer, but in the end, our treasure is clearly headed for the big compost heap in the sky.

Giving It All Up For Love

Does that mean we shouldn’t grow the borderline hardy plants we love? No, of course not. Love is always worth pursuing, and never wasted. However, after many years, I have come to feel that my time is better spent on cherishing hardy, independent plants that don’t need me very much. Plants that can’t take the highs, the lows, and the swings between are least painfully considered as annuals.

Some may be quite expensive annuals, but if you really love the look of a particular ginger or New Zealand flax, for example, you may consider their price as money well spent. For the cost of a fine dinner that lasts a few hours, you can enjoy a beloved plant for at least 6 months, and if we’re lucky, perhaps a few years. Pro-rated on a dollars-per-hour-of-pleasure basis, that costly plant is a bargain, not to mention the health benefit accrued in the act of planting.

An Annual Investment in Joy

Thus, we can face the annual task of removing the dead and dying with renewed strength and courage. While recycling expensive former plants into the compost heap, why not focus on past pleasure as well as pleasure to come. Yes, the plant is a goner, but wasn’t it lovely? And won’t it’s replacement bring you joy as well, should you choose to try, try again?

If you do replant, ask yourself whether a new location might give your fragile beloved a better chance to shine. For me, the issue is not longer whether I can coax a plant to survive, but whether or not I can successfully help it thrive. I no longer want to work so hard, and I get new and deeper pleasure from observing happy, healthy plants that joyfully make a home in my garden with very little input from me.

Tougher Loving

My new approach is still surprising to my dear Friday Tidies, the noble volunteers who have helped me create several acres of glorious gardens around our public library. We meet, as might seem clear, on Friday mornings all year round to keep these public gardens gorgeous. The Friday of the big snow this January was the first time in almost 15 years that we had to cancel, which says a lot for our weather karma.

My gallant crew is used to me going to great lengths to save often unpromising plants. For years, I used a wide, sometimes ridiculous range of tactics to keep plants alive that might truly be better off dead. Now, when asked what to do with this dwindling perennial or that faltering shrub, I am apt to say, “Oh, let’s just dig it out and try something else.” The Tidies eye each other nervously and rush away to do it before I have time to change my mind.

Comfort In Compost

I almost never do have second thoughts about such decisions these days. Some of my newfound peace with change and decay is probably due to having spent a year in mourning for the loss of my husband. A marriage that ends in death perforce brings the topic close to the heart. What I know now is that death is far from the worst thing that can happen to a person or a plant. I realize that my view of compost is perhaps a bit romantic (boggling as the thought may be), yet it really is comforting to think in terms of recycling, not utter ending.

Mary Oliver wrote a poem called Heron Rises From The Dark Summer Pond in which she thinks how unlikely it is that “death is a hole in the ground.” As I planted this week, I realized that for gardeners, a hole in the ground is not about ending but about hopeful beginning.

This year, I intend to move forward joyfully and fearlessly, looking back with love and compassion. Out with the old, gently and sweetly, making respectful room for something new. Onward.

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4 Responses to Editing The Garden

  1. What a beautiful article. You have articulated everything I have always felt in my heart about the value and pleasure of plants in our lives. Thank you!

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Thanks, Theresa!

      It’s always lovely to get such positive feedback and realize that perhaps I did manage to say what I hoped to about the power of plants and their place in human lives. I know I owe much of my own mental, physical, and even spiritual health to my relationship with green growing things. I really appreciate your kind words.


  2. KathyG says:

    I am writing a very belated reply to this lovely post — I have only just discovered your wonderful, wonderful blog. I love the gardener’s perspective about a hole in the ground being a new beginning rather than an ending. So true! yet I had never thought of it that way before. After a year of my own kind of mourning (for 10 years of putting my own gardening dreams on hold while caring for a relative) I am looking at my garden this year with fresh eyes — and in some cases, with ruthless ones. I love your descriptions too, of the Friday Tidies — wish I had some here!

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Kathy,

      After far too many years of putting not just my garden but much of my life on hold while caring for dear ones, I am now blossoming into renewed energy. I decided not to wait for some perfect moment but to jump right in, resources not withstanding, to renovate both the house and the garden. What a joy to find that I am blessed with truly wonderful help, which is almost magically coming out of the woodwork. In fact, my dear Friday Tidies started me off by coming here, 14 strong, and helping me get a grip both indoors and outside, as my 60th birthday gift. Unlike some folks, I adore remodeling and renovation and the sound of the saw makes me happy (odd, I know). May you be equally blessed with vision and assistance!


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