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Garden goofs: If only I’d known then what I know now

A gardener reflects on his many mistakes – and successes.

By Craig Summers BlackCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 2009

Rich Clabaugh/staff

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I figure that a plant is not garden-worthy in my landscape unless I have killed it not once but three times.

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So skeptics might say that my gardening motto is “Been there, killed that.”

Much of this delusional planting is the result of zonal denial (surely this lovely euphorbia can take our Siberian winters in Iowa), disagreements with nature (I say this low spot is a bog, and the skunk cabbage will endure), or my iron whim. (This Japanese snowbell is the most gorgeous tree I’ve ever seen. What can I lose?)

Well, I lost that tree – and all those other spiffy plants. Lessons learned; and expensive ones at that.

But sometimes I kill plants because I am an ignoramus. Take the time I planted tree ferns upside down. I kid you not.

Trying to save money, I bought the usually towering trees as corms that looked kind of like shaggy coconuts. I planted them in back of the house and waited. And waited.

If that raccoon hadn’t dug one of them up a couple of months later, I would never have known that the poor dears were struggling to grow toward the earth’s core.

I did unearth and upend them, but, alas, the damage was done. They were all tuckered out.

So you’d think that 10 years later when I planted a grouping of bare-root ostrich ferns at a new home in a colder climate, I would have gotten up and down straightened out.

Wrong.

They, too, were trying to take a journey to the center of the earth. But at least this time, because I had my suspicions, I didn’t wait so long to dig them up.

The result, however, was the same. You might think I’d have been doubly discouraged. But no. Somehow, in my twisted reasoning, I felt vindicated.

Sometimes I blame garden writers for giving me bad advice. Not garden writers like me, mind you. Of course not. Other garden writers. The ones that make everything seem so hard.

Take the myth of planting asparagus crowns in long, deep, sweat-soaked trenches. I did that once. What a waste of time. Now I plant them like any other plant – in a hole. And not a very big one. Works just fine, thank you very much.

Or that old saw about how you must dig a $10 hole for a $5 plant – and add $20 of compost and fertilizer and fluff. Wrong-o. My plants loved those little hollows of amped-up bug juice so much their roots never left, circling round and round until they pretty much strangled themselves.

So now I save effort and coins by just plopping plants in the ground.  Generally they do just fine.

Sometimes I blame nurseries for my less-than-stellar results.

I was lured by a spiffy variegated artemisia a few years back. I snapped up one and it looked positively glorious that spring, a low-growing little splash of gold in the shade. Then it grew three feet tall, lost its flashy coloring, and marched across the yard, onward invasively almost into the Sudetenland.

I spent the next two years removing it. I think it should be illegal to sell this plant. Look for it by name: Artemisia vulgaris ‘Variegata’ – and avoid it at all costs.

On occasion I even blame catalogs for the plants I kill. Now don’t get me wrong. When you narrow the field of garden catalogs to the ones that describe their offerings accurately, pack the plants well, and offer a modicum of value, you have entered garden paradise.

But before you discover which catalogs fit that description, you’re going to make a bunch of mistakes and kill a bunch of plants. Again.

One catalog that shall remain nameless seems to have built a business model on ridiculously cheap plants guaranteed to fail. Needless to say, I stopped buying from these folks.

But another catalog simply required getting used to. After I received my first shipment, I knew why a friend called this famous, influential nursery Starters R Us. They sent tiny plants that disappeared in less than a growing season.

But these were good plants from a good vendor. I just needed to plant them in pots or in a protected spot in the vegetable garden for a year until they were large enough to fend for themselves.

Ultimately, though, the fault in all these large follies and little deaths lies with me:

Did I really need to start 60 tomato plants from seed one spring? Is it really possible I tried to train a grapevine into a shade tree? Or that I chopped down a four-inch-thick, 25-foot-tall poison oak vine with an ax? How many friends did I lose trying to pass off the voluminous bounty of six zucchini plants?

But the successes. Ah, the successes. Sometimes you look at a little grouping of plants you’ve nurtured – in my case a little blue-leafed rose between a purple Japanese maple and a tall chartreuse euphorbia – and you can’t help but smile. Nice.

And I still cherish the memory of a weekend that I spent landscaping an overgrown traffic island near my house on the West Coast. People driving by honked and cheered. One guy stopped and gave me a trunk full of iris divisions to add to the mix.

That’s when you know the mistakes were all worth it. When you can step back for a moment and think to yourself: Hey, I done good.

Editor's Note: We invite you to click here to visit the Monitor's gardening site, which offers articles, essays, and blog posts on a variety of gardening topics.