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Love the Plant You’re With

September 1, 2009

When I first started gardening, I would fall in love with flowers that I saw pictured in books, or blooming in other people’s gardens, or in pots at the garden center; and I would buy them, bring them home, and stick them in the ground. Sometimes these plants flourished. More often they did not. When I read Sandy Hingston’s description in her Lavender & Larkspur blog of trying to grow lavender, I laughed aloud; it so resonated for me:

In our 16 years in this house in Eastern Pennsylvania, I must have planted lavender 10 different times. Expensive lavender from White Flower Farm in Connecticut, bought with Christmas gift certificates. Cheap lavender from Home Depot. English lavender. French lavender. Spanish lavender. Lavenders of the freaking world. I tried them in bright sun, in part sun, in the boggy parts of the garden and in the dry. And how many of them came up again the year after they were planted? None of them. Zero. Zilch.

When a plant I was in love with failed to survive, I simply bought another pot of it and tried again. After a few failed attempts, I might try another variety or another location. Eventually, I did learn to pay attention to the light and soil conditions needed by a particular plant and to try to choose accordingly; but even that didn’t always work. According to everything I’ve read, my back slope should be the perfect environment for Achillea (yarrow), a plant that needs full sun and sandy, well-drained soil and that works well in the kind of informal planting I have in that part of the garden. A match made in heaven, right? Wrong. I planted different varieties over and over on that sandy slope. I tried ‘Coronation Gold’ and ‘Moonshine’ and at least half a dozen others with unremembered names; none of them ever survived more than a season. And all the while, as if to mock my efforts, wild yarrow kept popping up uninvited in my gravel driveway and in the grass across the steps from the back slope.

Eventually I noticed that while I had been trying unsuccessfully to coax Achillea to grow in my garden, the 4” pot of Coreopsis verticillata ‘Golden Showers’ that I had planted in the bedroom border had been tripling or quadrupling in size every year. I had already divided it twice and now had it growing in several different places. I was beginning to think of it as a pest. But then I took a closer, more appreciative, look at Golden Showers. Here was an easy-to-grow plant, about 2’ tall, covered with masses of cheerful yellow daisy-like flowers for much of the summer, and with the informal character I was looking for. What’s more, its flowers worked well in flower arrangements for the house. And this was a plant that wanted to grow in my garden! I transplanted a division of Golden Showers to the back slope, where it promptly took hold and thrived. So what if it tended to spread out from where it was planted; it was shallow-rooted and could easily be pulled up where it was not wanted.

I began to consider what I could do with other flowers that liked to grow in my garden. There were the two different varieties of old-fashioned siberian irises that a friend had given me from her garden. These were happy to be divided every few years, and their seedlings appeared regularly in such unlikely places as the back Tradescantia 'Zwanenburg Blue' - photo credit Jean Potucheksteps (growing up between the boards) and the walkway. There were also the wonderful electric blue flowers of Tradescantia x andersoniana ‘Zwanenburg Blue.’  This cultivar had disappeared from local nurseries a year or two after I bought it, but was vigorous and easy to divide, and also self-sowed readily. There were the daylilies that never failed to thrive. I also had Platycodon mariesii (balloon flower) that formed big clumps and self-sowed, and I had almost endless divisions of Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo.’

I decided to give up unrequited plant love and move on, making those taken-for-granted plants the foundation of my garden. The relationship between the gardener and the garden should be a mutual one, and a wise gardener pays attention to the expressed wishes of the garden.

I don’t want to take this philosophy too far. I think it is well worth the effort to create a welcoming environment for a temperamental newcomer that you really want to share your life with. When I created my blue and yellow border, I dug extra manure (for richer soil) and wood ash (for sweeter soil) into one section to make it hospitable for delphinium, a flower I knew I didn’t want to live without. In general, however, gardeners might do well to borrow the sentiment of the old Stephen Stills song: If you can’t be with the plant you love, love the plant you’re with!
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. elephant's eye permalink
    October 7, 2009 4:12 pm

    Yes, I rather like your blue and yellow border. Am working slowly on a blue and purple border. With a yellow Euryops daisy as a focal point – so it doesn’t get too “cold”.

    • Jean Potuchek permalink*
      October 9, 2009 1:33 pm

      The blue and purple sounds delicious — like a deep, cool pool. I love the idea of one yellow plant as a contrasting focal point. I hope you’ll post photos of it when you get it done.

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