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Grow it, Kill it -- Know it

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Oh, my aching muscles...

The learning curve of a gardener...

By Lorene Edwards-Forkner

Anyone can have an abundant garden in the initial flush of spring and early summer. From the raucous show of spring blooming bulbs, flowering trees and the fulsome bloom of early summer perennials—delphiniums, poppies, peonies—through the tender salad days of the vegetable patch, and the first ripe strawberry all is sweetness and bountiful richness in the early days of the growing season.

It is only now, as true summer winds down, that the discerning gardener gets down and dirty and sets about the not-always-pleasant task of assessing the garden performance of their plants.

Gardeners are too often wary of losing a plant at any cost. It may be a stalwart planting holdout that came with the house, a division from a generous gardening friend or a tough resilient survivor able to withstand all conditions (coming dangerously close to my definition of a weed). If it has roots, shoots and a bloom, however weak or unsatisfying, we will persist in the campaign for its survival.

At the same time most gardeners I know decry a constant list of garden tasks, wail at the never ending battle with pests and bemoan the lack of sufficient space to realize the garden present in their minds’ eye. Why then do we spend our precious time, energy and resources on plants that disappoint and dismay? Off with their heads I say! Remove the offender(s), yes—tear out the plant guilty only of failing to please. Then forgive yourself—this is horticulture—not medicine!

I would venture to say that every seasoned gardener worth their stash of plastic nursery pots and broken, dirty fingernails has killed at least as many plants as those that survive to thrive in inspired compositions of brilliant color, texture and pleasing form. Whether the result of serious zonal denial, benign neglect, or simply “wrong plant/wrong place,” I’m afraid the path to truly knowing my own garden environment is littered with many horticultural casualties.

Yet often it is these losses that have equipped me with some of my most valuable backyard insights and “ah-ha!” moments of gardening clarity. I have planted, and lost, scores of astilbe, astrantia, delphinium and pulmonaria before I finally admitted the reality that my sandy, well-drained soil will simply not support the growth habits of these border beauties without regular summer irrigation to a degree that apparently I am unable (or more likely, unwilling) to supply.

My gardening experience and enjoyment multiplied exponentially when I made peace with the fact that my conditions and gardening habits are far better suited to the cultivation of tougher Mediterranean sub-shrubs like germander, santolina, and curry plants softened by drifts of ornamental grasses and strong, sun loving salvias, coneflowers and Knautia. My now admittedly dry, shady sites support lush stands of hosta, hellebores and ferns that contribute a long season of colorful foliage, contrasting textures and garden interest while better able to withstand periods of summer drought.

It may sound flip, but “grow it, kill it, know it” lessons tend to imprint on my garden psyche in a way that instructional plant tags and nursery signage fail to.

Anyone who has tended the same garden over a period of years will tell you the environment is anything but static, but instead a constant dynamic shifting of changing levels of sun, shade, moisture and pests forever tempered by quixotic weather patterns. So, too, our lives, interests and abilities continually alter with the passage of time. Our garden of yesterday, last year or last decade may not be the ideal for our lives and conditions today.

Armed with such hard-earned understanding and past disappointments, I pledge to cultivate delight—no more seasons of discontent. The growing season is too short to squander on personally unsatisfying plants.

Here in the Northwest we are fortunate to garden in a region of nearly limitless horticultural bounty. Dare to remove weak, struggling and unsuccessful plants and create a garden of satisfying pleasure with each new season.  NWGN

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