Sunday, July 15, 2012

Around the Garden

Somewhere in my gardening library is a book titled “Right Plant…Right Place.” Like many of the books I’ve bought over the years, I probably only read half of it. Maybe it’s because the topic is so obvious, or maybe it’s because I am so resistant to the topic.

The obvious part is, well, obvious: most plants have a particular set of requirements. Amount of sun, water, type of soil, fertilizer (if any), even the degree and direction of slope all matter intensely to most plants.

Like many activities, gardening is constantly humbling, perhaps because there is rarely much correlation between the amount of effort or money expended and the results gotten from a plant.

I have known gardeners who keep file boxes full of details about all their plants: botanical name, common name, cultivar, date planted, nursery of origin, maybe even a baby picture of two. 

My garden process is a bit more haphazard than that. Just today, I noticed some Echinaceas blooming away in a spot where I don’t remember planting them. And that reminded me of a very nice clump of Echinaceas I planted five years ago on the other side of the garden, where none now bloom. How does this happen?

It may be the “right plant...right place” theme rearing its impertinent little head. My Echinaceas were not happy in the spot I had selected, slightly shaded by about fourteen too-densely planted trees. Today they are blooming more or less where the sun does shine most of the time.

Lavender has had a checkered career in my garden, with pots and pots of it going in for several years near some pink roses. What could be prettier than pink roses and lavender, um, lavender? I will never know, because the lavender was so sulky in that spot that not only did it not bloom the first year, by the second year it had vanished altogether.

This time I at least made a conscious effort to out-think the recalcitrant plant. Where had I seen very happy lavender? Growing on a hillside in thin, gravelly soil in Tuscany! So, several lavender plants now grow without complaint on my front embankment, where the drainage is sharp, water never puddles, and the sunlight is nearly day-long.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting the full story on what a plant likes. One of my early disasters was a pretty little Rhododendron that I planted under a maple tree. It seemed like a good fit, rhodies being understory plants and all. What I failed to take into account is that almost nothing thrives under a maple tree, especially not a maple that had been in place for fifty years. Now the understory of that tree consists of Epimedium (a lovely blooming ground-cover, shown at right) and a couple of dogwoods that the birds planted. The dogwoods may not live to a ripe old age there, but they do have the advantage of being planted as seeds, so their roots systems have adapted to the presence of thirsty maple roots.

One of the really great sins of ignoring the “right plant” dictate is planting trees under utility wires. Even as trees are under increased scrutiny post-Snowmageddon, it is obvious that a great many trees are growing where they will eventually cause problems.

A good correlate of “Call Before You Dig” ought to be “Think Before You Plant.” Many mature trees have canopies that spread almost as wide as the tree is tall. And, while a spreading canopy over a city street provides much-needed shade, that canopy shouldn’t extend close to utility wires.

For gardeners in Connecticut, a wonderful free resource is the UConn Plant Database, which lists thousands of trees and shrubs, and provides useful information about ultimate size. A terrific feature is the virtual campus tree walks (shown at right), showing trees in their habitats on the campuses of Connecticut College, UConn, and the Universities of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Carpenters live by the “Measure twice, cut once” slogan. We gardeners could use something equally snappy. Mine continues to be, “Plant it as many times as it takes to figure out where the heck it will grow.”

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