Plants suffer at the hands of well-meaning gardeners every day, but no plant suffers greater than a plant which a gardener knows will accept harsh treatment and survive.
These are the plants determined to cling on to life long after most would have given up the fight and limped the long green mile to the compost pile. Show me a gardener who uses a tiny fork and sterile soil to transplant tiny poppy seedlings and I will show you one who leaves a five gallon pot of mixed houttuynia and liriope in a creek bed for five weeks.
Without realizing what we are doing, we gardeners learn the strengths and vulnerabilities of plants and let that information shape our prioritized to-do lists every day. Papaver somniferum has no desire to be transplanted – hence the kid gloves and a mouthed prayer. However, you’d have to pour hydrochloric acid on a stringy wad of liriope to ensure total destruction. If a gardener is juggling chores – and sanity – which plant is she going to deal with first?
This summer a friend cleared out an ornamental bed and dropped off a large pot of Silver Dragon liriope, variegated houttuynia, and Japanese fountain grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’).
I was busy, as most of us are, but had no desire to look a gift pot in the mouth, especially as I was already in the dog house for complaining about her dumping twelve pots of tradescantia at my doorstep in the spring. I took the pots, weighted them with rocks and threw them in the creek that runs the length of our property.
It wasn’t intended to be an execution. Though I could certainly find room for all of the plants, I was mostly interested in the bright Silver Dragon and knew that a few days in an on-again-off-again wet environment wouldn’t do any harm to any of the occupants.
My friend knew it too. The plants had been packed so tightly they looked like grass clippings, and she rolled her eyes at me when I ribbed her on her slap-dash approach. ‘Can’t kill ’em,” she said, “and now they’re your problem.”
But the summer threw many unexpected surprises our way, and before I knew it, weeks had elapsed. As I’d cross the bridge to feed the chickens in the morning, I’d look at the pot, see a bit of green making a run for it through the holes in the bottom and think “they’re fine till next week.”
Meanwhile my planting time was spent making sure a Daphne x transatlantica didn’t have to feel the oppression of a plastic pot one minute after getting her home. I positively stroked a replacement Gordonia lasianthus as I planted it in soft, humusy soil and dug extra deep holes for the fern finds I had recently bought at a Charlotte farmers’ market.
This liriope has been pulled up roughly, crushed, drowned, forgotten and thrown into a stony hole 2 inches deep. Result: lush foliage, healthy plant.
The refugee bucket wasn’t the only thing getting the sharp end of the stick as I showed preferential treatment up and down the length of the garden. Not even a moment’s attention was focused on the kerria, ivy, day-lily and numerous others I knew would be “just fine” sitting in their potted prisons near the garage, waiting for a flick of the hose every few days.
Eventually, shame trumped guilt. My friend came over, looked at the pot in the creek and smirked knowingly. The next day I struggled down to the water’s edge, fished out the smelly, slippery pot and proceeded to separate fibrous roots from succulent ones. As I discarded bits of dead plants I felt no remorse. That is, right up to the point I came across shriveled peony rhizomes that my plant-geek friend had gifted me in a moment of clear-out madness – no doubt a good variety.
Never mind the lost vitality of its bedfellows – or the cruel roughness with which I eventually planted them – my Teflon conscience could only be pricked by the death of a fragile flower.
When I was an archaeology student at university, I used to be unreasonably annoyed at the way men constantly helped a fellow student in my year, carrying her equipment, taking over the hard digging and generally behaving like sycophants in the court of Elizabeth I; but it wasn’t until years later I realized that, although my roots may have been as blonde as hers, I always made it clear I was capable, hardy, and able to shift dirt with the best of them.
Consequently she got the umbrella during the rainstorms, an offer to help her tidy up her trench afterward and the warm cup of delivered tea in the mess tent after a long day batting piston-driven eyelashes.
Forget familiarity. It’s capability that breeds contempt. You only have to ask my liriope.