Spring in the nursery is a happy time. The bedding plants are a riot of color and the eager young vegetables grow right before your eyes. Flushed with hope and fresh resolve, shoppers load their carts with more than they can use, for who can resist the tangerine zinnias, the deep blue delphiniums, the baby stalks of corn, the hundreds of heirloom tomatoes, each one promising something special. The is “The Year,” customers vow; they have learned from past efforts and this is the year they will have, at last, their dream garden.
Because people are impatient, because we must keep pace with the box store down the street—that heartless, hulking nemesis—we bring in spring stock sooner than advisable. Despite our cautions, many folks will buy cartloads of these greenhoused plants and plunge them into cold soil on a promisingly sunny day, and that night, or maybe the next, a hard frost will steal into their gardens, blackening the basil and wilting the watermelon. The disgruntled patrons will then return for replacements, digging into their pockets a second time, albeit not quite so cheerfully.
Eventually the soil warms and winter unhooks its talons and we assure everyone that they can garden with abandon. Plants stream into the nursery like fresh troops and are cleared out the same day. We take special orders—for Tati’s Wedding tomatoes, Jersey Pickling cucumbers, Golden Calwonder peppers. The bounty! The joy! There is no stopping either.
Busy shoving more wondrous things into the earth, gardeners fail to notice the tiny green aphids in the broccoli, the tunnels forming in the Swiss chard leaves, the shroud of white fungus creeping over the zucchini. Not until their gardens are riddled with trouble do people perceive a problem. How they react is who they are. Some, blaming nature, will turn on it. They will buy the most deadly products they can get their hands on and they will turn their gardens into battle zones. Others, blaming us, will storm back into the nursery, brandishing their sickly specimens and demanding a refund. They will cite the return policies of the box stores and they will threaten to take their business to them.
And then there are those who blame themselves. They will come into the nursery shamefaced, holding plastic bags of evidence and asking us what went wrong, why are they such bad gardeners. While gardening is supposed to be a restorative pastime, too often this is not the case. People are intimidated by plants, intimidated and aggrieved. Their gardens get the better of them, and, disgusted, they give up. There are too many variables, they complain, too much they can’t control.
Which is true. Nature will not be controlled, not for long at any rate. The more you resist her efforts, the harder she’ll work to thwart yours. Eventually she will find a way to get around your weapons and give her varied progeny a toehold. Broccoli, aphids, roses, mildew—it’s all the same to her. Balance is what she’s after.
We have removed the most devastating munitions from our shelves, anything containing neonicotinoids (the bee killer); soil drench versions are the worst as they contaminate soil and ground water for years to come. We have also eliminated herbicides containing glyphosate (Roundup, KleenUp, Remuda). Not only is glyphosate a probable human carcinogen, it has a lethal impact on aquatic and terrestrial amphibians. We encourage gardeners to make their own herbicides and pesticides using household products like Epsom salts, cooking oil and dish soap—recipes for these remedies abound on the internet.
Even organic solutions should be applied judiciously. Medicating plants week after week can erode their health, in the same way that too much medication weakens human patients. Plants, like people, defend themselves when threatened. To save its strength, a Ficus benjamina will drop its leaves after the shock of relocation, then tentatively grow them back. In response to beetle attacks, a conifer will release wads of resin, sealing its wounds and embalming the marauders. If ground ivy loses its shade, it quickly gets to work toughening and thickening its leaves.
The most important thing you can give your plants is a good start: amended soil, a roomy bed, the proper light and water. A rose will not appreciate a shady location or the overspray from lawn sprinklers; cannas relish both. You can save yourself a great deal of time and money by learning what plants require, preferably before you buy them.
That said, your yard will never be perfect because nature isn’t perfect. Accepting this will make you a better gardener, one who slows down for a closer look in an effort to understand. There are reasons for almost everything, like why your doublefile viburnum hasn’t bloomed. Plants moved from their pots into the open ground will often take years to flower: They are spending their energy below, in the establishment of roots. This is why a lemon tree in a container will produce fruit sooner than a tree in the ground: the roots meet the boundary of the pot and, and running out of room, signal reproduction. And that sticky black coating on your orange tree? Look close. You’ll see tiny brown ovals attached to the leaves and doubtless a few ants. What your plant has is scale, in its armored form. The scale are steadily sucking the sap; what they can’t digest they secrete as honeydew, which is then harvested by ants. The sticky residue promotes the growth of black sooty mold. And those skinny leaves on that one nandina? No, it’s not sick, it just needs more water—check the irrigation.
Sometimes a plant is destined to fail, and no amount of scholarship or coddling will make a difference. Maybe it was weak from the start; maybe it was neglected too long; maybe it simply grew old and frail, no longer able to fend off attackers. Removing it does not mean you failed; it means you cared: There are few things more dispiriting than a derelict yard.
If you want to be a good gardener, start with humility. You are, after all, asking this earth for miracles: giant sunflowers, golden watermelon, crimson peony blooms. You are bound to lose a few things, to bugs or blight; think of this as giving back and plant anyway. Make peace with your garden and arm yourself with knowledge. Above all, dig gently.
I am pleased and proud to announce that the accomplished Nikiya Palombi will be narrating the audio version of my essay collection Strange Company, thanks to the efforts of MadeMark Publishing. Release date is March 31. Looking forward to what will surely be a beautiful rendition.