ANYONE CAN HAVE a good garden in the first flush of spring and early summer. From raucous bulbs and the snowfall of blossoming trees, to bodacious perennials, tender salads and the first ripe strawberry, the early days of the growing season are generous. It is only now, deep in the dog days of summer, when the sun beats down on our wizened plants, that things get dicey. August is a great time to assess the garden — it’s too hot to do much else.
Far too often, gardeners are leery of editing. A plant might be a stalwart 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 the definition of a weed, in my book). If it has roots, shoots and a bloom, however weak or unsatisfying, we persist in the campaign for its survival. At the same time, most gardeners I know lament a long list of garden chores, wail at a never-ending battle with pests and bemoan a lack of space to realize their dream garden.
So why do we spend our precious time, energy and resources on plants that disappoint and dismay? Off with their heads! Remove the offender(s) — tear out the plant guilty only of failing to please, and move on.
Every seasoned gardener worth his or her stash of plastic nursery pots and broken, dirty fingernails has killed at least as many plants as those that thrive. My garden path is littered with countless horticultural casualties. Yet those losses have equipped me with some of my most valuable backyard insights and moments of gardening clarity. It might sound flip, but, “Grow it, kill it, know it” lessons imprint my garden psyche in a way that instructional plant tags and nursery signage often fail to.
I planted, and lost, scores of astilbe, astrantia and lungwort before finally admitting that my sandy, well-drained soil would not support those border beauties without regular summer irrigation to a degree that apparently I am unable (or more likely, unwilling) to supply.
My gardening enjoyment multiplied exponentially when I made peace with the fact that my gardening habits and conditions are far better suited to the cultivation of sun-loving plants like agastache, euphorbia and ornamental grasses mixed in with colorful (and resilient) dwarf woody shrubs like barberry, heather and ‘Magic Carpet’ spirea. Today, lush stands of hosta, hellebores and ferns furnish dry, shady areas in my garden, where they contribute a long season of contrasting textures and garden interest despite summer drought. Precious water and hose time are reserved for berries, vegetables and cutting flowers.
Anyone who tends the same garden over a period of years can attest to its dynamic nature: Sun and shade shift as plantings mature; quixotic weather patterns temper moisture and pests — so too, our interests and abilities alter with the passage of time. Our garden of yesterday, last year or last decade might not be the ideal landscape for our lives and conditions today.
We garden in a region of nearly limitless horticultural bounty. Armed with past disappointments and more realistic expectations, these days I concentrate on cultivating delight — no more seasons of discontent.