By Mel Bellar
Every Spring there is a great anticipation to see what emerges from our gardens. Half of the time I don’t even remember what I planted the year before, and often I get some pleasant surprises. And sadly there are those dreaded surprises where a plant considered to be a dear old reliable friend just does not make its April appearance. Often it takes me until May to accept that he (or she) is not coming back. Such are the little thrills and disappointments of a gardener’s Spring.
Last year around Easter I bought 3 little primrose plants at the Price Chopper to brighten up the table for a dinner party. There was one great purple color, a bright pink and bright yellow, not my usual color preferences, but great for Easter cheer. I doted on those little primroses trying to eke out every last flower while they sat on the table. Finally, I decided to stick them in the ground next to a prominent path so I would remember to water them. Much to my delight they came up this Spring and bloomed like strutting little peacocks for 6 weeks or so. That was a real surprise! Grocery store plants never seem to “come back” even if they are supposed to be zone 4 hardy. Normally I think of them as a decorative moment and nothing that can have a lasting impact. Example … the classic grocery store mum, the kind you buy for a Fall display. I have never seen them “come back” even though some are hardy. And I think the same is true for most of the azaleas and hydrangeas with the foil pot coverings. So, it was such a surprise and delight to see the primroses come back last year, that I did it again this Spring. This time I bought them at Adams (fancy) and put them directly in the ground. We shall see if it was a fluke or not.
Most gardeners enjoy a little bit of gambling (and a lot of wishful thinking) in the garden. Personally, I get a huge kick out of some folks I encounter who will see something that they like, buy it, and stick in the ground wherever they want and expect it to grow. I am not sure that you can call ignorance gambling; it is more “a thing” in itself. However, it is understandable, as we all occasionally ignore what we know to be sensible and just throw caution to the wind. We, out of pure desire, try some plant that might be marginally hardy here or that is known to be difficult under the best of circumstances. And sometimes we get lucky. With the exception of one minus 23-degree day last Winter, we have pretty much been having zone 6 Winters here lately and I have been getting more flagrant in my use of zone 5 plants (gambling).
Last year I gambled and put in 2 pretty “iffy” zone 5 trees, a Wolf Eyes Kousa dogwood and a Japanese Stewartia. They both came back!!! They were not cheap, and gambling with a tree is much more of a gamble than some little primroses. (Insert me doing the happy dance.)
The flip side of a gambler’s high, is the disappointment of unexpectedly losing an established plant. This happens in the Spring as well. Recently I visited a good friend and client who was bereft about losing 3 well-established Bonfire euphorbia in one location for absolutely no discernable reason, while others in a different location were thriving. Sadly, I wasn’t that surprised. I find that plant to be very unreliable from the “git go,” but I think that we forget (and usually don’t know) that plants have lifespans, just like people and animals. The labels on the plants at the nursery never say, “By the way, this plant will only live for 3 years.” This is something that only comes with experience. Even though you learn to accept this, it still hurts.
Other Spring surprises result from the fact that NATURE IS FICKLE. I always tell clients this because it is true. Nature does as she pleases and sometimes there is just no good explanation. You could take samples and send it to labs and spend a lot of time and effort trying to figure it out but what we learn is that NATURE IS FICKLE and sometimes “things” just happen. I have a client where I planted 3 Catalpa trees. Catalpa trees are favorites of mine because they are very reliable and each one has such a distinct personality. Some folks don’t like them because they say they are weak-wooded and messy due to the big bean pods they drop. To them, I say poppycock. Anyway, 2 of the 3 Catalpas were standard hardy northern Catalpas and one was a chartreuse-leaved cultivar that I knew was, yes, a gamble. Well 3 or 4 years in, the biggest of them abruptly died! I had never had a Catalpa die and I assumed it was nature being fickle. Then the next year the other hardy one died and it was in a totally different area of the property. As of this spring the fussy chartreuse cultivar is doing fine. Go figure.
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~