A garden by trial and error
August 8, 2005
Since I began writing this column, I have been looking up my old planting records and am astonished at how many plants and seeds I have ordered over the years that have disappeared without a trace and how few thrived. That this failed to discourage me is amazing.Sometimes I reordered seeds of a particular flower over and over again, year after year, before succeeding – or giving up. I experimented with them, though not in any systematic way. I sowed the seeds in the fall, then in spring, or broadcast them thickly instead of following the packet directions to plant them individually. I’d plant them in the shade one time and in the sun the next or someplace where the ground didn’t dry out as fast. Perhaps the soil in that sandy spot where the kids’ sandbox used to be would suit them better than the clay. Maybe they needed light to germinate?I find it hard to let go of the idea that I will succeed if only I can find the magic formula. And sometimes I do! I must have planted pounds of California poppy seed, Eschscholzia californica, for example, before a few germinated. After that, they increased without help from me, except for collecting some of their seed to throw around in handfuls in other parts of the garden. I’m delighted that they have established themselves in nooks and crannies like the edge of the driveway or at the foot of retaining walls where I would never be able to grow them on purpose.Indeed so many kinds of plants come up in cracks where the asphalt or concrete is starting to crumble that I have long been of the opinion that if left unmaintained, our roads and parking lots would disappear far faster than we are comfortable thinking about. So the garden evolves and is full of surprises, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. When a storm broke the top off one of the box elders, Acer negundo, a locally native tree, and threatened the glazing on my greenhouse, it had to be cut down. The resulting gap changed the climate in that vicinity. Previously a fully shaded place, protecting all kinds of plants from our fierce mid-day sun, it became mostly sunny. I scorched more than a few plants before I figured it out. It took a lot of rearranging to find locations where my shade-loving tender houseplants would be comfortable and put on their sturdy summer growth. On the other hand, many young shrubs and trees have grown faster since the tree canopy opened up to admit more sunshine.At this stage of maturity, my garden has enough momentum to continue to develop, even if I never bought another plant. There are always masses of new seedlings to replace sudden deaths. Unwanted seedlings of the most beautiful plant are weeds to be culled just like bindweed. When they are needed, every seedling assumes the aura of a treasure. I’m not convinced that I am losing fewer plants now than I did, in spite of decades of experience. I’m still trying new seeds and new plants and I’m becoming more adventuresome rather then less, as I get older. I may be increasing the odds somewhat by seeking out species that are native to arid climates here and abroad, especially those adapted to pinyon-juniper communities like the one I live in. I have after all, learned a few things. I shall never stop getting excited at the sight of the first wee shoot of a perennial thrusting out of the earth in spring announcing its return. It has survived another winter and I hear it shouting, “Anna, I’m home!” I shall always be thrilled when a seed I have planted sprouts; it’s a miracle! Every year there is a period when my faith is at a nadir and I am convinced that nothing is going to come up. It always seems a unique sentiment and my husband Gerry reminds me that I feel this way every year. I am always wrong.Anna gardens in Basalt with her husband Gerry and dog Maggie. She’d love to hear from you at email@example.com. Please put “Anna’s Garden” in the e-mail subject line.
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