Defiant Gardening

There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises. . . . Defiance . . . is what makes gardeners.
~~Henry Mitchell

The natural world is forever dishing out “ruin after ruin” and it is the gardener’s job to pay attention and learn from it. We call this experience. Paying attention is what makes a green thumb green. We practice our “defiance” by learning from our disasters and making the most of our gardening misfortune, whatever it may be.

Here in the Northeast we’ve experienced several droughts in the past decade. Plants that were meant for a mesoscapic way of life were thrust into a xeriscapic one. Gardens that were designed with the assumption of an inch of water a week made do with fractions of an inch per month. We have a very shallow well, and when I most needed to water my plants, I couldn’t. Every drop needed to be conserved for cooking and washing. Most gardens, mine included, were not a pretty sight. I did allow myself a bit of hand wringing and self pity, but I also tried to observe what was going on in my garden. Here are some things I noticed during that first drought:

Mulch. Gardens that were mulched fared much better than those that weren’t. Given the almost constant lecture about mulch that goes on in garden writing, this should hardly be surprising. Having been gardening in a climate where the water-conserving benefits of mulch had not previously been strictly necessary, I was surprised at how much of a difference it made. My neighbor Marilyn started a modest flower border last spring, composed almost exclusively of divisions and seedlings from mine and others’ gardens. The piece of Aster ‘Purple Dome’ I had given her was floriferous and bushy by season’s end. My original plant was a desiccated disaster. The difference was, Marilyn’s bed was mulched. Will I mulch my whole garden this year? Probably not. It’s been on my list of things to do ever since I started gardening, and I’ve never gotten to it yet. Will I mulch anything new or dear? You bet.

Flowers that did well. Plants with taproots or other underground storage organs fared better than plants with fibrous root systems. Many members of the mallow family, such as Malva ‘Zebrina’ and Malva ‘Bibor Felho’ hardly looked fazed by the drought. My oriental lilies looked fairly good, too. Of course, plants that are naturally adapted to dry climates did fine as well. All the yarrows were happy, as well as furry plants like rose campion and lambs’ ears. Plants with fleshy leaves, such as sedums, also appeared unstressed by the lack of moisture. Actually, I don’t have too many dry-adapted plants around here, because normally in my clay soil it’s too moist for them to do well.

Location, location, location. If I had any doubt before, I now know where the driest spots are in my garden. Plants growing there were the first to wilt and the most likely to die. But a few spots surprised me by how well plants did there. For example, I had split off another piece of the previously mentioned ‘Purple Dome’ and planted it in a different location in my own garden. While it didn’t do as well as the mulched plant in Marilyn’s bed, it certainly did better than my original plant. My best guesses are that the plant in the new location enjoys runoff from the barn and perhaps also a pretty high water table. That poor original plant is in one of the drier spots, a fact I had never realized before, because the natural precipitation had been adequate. It will be getting mulch this year, too.

In general it surprised me how well my established plants did despite drought, lack of mulch, and hotter than usual temperatures. Sure, there were plenty of limp leaves and fewer blossoms than usual, but no established plant gave up utterly. Plants that form next year’s flowers in the previous year, such as most of the flowering shrubs and the lilies and daffodils, made a poorer show than usual in the year after a droughty year. Tulips actually do better with a hot, dry summer.

What I couldn’t learn from this past year’s growing season was how to plan for the future. Was the drought of ’99 an anomaly or a portent of things to come? Should I chalk it up to El Nino or global warming? Since I don’t have a deep enough well to baby water-hungry plants through a drought, if weather like this becomes typical, I will have to seek out more drought-tolerant plants. However, if our climate reverts back to what I think of as normal, said drought-tolerant plants would be likely to rot on me. It’s a matter for the Wait-and-See department to handle. Even though we’ve had several droughts, we’ve had several normal years as well. In my opinion, the jury is still out on this one.

As Henry Mitchell so wisely observed, every year there’s something going on in the garden that adversely affects some of the plants. Almost always, some other part of the garden benefits from those circumstances. We gardeners can’t change the weather, but we can learn from it and perfect our defiance.

© 2000 Kathleen Purdy. Originally sent as an email to my garden buddies. Reprinted in Small Honesties: The Journal of the North American Cottage Gardening Society and the Connecticut Horticultural Society Newsletter.