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The Coastal Gardener: Killing plants is part of learning

June 18, 2010|Ron Vanderhoff

Twenty-three more. That was the count last week as I spent a vacation day performing another plant culling.

Friends often say to so-called expert gardeners: "You must have a green thumb; everything you touch just seems to grow."

Not so. I suspect the truth is something quite different. Good gardeners kill plants, too — lots of them, and probably more plants than novice gardeners. Partly that's because they have more plants to kill. It's also because they are more adventurous with their plant inventories and take bigger risks in their plant choices.

But I'm also certain that experienced gardeners kill a lot more plants simply because they don't invest as much time trying to resuscitate unhappy plants; not nearly as much time as novice gardeners, who are beset by the agonizing guilt of a plant's failure.

Mistakes don't stop good gardeners; they just make them smarter. They note the failure, remove the victim and move on, ready for the next challenge. A good gardener can sniff out other good gardeners pretty quickly by taking a peek at their compost pile or rubbish bin. If there is a half-decomposed campanula or a sad penstemon poking out, odds are they're a pretty seasoned and experienced gardener.

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Novice gardeners see a sickly plant as a personal failure, a failure of the gardener. Good gardeners don't see it that way; they see the same sickly plant as an opportunity to learn something.

Not only do good gardeners kill lots of plants, they do it more quickly than other gardeners. Beginning gardeners think that they can nurture a distressed plant back to life — even years later they're still trying. They have lots of plants scattered around their landscape that "just aren't doing very well." These plants are in various stages of supposed recovery. But novices hold on to these sickly plants far too long. Suffering mercilessly, these "rescue" plants litter the gardens of the neophytes.

In the gardens of those more experienced, these same plants are long gone, put out of their misery at an early stage. Without much personal suffering or remorse these plants were judiciously culled out and disposed of. Where the novice will struggle with the plant all the way to the bitter end, good gardeners almost never wait that long and dispose of a sickly plant early on. In fact, good gardeners sort of unconsciously see a removed plant as an opportunity; they even rejoice in the chance to try something new.

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