Poor plant performance is disappointing, perplexing

Poor plant performance is disappointing, perplexing

Posted: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 8:01 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams

It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, that a plant that fails to live up to expectations is obviously a disappointment.
Adding insult to injury are those times when there seems to be no apparent reason for the failure. Perplexity compounds disappointment.
I wish I had more of a handle on plant pathology. Many times some seemingly mysterious ailment would prove, on studied and learned diagnosis, to have a simple explanation. Without the “learned” factor, however, we are at a loss to know what happened and, worse yet, are doomed in many cases to have another disappointment come along from the same source.
The ultimate comeuppance is, of course, death. I will say, however, that if a plant is going to die on me I want it to do so as soon as possible after I set it out. The quickest death I have experienced with woody plants was an azalea that went out after three days. Disconcerting as it was, it was better than the thing lying around on life support for months, then dwindling away. At least I could get on with replacing it.
Almost as bad as death, slow or otherwise, is a plant that lives, perhaps even heartily, but fails in its ultimate raison d‘etre. Take fruit trees, for just about the best example. What did the greatest Teacher who ever lived say about a fruitless fruit tree? Dig it out and burn it.
But why is the thing fruitless in the first place? Sometimes it is a matter of lack of pollination. If a tree blooms regularly but fails to bear fruit, pollination is almost certainly not occuring.
But then there are cases of fruit trees that fail to bloom at all. Why? I have two apples and a pear espaliered on a fence. After 20 years my crop has totaled three apples and one pear, all devoured by squirrels. None of the trees has had a single bloom for at least 10 years and that one piteous fruit crop was borne in about their third year. Every conceivable pruning technique has been tried and found wanting. The trees bear leafage and make considerable extension growth every year, but no fruit.
How about ornamental plants? There are perennials that grow lustily but fail to flower. Sometimes it is a matter of time. There are those perennials that must build up some substance — subterranean and above ground — before flowers are produced. Some dayliles are like that, and peonies are another good example. At other times, however, the answer is not so easy and years are wasted waiting for a reward and none is forthcoming.
Even annuals get in on the act. I set a few maroon marigolds as gap fillers in our red border last spring. They had flowers when they were set out, but after a short time those flowers quit and no more appeared until a few managed to show in late fall.
Stinking marigolds, mind you. Kindergarten plants if there ever were any. Shame, shame. Forty years of gardening and can’t get a marigold to flower.
Once in a long while, some mysterious contrivance of nature all of a sudden leads to success after years of failure. I have had perennial gaura over the years in one place or another. Results have been less than spectacular, to say the least. Most years the plants simply failed to bloom or, if they did, it was so minimal as to be almost useless.
In the otherwise terrible year 2010, several small gaura plants purchased in late spring at an almost giveaway price were set in four different locations, from enriched clay to barren and gritty rock garden conditions. Every one of them bloomed continuously from late summer to hard frost and were stars of our late perennial garden.
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From Poor Willie’s Almanack — Go figure.
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Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.

Published in The Messenger 1.25.11

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