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Every plant will succumb to death

Every plant will succumb to death

Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 8:00 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams

Consternation over the death of a prized plant, when taken to the extreme, can bring on such disillusionment that the sufferer (gardener, not the plant) throws it in and takes up dominoes or soaks away what’s left of life in alcohol.
Occasionally, a visitor to our garden, following the obligatory oohs and aahs, brings me up short with the question,  “What do you suppose your loss rate has been, including trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials, over your 38 years in this garden?”
I bring her (it’s almost always a her) up “shorter” with my answer: “60 percent or more.”  It’s true, but a disclaimer is in order. I could bring that figure down to 5 percent or so by growing only yuccas and junipers. The closer you get to the cutting edge, the more likely you are to get hurt.
One thing any aspiring gardener has to learn right off is the fact that plants die. People, cows and azaleas die. Everything alive dies. Even the 9,550-year-old spruce recently authenticated in the Swedish mountains will someday die.
If it would make us feel better I am sure we would be displaying our dead azaleas, rhododendrons and hollyhocks on biers, though I doubt any sympathetic mourners would be throwing out the “don’t it look natural bit.”
I once went into such fits of dismay with the demise of a favorite plant that I would (momentarily) quit gardening, suck my thumb for days on end and order out extra doses of Prozac. The angst always passes, and I am still digging.
What bothers me (and you) most is the unknown why. A perfectly healthy magnolia or (you fill in the blank) either gradually declines (don  t he look bad) or more rapidly goes to pot (he’s going down fast). But why? Sometimes the answer is obvious, in which case your distress is mollified somewhat. It’s the unknown why that is the killer.
So, there are these possibilities (not an exhaustive list):
• Drought. Well, duh, after five severe droughts in seven years, what do you expect? Droughts have taken out massive numbers on our place during that time. More droughts will come. Comforting, what?
• Disease. Not as common, but it does happen. More often, the plant is temporarily debilitated, but recovers. Then too, diseases can usually be dealt with.
• Vermin. More common, from varmints with two legs, to those with four, six and eight. A two-legged kid (or you) can snuff out a wee alpine perennial, or a small tree, with a careless footstep. Two-legged varmints ride on lawn mowers, and run amok with string-trimmers, both of which do enormous damage every year.
Four-legged deer, cats, dogs and other large beasts do their share of murder, as do smaller ones such as squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, mice, lemmings and voles. I am positive, from experience, that voles and lemmings create a lot of havoc that is blamed on other things. These subterranean nemesises sneak around in mole tunnels, or make their own, slurping up such delicacies as shrub and perennial roots or, their creme de la creme, crocus and tulip bulbs. I have lost prized shrubs and trees, even large ones, when lemmings and voles ate the roots and tons of bulbs.
Six-legged vermin include the insect world. Needless to say, insect attacks are serious. They can usually be controlled with deadly poisons (forget useless home-brews) but in extreme cases they can eat a specimen to death.
Tiny eight-legged creatures (i.e. spider mites) are more problematic. Most insecticides won’t touch them; use miticides, which are generally more dangerous. As (bad) luck would have it, any time something works, the EPA or other meddling government agency, condemns it and takes it off the market. It will inevitably be substituted with something less effective.
• And last, but not least, are the vast number of plants killed by inept gardeners who just don’t know what they are doing.
From Poor Willie’s Almanack:
If death doesn’t get your plants, something else will.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is the garden writer at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at (731) 642-1162.

Published in The Messenger 12.11.12