Growing Concerns: Look at garden blunders as learning experiences

The old saying “To err is human, to forgive, divine” reminds me of an incident I observed when I lived in another state. My neighbors, a retired couple, had a very nice garden. Mrs. B., as I’ll call her, was particularly proud of her flower beds, while Mr. B. was fanatical about his lawn. It more closely resembled a Marine Corps’ high-and-tight haircut than a plot of cropped grass. Except that it was green, *very* green, and weedless as well, thanks to a shed full of chemicals with which Mr. B. regularly anointed his lawn.

One afternoon I came home from work to find the normally composed Mrs. B. pacing her garden, tearfully shouting, “How *could* you have been so careless, Merle?” One look at the flower beds and I guessed what must have happened. Mrs. B.’s sky-blue delphiniums were yellow and wilted. Her prized peonies lay sprawled on the ground, her petunias had collapsed into a sticky, pink heap.

It seems that Mr. B. was overzealous in his application of a weed-and-feed product. The stuff had leached into the beds, and most of Mrs. B’s flowers were toast. Mrs. B. eventually forgave her husband, but not without putting him through horticultural hell, and forever banning the offending product from their garden.

Those commercial combinations of chemical fertilizers and weed killers are the cause of many a garden goof, and are unhealthy for the environment, as well. That’s why Master Gardeners will never recommend their use.

But we all make mistakes, and most of us learn from them. I sure learned a lesson years ago when I accidentally introduced the pretty, but horribly invasive buttercup into my garden. I thought I was transplanting a clump of native bleeding heart, but apparently, buttercup roots were concealed somewhere in the mix. It’s a good thing I like the color yellow! Another time, a nursery rhododendron brought in the dreaded *Equisitum* (horsetail) in its root ball. I’ve since learned to carefully check the root ball and soil surrounding new plants, including those from nurseries, before tucking them in.

Another lesson I learned years ago was that while deer might not like the smell of blood meal, dogs adore it. Mine did, anyway. I dutifully sprinkled blood meal along the perimeter of my garden to repel deer, and turned to see my Siberian husky eagerly lapping up the nasty stuff.

Faye Gordon, a member of the Coupeville Garden Club, relates a rather expensive garden mistake she once made. Faye enjoys crafting wreaths, and admired the graceful American bittersweet vines native to the East Coast and Midwest. An accomplished gardener, she knew that both male and female plants were necessary for production of the beautiful berries she wanted for her wreaths. She purchased both from a mail-order nursery, and waited. When nothing happened after two years, she ordered two more. Still no berries. Finally, she called the mail-order nursery and was told that she’d need an entire grove of plants to induce berry production. Not wanting to go into forestry, Faye learned a bittersweet lesson.

Even garden professionals make mistakes. Bill Stipe is the owner of Greenbank’s Glyneden Garden, a nursery that specializes in rare and unusual rhododendrons. A Master Gardener and superb plantsman, Bill says, “I will never plant vinca or ivy again. They’re very invasive and hard to remove once established.” Bill passes along a couple of hints to keep fellow gardeners from learning the hard way: “If your forsythia is too large and needs pruning, don’t do it in late summer or you won’t get any blooms next year. Forsythia should be pruned right after it blooms in the spring. And never use fresh manure as a soil amendment around potatoes. It will cause scab!”

A mistake made by many newcomers to the Pacific Northwest is attempting to grow plants that don’t do well in this climate. You’ll see beefsteak tomato plants for sale at the big box stores, but don’t be tempted. Unless you grow them hydroponically, or in a greenhouse environment, you probably won’t be successful. Go for varieties with tags that indicate they will thrive in our shorter, cooler summers.

Roses are another example. The luscious hybrid teas that bloomed in grandmother’s Iowa garden may be black spot queens in this cool, moist neck of the woods. There are other varieties that do very well here; ask a nursery professional for help with your selection.

A Master Gardener friend told me about a young flowering cherry tree she gave her daughter. It bloomed beautifully the first year, and died the next. My friend exhumed the tree and discovered wire girdling the base of the trunk. It had cut off nutrients and water, and the poor tree starved and strangled. She, too, learned to examine plants well before planting.

Another gardening friend loves weeping willows, and eagerly planted a balled-and-burlaped sapling on his property. After more than a decade, the willow remained a sapling, with just a few wispy branches. He finally unearthed it and discovered that the burlap was still intact, penetrated by a few weak, struggling roots. It’s always a good idea to loosen the burlap before planting, or slash through the fabric with a knife in several places to give the roots some wiggle room.

Septic systems can be an expensive problem-maker. Pity those who plant water-seeking poplars, maples, willows or elms too close to the mound or tank! If you’re not sure what you can plant over and near septic systems, you can obtain an informational pamphlet on the subject from the WSU Extension. Classes on septic system care are also scheduled. Call 679-7327 for information.

Whether we’re life-long gardeners or novices, we’re bound to make mistakes from time to time. Nature may sometimes be cruel, but she’s also forgiving. Don’t be discouraged by garden blunders. One thing about gardening: If at first you don’t succeed, there’s always next season.

Island County –WSU Master Gardener Mariana Graham invites your input at

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