“We lost too many plants in our impatience to possess them,
because we had not achieved the proper growing conditions.”
– Beth Chatto, The Beth Chatto Handbook
If ever a sentence deserves a garden writers’ gold medal for excellence and simplicity, it is this one, written decades ago by gardener and garden designer, the late Beth Chatto. The sentence highlights a universal trait amongst gardeners (avarice), illustrates the wages of sin (loss) and offers the reader a solution (redemption).
That common-sense solution turned gardening on its head over fifty years ago – advising gardeners to look to their gardens first and match the plant to the conditions they found. Not the other way around.
What happens when one takes a ‘Phenomenal’ lavender (for there are such things), plants it in a silty stream valley soil, surrounds it in cool, wet mornings and gives it full sun that begins at eleven, ends at five, and severely stretches working definitions of the concept?
At first the plant puts on a brave face and gets down to the business of growing. After all, there’s always summer heat to soak up. Perhaps it won’t be as luxurious as those grown in the Luberon, but it’s growing.
But when steady rains come, difficult growing conditions are exacerbated. Fungus sets in. No matter how phenomenal, the lavender eventually goes out with a whimper. And if the wet summer didn’t kill it, the wet winter will.
How we react to this situation depends entirely on how much experience we have as gardeners or how much we’re paying attention to others that do.
If you’re fairly skilled, perhaps you planted it as an experiment because your sunny, gritty areas weren’t cultivated yet, and hey maybe Phenomenal is SO phenomenal it might throw thousands of years of adaptive behavior in the bin and suddenly grow like a fern…. and..well…dammit you just wanted to try it.
Congratulations. You just illustrated that beautiful Chatto sentence: Your desire to possess was too great and you lost a great plant. Thankfully you know why.
However, if you love lavender because a recent Pinterest pin made it sexy beyond words (especially when they container paired it with a fern), and you have little experience in the garden, you may come out of this feeling a bit depressed.
These failures hurt, and depending on your personality, can color how you feel about gardening and your skills in general.
Time to change your perspective.
Maybe you did fail your plant – but you did so the minute you paired a A Year in Provence with Jurassic Park. Once you finished patting the moss covered soil around its fibrous roots and stepped away, you could have helicopter-parented that plant every moment of the summer and the outcome would have been the same. You didn’t follow a very simple rule – so simple it only takes four words to express.
Right plant, right place.
Using this concept to guide any further choices you make will have the single greatest effect in your garden. Give your plant the growing conditions it desires and it will reward you – tenfold.
She of the fabulous sentence was the first to popularize this movement beyond whispered wisdom passed down from gardener to gardener. In 1960 Beth Chatto and her husband built a new house in one of the driest geographical areas in Great Britain. A south-west facing sandy slope fronted their house, and made its way down to a spring-fed ditch. Everything was covered in blackthorn and bramble. Those in the know told her to forget the idea of having a garden.
Beth and her husband Andrew (who spent decades intensively studying plant ecology) made some big mistakes as they began to create the garden that would eventually become internationally famous, but slowly they began to work with the site itself.
They didn’t divert the spring to drain the property – they dammed it and expanded it to create a series of bog gardens populated by the plants that love them. They didn’t remove the native, brutish soil around their house, instead they planted sun-loving, drought tolerant Mediterranean lovers on the sandy slopes, and apart from watering plants to establish them, they turned their backs on the hose.
In many ways, they did forget about the idea of having a garden – they forgot about having a garden that typified the style of gardens that they knew: Lawns, borders, topiary and hedges.
You can do the same. Get a grasp of the conditions with which you wrestle, then look for lists of plants based on similar growing conditions in other areas of the world. If you’re a nativist, don’t be a naïve-ist too – do not assume that all native plants embrace all native conditions. They do not.
We are all swayed by tempting plants. If you really cannot look at your conditions first – at least be methodical in your avarice.
1) Lust after a plant
There are as many motivations as gardeners.
2) RESEARCH the plant’s native growing conditions.
Where does this plant come from? What does it encounter in that environment? What type of soils, weather, temperature, rainfall? Does it have a dormant period? Is it sun or shade loving? Does it like wet feet or a dry environment? Don’t forget to look at high temperature hardiness while searching for the usual growing zone – many plants cannot handle high heat even if they made it through a cold winter.
An extensive library is not necessary to conduct this research – used one or two trusted manuals. I often reach for The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants and then go from there to other volumes and authors I trust. If you’re online, the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder is an excellent source. (A reader recommends The New Southern Living Garden Book for heat hardiness and I do too! – MW.)
3) Look for those conditions in micro-climates within the garden.
If they don’t exist in any way shape or form, move on to another plant. Don’t waste time crying about it. For every plant you can’t grow, there are ten that you can. Examine your conditions thoroughly and go from there.
Some plants can be played with. For instance, I grow bananas (Ensete spp., Musa spp.) in a part of the world that knows what an ice storm is. The bananas grow well during the season as we have a hot, humid summer with adequate rainfall, they deal with part sun well and they like all the organic matter I dig into their holes. In winter, they go dormant in the garage (with a little help from me). However, the lavender I referenced earlier (yes, that was me beating my head against a wall), simply cannot be healthy in my current conditions of low sun, cool temperatures and wet feet. Until I clear my south facing hillside of invasives, I will have to find something else to perfume my drawers.
Experimentation is okay. It is very okay. But it can be costly unless you know which rules you’re breaking and adapt accordingly if things go wrong.
With a bit of brain retrain, Right Plant, Right Place is a very easy philosophy to run with. Do you want to grow a plant that survives, or do you want to grow a plant that thrives? I know which one I prefer.
A version of this article was originally printed in The Frederick News Post and is reprinted here with kind permission.