When I began serious gardening, I had to look up the word “perennial.” I’d always assumed that the general meaning “perpetual; everlasting; continuing; lasting indefinitely” applied to so-called perennial plants. But further in the list of dictionary definitions of perennial, “regarding plants; having a life cycle lasting more than two years.”
What? It can’t be! Perennial plants are supposed to last forever, aren’t they? A perennial plant can have a life span of anywhere from two years to 2,000 (bristlecone pine) depending on the type. More often, garden plants like the beloved lavender, live only about six years before they begin to look woody. The result: They will need to be replaced by a younger version.
The life span of plants, along with working with a living medium, creates major challenges for gardeners. At about 8 to 10 years, gardens begin to experience their first midlife crises. At that time short-lived perennials have begun to die or have become ungainly. Plants may have been planted too close together and are imposing on each other’s space. The soil in which a particular plant has been placed may have not been compatible with its growth – too acidic, too alkaline, poor drainage. Paths may have become overgrown. Trees may begin to shade smaller plants. A pine may have fallen and created a sunny area that was once shady and is now exposed to glaring mid-day sun.
My garden has gone through a major midlife crisis. I began creating it more than 12 years ago. We lost a beautiful pine exposing six beautiful Ribes (pink-flowering currant) to too much sun. They shriveled and died. We had an invasion of gophers, and I lost six Lavatera to the “toothy” creatures. My lavender plants died of “old age,” and a 50-year-old apple tree (here on the property when we built) succumbed to “fire blight.” The drought, of course, has thinned out thirsty plants. The soil has become depleted, except in the vegetable beds, where I replenish nutrients each year. It appears a “remodeling” project may be at hand.
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Gardens are living, dynamic patches of earth. The soil of a garden breathes and is filled with microorganisms that eat, digest, eliminate and die, just like every other living creature on earth. Soil and the plants are affected by climate, weather, and conditions that humans impose on it. It is never static, never stagnant.
Our vision of creating something that remains “forever” may be unrealistic. Gardening is for those who love the process rather than just the result. Everything is temporary for the gardener. Gardeners embrace learning and experimenting. If you are involved with a garden that is facing a midlife crisis, make it easy on yourself by tackling one project at a time. Take time to appreciate what has worked for you. Gardens are meant to be enjoyed.
Tip of the Month
Compost, or composted manure, is great for plants and good for the soil in which your plants live. Over time, the nutrients in your soil can become depleted. As your plants wake up from a long winter’s nap, they are in need of nourishment. The arrival of new shoots on plants signals the time to begin feeding.
Use compost at planting time to feed the soil that nurtures the plant. After that, demanding, high production plants like flowering plants and fruits will need additional feeding. Citrus and fruit trees are particularly hungry specimens. Citrus trees should be fed with food especially for citrus, four times a year. Start now, and space your feeding about three months apart.
Flowering plants need to be fed in early spring, and again in the summer. Gardeners can use an organic product with a high phosphorus content (middle number) or a chemical fertilizer that is well balanced like 10-10-10. Fertilize succulents diluted with more water than what is called for on the directions. If the directions call for 1 tablespoon per gallon, use ½ tbsp. per gallon. Succulents like their “tea” weak. Lastly, remember that Mediterranean plants need little or no fertilization and very little water during the summer months.
Lee Oliphant’s column appears quarterly and is special to The Cambrian. A certified Master Gardener, she shares her Cambria garden and chickens on her blogs: centralcoastgardening.com and backyardhencam.com.