Flip through a gardening book or magazine, and there will be page after page of beautiful flowers nestled together, colors flowing, blending, complementing—a paradise on every page. Wonderful! But time to get back to reality. Those pictures represent hundreds of carefully-considered choices and never-mentioned mistakes. A brand-new gardener with Edenic dreams usually has them dispelled within a few minutes of walking into a garden center. I did.
Carefully selected list in hand, I made my way to Home Depot eager to buy. Twenty minutes later, I wanted to cry for help. The books I had read spoke in general terms about watering needs and sun requirements, but that kind of information gets pushed aside by the pretty pictures. Sure, you read it, and it’s in the back of your mind, but you never dwell on it in the same way as the gazebo surrounded by roses or the spray of coneflowers jutting from the fence of a 1700s cottage. After all, sun and water requirements are obviously details that can be consulted at any time. Who can be bothered when floral artistry calls?
Walking into a garden center to buy plants for the first time is very much like showing up late for math class, after just skimming over the lesson and then finding out there is a pop quiz. What seemed clear enough in between glimpses of Netflix runs together—you have no idea what the book said.
Pick up a plant, and sun requirements are one of the first things on the label: full sun, part sun, part shade, shade. Of course, I had seen these terms many times. However, standing there, I realized I had only planned for full sun, expecting, reasonably, that full sun just meant “in the sun.” The number of hours seemed like a minor point. Nope. Full sun in my yard in summer can mean 8-10 hours of direct sunlight in 95-degree temperatures. Full sun in Minnesota and Georgia are very different things. Parsley is supposed to be full sun. Uh-uh, right. My parsley fried the first two years; the third year I planted it under a gardenia, and it has been happy ever since. It gets mottled sunlight for only a few hours each morning and maybe an hour right before sundown. Ask the parsley what it thinks of full sun advice.
Watering requirements are another challenge. Here, label information proved to be even less helpful. Any plant getting ten hours of sun in 95+ degree heat needs water—that’s obvious. But some drink water faster than others, so my Moonbeam tickseed drowned, and the dwarf phlox did fine. The geum did ok, but the speedwell went under fast–very fast. So, I learned that even though the colors went well together, some plants could swim, and some couldn’t.
Some plants have extensive, tenacious root systems like lantana and coneflowers. Others, like black-eyed Susans and bee balm, have shallow roots that stay near the surface, so roots matter too. Lantana can survive little rain with no problem. The black-eyed Susans play the numbers game–spread everywhere, and some are bound to survive.
Wandering around a garden store, while trying to keep all this info in mind is frustrating. But there’s hope. You know why? Because It doesn’t matter. I think the purpose of the labels is to make naive gardeners feel they know what’s going on. The most misleading information is the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. I’m in Zone 7 (or 7b as if that matters). Zone 8 starts about 80 miles south of me, and zone 9 is in Florida. Zones tell you where plants should thrive based on climate. Plants used to Zone 9 climates will struggle or not thrive in Zone 7, at least that’s the theory.
I planted canna lilies, which are Zone 9 and are subtropical plants (that’s what the literature says). In Atlanta, they are supposed to be annuals. Instructions with the plants tell you to dig them up in fall to prevent their being destroyed by the cold. I planted three cannas as an experiment, expecting them to die in winter. I couldn’t find the plants I really wanted for the spot, so I bought the canna to fill the color gap for a year. That was five seasons ago. The cannas have not just returned each year; they spread so quickly I have to dig them out every spring and late summer. Apparently, they believe my yard is in Florida.
The lantana, bought from the annuals table, came back every year too until I dug up that entire section and sifted out the roots one-by-one. One still came back.
The take away from this? Find what you like, plant it, water as much as you think reasonable, and it will either live or die. Profound, huh? Well, that’s all I got.