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Killing plants



This is what my gardenia looks like. I gave it too much water and not enough acid in the soil. Too bad I found that out a year and a half after I got the plant.

Ruth Stout claimed that gardenias were easy: you just fertilized them with your own leaves. Mine didn’t grow enough leaves to use as fertilizer. Foliar-spraying iron chelate seemed to help the few that remained before they dropped off for winter. And I read a recommendation somewhere for putting tea leaves on the soil to create acidity, so I’m doing that haphazardly. My gardenia is a plant that won’t flourish where I threw it. I like to call these Cranky Plants, mainly because the alternative is to point the finger at myself.

Sometimes the way to deal with a Cranky Plant is to move it. Vita Sackville-West said that the art of gardening was the art of hoicking a plant out of one place and putting it in another. And it is true that plants that sulk in one place will thrive in another—even if that other place is only a few feet away. (As I’ve found, this also works in reverse; it’s just one more way to kill a plant.)

There may be an obvious reason why the move is a success—the plant’s finally getting enough sun, or shade (gardenias are supposed to like shade, at least in hot climates, but I suspect I gave mine more than it wanted). But sometimes a plant’s reaction to a move makes no logical sense whatever—a stunted houseplant that bursts into leafy growth in the dark cave of an unused fireplace, for instance. Cranky Plants.

Another way to approach a Cranky Plant is by checking out their backgrounds. Where a plant comes from or how it grows well in someone else’s garden each hold valuable information for those who care to read it. If you have a neighbor who’s growing a fine specimen of the plant you crave, that’s the best resource of all.

One thing you should make sure of, though, is that that plant is the same variety as the one you are growing—sometimes even a difference in cultivar can mean different requirements and different hardiness. Salvia greggii, for instance (usually grown for flowers), is good in zones 7-10, so if you live in Connecticut, it’s an annual. Salvia officinalis (usually grown for leaves) and all its variants, on the other hand, are good for zones 5-9, so they would come back the next spring. They could all properly be called sages, as could many of the other varieties of sage, each with its own requirements. And it’s good to double-check a plant’s cultural requirements in a standard garden book (or, even better, at your local nursery): does it need a change of soil or fertilizer?

But it’s easy to say what I should have done. What I actually did was to look at the gardenia on my way out to doing something else, shake my head, and vow to get back to it later.And eventually, I did.

I happened to read that gardenias prefer the drainage of clay pots—not the self-watering pot I had it in, which keep the soil steadily moist. In my case, it kept the soil steadily wet: I’d forgotten that this was the pot I’d experimented with. I didn’t drill a drain hole in its plastic bottom, just put in the self-watering insert. When it rained, the result was a swamp, because the excess water had no place to go.

I finally got around to emptying that pot of its plants (the gardenia and a dead, drowned scented geranium), soil, and self-watering insert tank. (I realize as I write this post that I must do a series on self-watering containers, which are actually great for plants and gardeners when used with some skill.) The pot is lying on its side, and someday, someday soon, I will drill a hole through the bottom.

I also read somewhere that gardenias like acid soils, which can be supplied by putting your old tea or coffee grounds next to them. And the mottled appearance of the leaves (when the plant had them) looked as if it was due to lack of iron—so I got the recommended iron chelate and sprayed it on. Before the last few leaves dropped completely, they did look greener.The gardenia, as you’ve seen, is now in its clay pot, with some tea leaves, and in its now-leafless state I gave it a Sonic Bloom treatment to help it along (more on that later, too). Now I’m waiting for the weather to warm so it leafs out. Or not. Will it live? Stay tuned.

Do any of you have killed-a-plant-and-learned stories? Please comment and let us benefit from (or be entertained by) your experience.


Ruth Stout on gardenias: How to have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back, Ruth Stout. My ancient paperback is a 1976 reprint by Cornerstone Library. This classic book, originally printed in 1955, still has plenty of wit and wisdom for the modern gardener.

Plant origins to determine plant culture:

The Gardener’s Atlas, Dr. John Grimshaw, Firefly Books, 1998

The World in Your Garden, National Geographic Society, 1959

Resources on Wildflower Propagation, National Council of State Garden Clubs, Inc., 1981

As you can see, I often buy my garden books second-hand or remaindered, partly for reasons of economy, but also because there are styles in horticulture as there are in everything else, and sometimes information gets dropped which is actually still useful. I admit too I find it interesting to see how trends change over time; it’s a kind of historical horticultural voyeurism. Other excellent references for looking up plant origins are general garden books for your area (I use the Sunset Garden Books a lot, in their various editions) and the nurseries catalogues you get your plants from. If your catalogues (or their websites) don’t have good cultural directions, you may want to consider changing catalogues.

Buying (or getting given) plants locally is probably the best way to get information, because it will apply to your particular climate and soil. More general references often need to be adapted to what’s happening in your yard or house.

Planting gardenias in clay pots, iron chelate, and tea and coffee in the soil: I’m sorry, I just can’t remember where I read these ideas. If I ever find out, I’ll give credit where credit is due.

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