I wanted to write about earthworms this week. But life, as is its habit, intervened. And I failed.
Failure is a constant in any life, be it plant life, animal life, or human life. Things and people routinely fail. We don’t always succeed; plants sometimes don’t thrive (often for no discernible reason). We all fail to achieve, fail to reach a goal. Failure is something that every being faces at some point, for if nothing else, every living creature eventually dies. Death is the universal, permanent failing.
This week, I failed on a lesser level, although death is involved none-the-less. Who could write about earthworms when dismay and heart break rule my inner world? Earthworms, as worthy as they are, will have to wait. This has always been a problem in the Old Queen Gardener’s existence: emotion has always taken front seat. Practicality? End of the line, baby (right behind the Earthworms). We’ll get to you when the pressing emotions have been dealt with.
I wanted to write about earthworms this week, but my Cousin Carla’s father, my Uncle Glenn, brother to my dear, departed mother, has begun his exit from this world. It is his time of failing.
Here’s the thing: as I said, every living creature is slowly trudging toward its own eventual failing. Slowly if we are one of the lucky ones, that is. Sometimes the pace quickens, if we are so unfortunate as to encounter disease or pestilence. Either way, with all the time in the world or with not enough time to matter, there is no detour around it, no way to avoid it. We are born (or planted), we live the lifespan allotted, extending as best we can with careful tending and healthy choices, and then we die. Sometimes that death seems premature. This is simple fate.
It doesn’t matter if one is a human, a clump of bearded iris, or a Herford cow: one will eventually perish. Nothing but granite and taxes are permanent. As humans, we can only hope that we have either literally or figuratively reproduced, that our children or our art or our good works will live on after we have moved on.
It’s a sad, sad time for Cousin Carla, and one that I understand intimately and completely. Uncle Glenn is dying of the same evil that my mother did: multiple myeloma. It’s not a pretty way to go. It’s the way of disease and pestilence – a general ugliness that I am certain every living human has some intimate knowledge of. Who among us hasn’t been impacted by cancer, heart disease, stroke, or HIV, if not directly then indirectly through the illness or demise of someone we love. Like our own eventual failure, disease and pestilence are a forgone conclusion if one is to truly live.
Plants, however, excepting some truly remarkable survival adaptations, are generally complete idiots about pest and disease. They rely on you, the attentive gardener, to understand that they have developed an overnight infestation of aphids. And your role is to spray the offenders off with a pulsing stream from the garden hose. Plants rely on you to observe that they have developed mold or mildew, and they count on you to prune the infected portions and reduce the high-nitrogen fertilizer. Your role, dear reader, is to pay attention, to conduct the necessary research and to intervene against disease and pests as ferociously as any good doctor would.
You owe this to your plant friend.
Sometimes, though, no amount of intervention can change nature’s decisions. Some plants simply won’t grow for you. Maybe they won’t grow for anyone. I like to think so, at least. They fail. Miserably.
This is a part of gardening that most resource books won’t reveal and that no gardener ever fully adapts to. Every untimely plant death is experienced as a personal failure, and feels something like a stab with a dull, rusty trowel right to the center of one’s gardening competence.
Or, conversely and even more maddening, some stupid plant may thrive completely outside of your intentions. Anyone with a compost bin will understand: you finally, in a fit of resignation, rip up that failing seedling and toss it to the top of the heap, where it immediately takes root and thrives.
Succeeding, like failing, is sometimes out of our purview – it just happens.
Uncle Glenn is failing, and this is a loss to my family tree. Uncle Glenn was an exotic presence in my mid-century Wyoming upbringing. As an offshore drilling executive with Shell Oil, he spent much of his life living in, gasp!, other countries. He even married a woman from Bolivia, causing a young me to carefully inspect the globe in my Basin Public Elementary School homeroom to see exactly where Bolivia was.
But of most importance to a young Queen Gardener, Uncle Glenn beget my Cousin Carla, who I maintained a crush on throughout childhood (until puberty’s rough man hand shoved me toward other men). Every summer he returned her to Wyoming for a prolonged visit from whatever glamorous country they presently inhabited.
It was an annual event that both I and my dear mother looked forward to with heightened expectation.
I can’t honestly say that I know my Uncle Glenn on an intimate or personal level. He was a visitor to my childhood, a strong and quiet John Wayne type who expressed more with action than words. As an adult, I understand that he was my mother’s favorite sibling, and I can attest that he and his lovely wife, Flora Linda, cared for my mother on a daily basis while she was undergoing her own passing on from this heart-breaking illness.
Those are the things that make an adult me love him and respect him; that plus the fact that he raised the truly remarkable woman who is my beautiful Cousin Carla. He certainly did something right. Still, even in the dark ages of my Wyoming childhood, as a periodic visitor to my country rearing, he held a poignant role.
Flash back with me, if you will, to August 1968. Uncle Glenn had returned to the homeland, family in tow, for his annual month-long pilgrimage. I believe they lived in Aberdeen, Scotland at the time.
It was all so flamboyant to a land-locked farm boy in high plains Wyoming. Scotland! For Christ’s sake!
My parents were financially strapped at best, raising six sons on one less-than-middle-class income. My father worked for a large-scale sodium bentonite strip mine operation, our rural area’s largest non-agricultural employer. Never mind the ecological implications: this was 1968.
My dad operated heavy equipment, most notably a grader. He did an honest man’s work, keeping the gravel roads crisscrossing the badlands between extraction pit and processing mill passable after snow or rain had rendered them far too dangerous for the huge trucks hauling the raw ore overland to its fate.
Interesting facts: sodium bentonite is a common ingredient in ice cream, chocolate, make-up, and many other products that require a certain gelatinous consistency, which it definitely offers when mixed with water (“Slick as snot!” my Dad used to proclaim.). But sodium bentonite enjoys its broadest commercial market in the field of oil drilling. In that industry, the dry powder is mixed with water to form a veritable mucous which functions as a lubricant and sealer for the spinning drill bit grinding through the layers of otherwise impenetrable rock.
In retrospect, it seems my dad worked at the low end of this product while my Uncle Glenn worked at the high end.
When Uncle Glenn paid his first visit to our family farm that summer of 1968, he stoically and without drama (as is his style) took stock and then herded me and my five brothers off to the Probst Western Wear Store in Greybull, Wyoming – seven miles by two lane highway from the verdant acres of our family farm. Once there he purchased each of us a brand-new pair of cowboy boots. I am certain that he saw the worn and hand-me-down tennis shoes we all wore, or even worse, our bare feet, and recognized that a problem existed. Regardless, we were not used to new shoes and it was a rare treat that has to this day not faded from my memory.
That’s not my main point, though. Here is where my love of Uncle Glenn was cemented. He didn’t pressure us to buy any certain pair of boots; he allowed us to choose the pair we wanted. My brother Steven chose pointy, polished and black. My younger brother Joseph was smitten with some Cordovan soft leather ropers. I personally chose a pair that was highly impractical for life on a working farm: a pair of rough-out (suede), buckskin-colored Tony Lamas. The clincher? They were girl’s boots. But there was no protest; Uncle Glenn just smiled and paid. And I loved those boots. I cherished them. I wore them far longer than they were presentable, far beyond when they actually fit my growing feet. There is no one person or no single pair of girl’s cowboy boots that could have made a budding ten-year-old sissy any happier.
And now Uncle Glenn fails. And this breaks my Cousin Carla’s heart, which in turn breaks my heart. As an adult I have had the ultimate pleasure of reconnecting with her, initiated when her daughter, Sofia, was awarded a full scholarship to Howard University here in the District of Columbia. Such is my beautiful, serendipitous luck. And now Carla is no longer simply my long-lost cousin. She has become my friend.
My heart now breaks for my dear, sweet friend.
Life eventually fails; that is a given. It fails for both the people we love and for the plants we love. There is nothing to be done about it. No amount of hand-wringing, no vociferous guilt professing, no dedication to hard work or prayer – nothing – can change this course of action. It couldn’t alter my mother’s trajectory that I assailed myself for not having visited her more often; it certainly won’t slow my Uncle Glenn’s deterioration if Cousin Carla happens to berate herself for living some distance away. A part of life – the final part of life – is death. We are all proceeding at the prescribed pace toward that outcome. Sometimes, as was the case with my mother and is now the case with my Uncle Glenn, the path is shortened. Regardless, any single day that any of us are privileged enough to awaken to a new sun’s rising, we simultaneously chug one day closer to our own permanent, terminating nightfall.
Plants follow this same birth-to-death lifecycle in one manner or another. Some grow as annuals, defined as moving from seedling to bloom to seeds in a one-season cycle, their short life dedicated to producing in a timely fashion a batch of seeds that will renew their familial cycle come next spring. Other plants are biannual, meaning that they grow all gang-busters and glory for one season (like carrots and parsley), store their energy through that first and only winter, and then the next summer direct that stored energy to little other than production of a stalk for purposes of bloom and seed: procreation. Other notables in this category are hollyhocks and miner’s candle. And, lastly, we are faced with the perennials, defined as ever-growing, which is, in my humble opinion, a gross mis-definition.
Nothing lasts forever. Not mothers; not uncles; not perennials.
The perennials, if their lineage is to continue, must somehow propagate. Most often they spread outward by way of underground runners, or long stems that fall to the ground and take root some distance from the source, or a crown (where the upper part meets the lower part at ground level) that slowly divides itself outward from the center. However it is that they spread, rest assured that eventually the mother plant, the originator, will meet her demise.
Most often in our tiny urban or potted gardens we simply don’t have room for them to ramble willy-nilly in their reproductive process, and it becomes our duty to help the perennials duplicate their natural renewal tendencies, their methods of keeping themselves fresh and young.
Oh, but were it this easy in human life. If I could clone a section of myself and end up with a new and vibrant me to replace myself with, you can bet your bippy that I would. In a heartbeat. Alas, I am human, and that is not (at least not yet) possible. I am stuck with the dilapidated me, the one with decrepit shoulders and achy hips and dysfunctional sinuses. No regeneration for me; I am the one and only.
Perennials, however, do regenerate. It is your task as Queen Gardener to help them. When it is time, if you pay attention, the plant will seem as though it is whispering at you.
“Divide me, divide me,” it says.
Before proceeding, though, make certain that you are familiar with the growth habits of the plant. Observe it. In general, those that are begging to be divided will have already started the process for themselves, following their natural course. They will have begun to form obviously distinct offsets. All you have to do is gently dig out the entire plant, separate it in to the naturally divided offsets, and then replant the resulting new specimens as you see fit.
Those plants that don’t follow this pathway, or go back to ground come fall without leaving a trace, should be left to their own devices. The exception to this rule is the bulbs or rhizomes, like Iris, which must always be divided.
I might add that the potted tropicals, the houseplants (also “perennial”), should be treated similarly. If you pay attention to the growth pattern, you will clearly see when the plant needs restarting. It will begin to dwindle, or the growth pattern will change. Some species begin to send out long shoots with small leaves and stem rootlets, others begin to exhibit slowed growth, or the main stem suddenly topples and falls over, or there is crown distress. My advice? Try two methods: clip longer portions of the healthy plant stems and see if they root in water. You can also try rooting hormone and growing medium, but I prefer the water method. I like watching the tiny rootlets emerge and grow.
Simultaneously, remove the parent plant from the pot and divide her: gently separate the root ball and attached upper plant portions into two or three equal parts, prune the above surface part back to long stubble, and re-pot in a good, commercial potting mixture.
If it is a single-stemmed plant you are dealing with, like a Dieffenbachia, cut it off a few inches above ground, water-root the upper part, and see if the remaining stub sprouts side dependencies (which will later be clipped off and water-rooted to begin individual new “mother plants”).
After that? Hope for the best. Worst case scenario? Nothing grows. Everything fails. In such cases you are forced to purchase a new specimen. Best case scenario? You end up with two or three water-rooted offspring, and two or three root-divided (or stub off-shooting) new plants. Your plant-loving friends will thank you for the donation to their collection.
But back to the outdoor garden. As relates to annuals, the solution to propagation is simple: follow my advice for deadheading, but come late season, allow sufficient seeds to mature for natural reseeding. Should you require more control than that, Fräulein Miststück, pluck enough ripened seeds to scatter exactly where you want them come spring. The same advice rings true for the biannuals. You can start new plantlets every year and nurse the babies though their winter to bloom the second year, transplanting as appropriate, or you can simply allow them free run of the garden . . . the biannuals typically spread their seed widely and indiscriminately, and if you allow them to run their course, you will, as nature intended, be left with a first-year crop and a second-year crop during every growth cycle.
It just may not grow exactly where you planned.
Mother Nature moves in not-so-mysterious ways, yet it is impossible to fully understand her. She has definite patterns, but she deviates seemingly at whim. She may inexplicably cause some to fail sooner that expected, even without reason, while others are allowed to bloom late. She may decree the absolute end to a life for no observable reason and despite your attentive and detailed efforts, that end occurs. Mother Nature is fickle, yet in her overall good sense she manages to provide for everyone: for the aphid, for the caterpillar, for the peach borer and the ladybug. She provides a niche for the hunter, for the hunted, for the carrion eater. I think we, as humans, forget that we are part of this cycle when, in truth, every species, including us, has a designated role and a preset expectancy.
Somewhere in Mother Nature’s daily planner, our entry and exit dates are etched in granite alongside those of the old apple tree, the old mare, the old crow, and the old Queen Gardener. This eventuality is unmovable and undeniable. It is unalterable.
It is a sometimes overwhelmingly sad and scary yet absolutely true fact that we are all marching day-by-day toward the time when our own existence fails, when all that is left of us is our offspring, our art, our good works. Even the earthworms, those detritivores long associated with death and burial, housed below in their dark and moist world, slither toward this eventual failing. We, and they, have no other option
With respect to knowing that this is the case, we humans are very, very lucky. Of all life forms, we alone are cognizant of the fact that immortality is not an option and that, as fallible humans, our best bet is to make the absolute most of any day we are fortunate enough to be able to continue living.