Perform or perish / An Oakland gardener prefers tough love to spoiling her plants

Written by Tisa Watts, this piece was originally publish January 25, 2006 in the San Francisco (CA) Chronicle.


Recently my next-door neighbor looked out her kitchen window and watched me pulverize an azalea with a shovel. She smiled and waved before returning to her sink full of soapy dishes. I waved back and returned to my azalea. My neighbor wasn't concerned; she's seen me whack a plant to smithereens before.


I wasn't always this way. For years, I went to great lengths to save a dying plant. I'd fuss over it, offering it special treats of fish emulsion and fancy foliar sprays. Somehow, a plant's failure to thrive meant I was heartless and uncaring. Well, no more!

I've designed landscapes and worked at a local nursery for many years. Along the way, I've seen homeowners cling to ancient rose stumps and mangled conifers because "it's always been there." People hang on to plants for many reasons, often sentimental ones, and perhaps that leggy hydrangea from Uncle Theo's funeral deserves a special place in the garden. But just as frequently, that troublesome plant was a seductive impulse purchase, wasn't it?


I've accidentally killed my share of temperamental plants. Maiden ferns that turned crisp overnight. Daphnes that lingered for weeks before succumbing to a general malaise. Gardenias, fuchsias, orchids -- they've all broken my heart. Some plants are just plain spiteful, but most of my casualties were victims of WPWP (Wrong Plant, Wrong Place). I've learned that unless you enjoy spraying fungicides, don't get a peach tree. And ferns seem to resent six hours of midday sun.


These days, I have a new attitude toward my plants: Perform or perish. Life offers enough irritations without playing nursemaid to a petulant shrub. I finally threw in the trowel when I sprayed a rhododendron for spider mites three times in one summer.


It's another story in my garden now. When they first arrive home, my new plants get a probationary period to account for transplant shock. Usually a new plant just needs a variable tweaked -- more water, perhaps, or an extra layer of mulch to make it happy. But if a newcomer behaves like a temperamental teenager from Day 1 to Day 60, my suspicious mind springs into alert mode.


After making the obvious environmental adjustments, we engage in a series of escalating warnings. First come the gentle admonishments such as, "Straighten up and bloom right, missy." If the plant continues on a path of sullen defiance, there may be a reprimand in the form of pinching, pruning or even a small lopping accompanied by a stern, "No wilting."


One morning, my partner found me dangling an orchid over the upstairs deck railing while telling it, "I've had it with you, you ornery Oncidium! Shape up or I'll hurl you into that compost bin!" A man passing by on a bicycle looked up in alarm and almost rode into our fence. And heaven help the shrub that wants to bring tiny pets into my yard. Infestations of scale or thrips are grounds for expulsion. Powdery mildew or fire blight earns an express trip to the garbage bin. Maybe it's my imagination, but nearby shrubbery seems to take notice and make an extra effort to look perky.


Seasonal maintenance is another opportunity to exercise botanical discipline. When I'm done with the late-winter pruning, I look over the piles of foliar carnage with satisfaction. And yet, surprisingly, my yard doesn't look like the cover photo of "The Joy of Poodled Shrubs." There is a quiet sense of casual chaos, of plants that flourish when treated with benign neglect and the occasional stern reprimand.


Some people may find my approach to gardening a little severe. I just don't need the drama of sick plants, and sometimes it just feels good to rip out a plant that's organizing a mutiny anyway. Remember that azalea I was whacking with the shovel? It had parasitic nematodes for nearly a year.


I may have a rather imperious approach, but it means fewer problems in the long run. If you need permission to remove that ailing, aphid-infested perennial, consider it granted. Life is too short for delinquent trees and incorrigible shrubs.


An early application of gardening "tough love" pays off in hours of horticultural happiness later.


This piece was originally publish January 25, 2006 in the San Francisco (CA) Chronicle.
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