This post is dedicated to Grandma Bluma, my diminutive but very formidable Eastern European grandmother who lived to be 91. In her later years, if you were to ask her how she was, she would invariably reply, "Still alive, thanks God."
Never were four simple words more open to multiple interpretations. They might mean, "As long as I am alive, everything else is trivial, so I'm grateful." Or they could mean, "I'm absolutely horrible. The only thing that can be said about my condition is that I'm still breathing." My theory is that she meant both, simultaneously.
I've been thinking a lot about that phrase in connection with my garden. One year ago, it seemed a vast wasteland of dead or dying plants. If you remember, last summer was brutally hot - during one especially delightful interlude, we had temperatures above 100 degrees for 2 weeks straight - and my plants were not pleased. In June, my ajuga got crown rot, with swaths of it dying off in circular patches. In July, a previously healthy "David" phlox turned brown, wilted, and vanished, for still mysterious reasons. In September, one of my just-planted Vernonia lettermannii followed suit.
Then there were the 5 new phlox that I purchased from Bluestone Perennials. They came in those new, eco-friendly coir pots, which you pop directly in the ground. Now I love Bluestone Perennials, but to me, those coir pots are the New Coke of the botanical world. In my garden, they took their own sweet time bio-degrading, and in the meantime were stifling all root growth. Or at least that was my theory. By the end of last summer, their one-year anniversary in the ground, three of the phlox were basically the same size as they were the day I planted them. Two had disappeared completely.
You can see why I might have concluded that my plants were dead. I'm no scientist, but mid-season shriveling and vanishing means dead in my book - or rather, it used to mean dead in my book. Because today, to my great surprise, all my dead plants are "still alive." My ajuga is filling in after the crown rot debacle. Phlox "David" is also alive, in the Grandma Bluma sense that it came back and is breathing, so who's complaining. My Veronia lettermannii showed up this spring as if nothing untoward had happened and has been blooming for a few weeks now. And all 5 coir-bound phlox plants are present and accounted for.
From this experience, I have learned two things. One, that my plants are a lot tougher than they look. And two, that I am a very poor diagnostician. I really must remember not to dig up anything until I am certain that it is not still alive.
Which brings me to Dianthus barbatus "Heart Attack." It was billed as a biennial that acts like a perennial, or I would never have bought three for my garden earlier this year. Monrovia even claims that it is evergreen. Mine did beautifully, blooming like mad for about two months. Then this happened.
Behold "Heart Attack" in August, looking distinctly un-evergreen and behaving suspiciously like the biennial that it was not supposed to be. Will it be back next year? Or is it, as Grandma Bluma would say, "still alive"? Only time will tell.
I used to work with someone, now retired, who when asked how he was would always say, "Well, I got up this morning." As to the plants, I find they are frequently coming back to life or shuffling off this mortal coil when they are not supposed to. It is wise to give them time before pronouncing them dead. Unless, of course, you really want to replace them with something else.
8/29/2013 08:24:51 am
I think your co-worker may be a long lost relative. What's left of the dianthus is staying until next year. But I will be very annoyed if it turns out to be a real biennial.
8/29/2013 07:24:22 am
Your dianthus looks like it had a heart attack - a fatal one! I try to keep plants, especially roses, in the ground longer than I expect that they need to re-emerge. Sometimes it pays off! So glad you got some pleasant surprises this year. Heat and drought can really play havoc on our gardens. And I'm another one that doesn't like those coir pots. I usually rip them off.
8/29/2013 08:28:06 am
I am holding out hope that my dianthus is merely resting, like the famed Monty Python parrot. Maybe I'll get lucky, as you said. I certainly did this year.
8/29/2013 01:53:34 pm
Dianthus can be a real weenie sometimes. It may think it's a perennial but is probably biennial in our climate. But then again, I've had plants pull a total Lazarus on me and return from the dead just to prove me wrong. They like to have the last word. :)
8/30/2013 02:14:04 am
Hmm - you've had interesting experiences with dianthus too? I am hoping that mine pulls a Lazarus on me and shows up next year, although it may indeed turn out to be a weenie. Everything was going so well until it wasn't!
Amazing resilience. I have had plants disappear for years -- my blackberry lilies never showed up after the first year, until they appeared in abundance 5 years later! And a columbine cultivar went missing for 3 years then came back beautifully. The roots and the seeds of these plants live on in the earth until they are ready to show up. I'm glad yours made great comebacks. The dianthus . . I don't know about that one. Looks like a goner.
8/30/2013 02:16:00 am
It does look rather dead, doesn't it? If it weren't for last year I would be certain it was, but since the Year of the Resurrections, I am reserving judgment. Maybe I'll get lucky again. Or maybe I'll write a scathing review of the plant on Dave's Garden. Too early to tell, really.
8/30/2013 03:39:33 am
Sarah, I think you're right about Grandma Bluma, and that a third meaning was also present: "Still alive" meant "Don't write me off yet!" That is good advice for plants as well as people. I found this post very moving because I am a cornball and love the idea that what seem dead and gone might merely be (like Monty Python's parrot) resting.
8/30/2013 04:52:13 am
I'm with you. Although it is a slippery slope from "still alive" to "I don't do acceptance."
8/30/2013 01:51:21 pm
Who in the world would name a plant Heart Attack? Yours may have lived up to its name. My phlox all go dormant by midsummer here. They just hate the heat, but they will be back by early spring.
8/31/2013 01:41:48 am
I'm pretty sure it was Tony Avent who named Heart Attack, since Plant Delights introduced it. He has a distinctive sense of humor, if you've ever read his catalogues. I didn't realize that phlox went dormant in the heat - mine didn't in the past. Good to know for the future, so I don't declare death prematurely and go out to buy replacements (which is what I did last year - now I have too much phlox!).
I have to agree with Deb- 'Heart Attack' what a bizarre name for a plant! One of my pet peeves are standard nursery "guarantees". Usually when a perennial dies it disappears by the following spring leaving no trace it was ever in your garden. There is no dead body and nothing left to return to claim said "guarantee".
8/31/2013 01:45:24 am
Tony Avent of Plant Delights is known for his off-beat sense of humor. My policy is never to take plant guarantees seriously - who is to say whose fault it is if something dies, right? Still, if the thing is a biennial, just say so! I plan to ask the staff at Plant Delights if I go to the Open House in next weekend. Until then, I am operating on the theory that it will be back next year!
I think the labels annual, perennial and biennial exist to some extend for the gardener's convenience. Some plants cannot be labelled that easily, especially the monocarpic that die after they have bloomed, no matter how many years it took. In my climate, Sweet Williams is biennial, often it self seeds and gives the impression it is perennial (it is then "Still Alive, Thank God").
9/1/2013 02:12:03 am
You're right - and I think there is also so much variation in plant behavior depending on its growing conditions. My impression about Heart Attack was that it didn't self seed, but actually came back from the roots - but we shall see. I'd be happy with self-seeding at this point!
8/31/2013 04:56:34 pm
My father-in-law used to say with a grin that celebrating a birthday during the senior years was "better than the alternative." The older I get, the more I understand that phrase. Sounds like your grandmother had a similar view of things. I'm glad your plants came back! The same thing happened to me--which is giving me hope for next year, because we're hitting a dry spell again. Argh. Good post!
9/1/2013 02:18:34 am
My father used to say the exact same thing! And like you, I understand it more and more the older I get. There are probably 1000 posts that could be written about the parallels between gardening and life, and flowers and human beings.
9/1/2013 08:59:09 am
I do plan to stick with it - what do I have to lose? I am very comfortable with bare spots in the garden. All I have to do now is remember not to plant anything there until next April, at which point I will be fairly certain the "Heart Attack" was fatal.
9/2/2013 06:02:29 am
I had three Liatris plants come back from the (so I thought) dead this year. Same thing with a Rudbeckia and a Veronicastrum virginicum. (Although this third plant quickly *seemed* to die off again. I have a feeling it's going to behave as an ephemeral in my garden. Apparently it's one of those full sun, but wet/moist soil plants that I just cannot/should not try to grow in my garden. All my full sun areas pretty much bake to concrete in the summer. Only the strong survive there (crape myrtles, coneflowers, baptisia, tagetes patula, etc.)
9/2/2013 11:34:37 am
You're allowed to dislike P. paniculata, especially if they look like crap most of the time. Your comment reminded me that I actually did a lose a Liatris last year - it was one of the plants that succumbed to the heat but failed to come back (so it was not "still alive" at all). I am not going to perform CPR on the dianthus - maybe it will wind up acting like an ephemeral too, like your Culver's Root.
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The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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