To Be Picked and Chosen

I've read a number of garden writers that adamantly espouse a certain coldhearted fearlessness in doing away with plants in one's garden that are sickly, overproductive (a nice word for invasive), weak in any way, or just plain undesirable according to some arbitrary standard or another. To my way of thinking, their various suggestions on getting rid of such plants often ring with a kind of impatience and even a touch of arrogance. But very possibly I would be considered by most to be overly lenient, allowing sentimentality or guilt to get the better of me when instead I should be dishing out tough love to my green charges as if they were delinquent teenagers sneaking cigarettes and beer behind my back.

Shame on any plant that dares to express its own will too strongly, they would say. It should be humbled and taught a lesson. And every gardener worth his royal salt should learn how to pick and choose only those subjects that will obey his every command. Grow here, do this, do that, ripen now..., stand tall without trellising, and whatever you do, don't attract insects. Otherwise, you're out! Forgive the exaggeration, but consider the point I'm trying to make.

The truth is, often it seems to be less a question of picking and choosing the plants that come and go in our garden, and more a matter of being picked and chosen by them! Maybe plants actually decide , on some level, whether or not they want to come live in our garden or if they will do well or not under our care. Who knows? Some plants may well be born with a stronger will to succeed than others, or perhaps certain species or members of species simply have good or bad karma that dictates the positive or negative outcome of our horticultural efforts on their behalf.

Take a certain golden deodara tree, for example, which found its way into my life, one lovely fall day, when I bought it at a plant sale fundraiser at the local arboretum. In those years, I knew there were so many areas of the garden that needed upgrading that I literally went nuts at any kind of sale. I bought things I'd never heard of or seen before as long as they looked reasonably healthy and were cheaply priced. If a "Sunset Western Garden Book" was handy, I might look up an unknown plant, but I also had to make some very fast decisions or another gardener would snatch up the very plant I dallied over.

So the little one gallon deodara cedar came home with me as one of those whimsical purchases for which I had no real explanation. You see, this is what I'm trying to tell you. The deodara chose me ! Of course I had no idea whatsoever where I would plant it. In fact I didn't plant it, as I recall, until sometime the following spring. But eventually, plant it I did on what was then the very edge of the cultivated garden. It was quite small and unobtrusive at first: a child who hadn't yet found its voice. I admired its delicate texture and soft golden color, and I was glad to see that over the next couple years it gradually came into its own. The third year of its life with us marked the creation of the meditation garden, which I decided to locate around the deodara. It was probably four feet tall by then, quite lovely to look at, and somehow possessed of that elusive, meditative quality that I was looking for as the natural focal point in this area. And from the meditation bench, it was beginning to nicely block the view of the compost area in the distance (before we thought to construct an artful fence and trellis).

In time, flower beds were carefully placed all around the deodara, the privacy fence of natural fir boughs was erected, and curving steps were put in using more arched fir boughs and pea gravel. These steps led up the slope into the meditation area and directly towards the deodara, which had only a small grassy area around it now-perhaps five feet in every direction. It was perfect. I spent many a morning on my meditation bench appreciating the simple beauty of this arrangement.
Then a friend came to Cortesia one day (the name escapes me), who shattered all this. Standing in the meditation garden, she blinked in disbelief. "Why would you ever plant a deodara tree in this spot," she asked in amazement. "Don't you realize that it will eventually grow to shade not only all of your meditation garden but the whole southeast corner of the garden as well?" Having made this devastating remark, this so-called friend completed her tour and left, and I scrambled for my Sunset Western Garden Book.

"Cedrus Deodara: Native to the Himalayas. Fast growing to 80 ft., with forty feet spread at ground level. Lower branches sweep down to ground, then upwards. Upper branches openly spaced, graceful...Planted as living Christmas tree in small lawn, it soon overpowers area..." They must have written this description just for me.

I felt terrible. How could such a dainty tree be on its way to taking over all the flower beds so carefully planted around it and perhaps the compost area as well? Why hadn't I figured this out sooner? It had to go, I realized, with a sinking feeling. Still, we procrastinated. Forrest and I both loved the deodara, and we weren't too sure where we could move it. It wasn't until the following spring, when it had grown to six feet or so, that we figured out the right place. I warned it well ahead of time what we were planning to do, but the move was difficult. We dug expecting a huge rootball, only to find a single, diminutive taproot whose deeply buried and delicate tip we inadvertantly chopped off with the shovel. In spite of its new, sunnier, and more spacious location, the deodara went into serious decline after that. I tried everything: regular watering, extra rock dust, Reiki, flower essences, even praying for it and verbally encouraging it, but it went steadily downhill over the next few years. This spring, it appeared to to be dead at last. One by one the last few remaining green tips turned brown. I still didn't want to believe it. Over and over I talked to it and told it how much I loved it and would miss it. Yet it shrivelled like a Christmas tree that succumbs quickly once the lights and tinsel are removed and it is no longer the center of attention. Then I had an idea.

I casually walked up to it one day and said, "I'm sorry, but if you don't start growing again in the next few weeks, we will have to dig you up and replace you. Time has run out. Now it's up to you." Then I forgot all about it. Two weeks later, Forrest came running into the house with great excitement. "The deodara is alive," he said. "It's still alive, and full of new growth!" I rushed out in astonishment to look at it. Sure enough, I saw new green tips all over the tree. Now it finally looks healthy and happy again, as it last looked several years ago before we moved it.

I am so glad that we didn't give up on the deodara. It would have been so easy to dump it years ago without waiting for it to come out of its decline. Who could know what life force still remained in spite of its miserable appearance, or what finally enabled it to rise above its dark night of the soul? No doubt, every sanctuary gardener has their own moving stories to tell about similar miracles.

A few years ago, I was touring the spacious garden of my neighbor. As I was about to leave, she pointed to a jumble of potted plants that she had thrown on the junk heap. "Take whatever you want,"she said. "I don't have any use for them." I chose two interesting plants laying sideways in their unwatered pots in the hot sun. I didn't know what they were, but I loaded them into the car and took them home. I placed them on the front deck where they would get only the gentle morning sun and I could keep a close eye on them. I tended them carefully all summer.

That fall, I took my first trip to Hawaii with my mother. I fell in love with all the fabulous tropical plants, especially the gingers. I wished so much that I could grow flowers like that. When I returned home in November, my two mystery plants from the junk heap were both in full bloom. Suddenly I recognized them: one was the exotic and fragrant kahili ginger and the other was the dainty and incomparable blue ginger. Needless to say, I was thrilled. Those two Hawaiian plants had called to me that day from the junk heap and I was lucky that I listened.

By the following spring, the kahili ginger had grown so much that it cracked its plastic pot, so I divided it and planted the bigger half in a fine ceramic pot. The smaller half, which actually had no leaves on it, found a home in a two gallon plastic pot. The larger plant grew wonderfully, but the division never took. Though I watered it faithfully all season long, nothing happened. So when winter came and the mother plant was moved inside into the dining room, the division was placed behind the shed with all the empty pots. Still, for some reason I didn't want to dump the plant just yet.

Many months later, this June to be exact, I was depositing more empty pots in back of the shed when I caught sight of of something very green. On closer inspection, I realized to my amazement that it was none other than the kahili ginger. Somehow it had survived a cold, wet winter and was finally feeling ready to grow after a year of thinking about it. It has had a place of honor all summer next to the other ginger and just recently went to California with a dear friend who fell in love, as I once did, with its fragrant and delicate flower. In his warmer climate, he will be able to naturalize it in a way that I can not do in this colder zone.

Just a few days later, I was cleaning off the side porch when I found an avocado plant that I had put outside back in March, thinking that it was dead. Although it had not been watered for all these months, it had new leaf buds at the base of its tall dead stem. Okay, okay. So I've promised to take it back inside. After all, it's been with me for at least fifteen years. Why not for a few more?

You see, once a plant has chosen you, you can't easily get off the hook. Like the amaranthus caudatus ("Love Lies Bleeding") and the many others that have magically appeared at Cortesia year after year-always in a different place- these plants will come back to haunt you in one way or another. Don't ask why, just honor their gift and find a place for it somewhere in your heart and garden. Someday you'll understand, but it doesn't really matter if you don't. It's enough simply to recognize and accept that you have been chosen.

Now I should probably stop here, but I can't resist drawing an analogy that extends beyond plants into the human garden of relationships. You see, there is a deeper lesson in all this. In my younger days, I used to endlessly consult the "I Ching" (Book of Changes) when I was facing a dilemna I just couldn't understand. Inbedded in the six lines within each of the sixty four hexegrams that comprised this ancient Chinese system of devination, were further instructions and illuminations. So often I was told, "Perseverance furthers" or "It furthers one to cross the great waters." By this, I knew I had to keep trying. Whatever the situation was (and it was often involving an intimate relationship), there was more to learn and a deeper committment to be made, in spite of seemingly adverse circumstances.

All of this, I mean all of this, has been training ground for persevering in my marriage of eighteen years. Being strong-willed and independent by nature, I was nevertheless run at times by unacknowledged and deep-seated fears and doubts left over from childhood. These continually threatened the stability of my relationship. The I Ching was one of my early teachers. In more recent years, the teachers have been, more often then not, the very plants in my garden that I was most tempted to give up on. They were silent reminders that perseverance does further, that healing takes time, that the price of losing faith too soon is the subsequent loss of that which you may want the most.

My marriage with Forrest has survived the rockiest of times, the severest of tests. Over and over we have somehow, together, brought it back from the brink of disaster, when the death of our "third body" seemed imminent. Like the plants in our garden sanctuary, we have tendered the deeply rooted yet fragile plant of our growing love through drought, flood, high winds, intense heat, and prolonged freeze. We have over-pruned each other on numerous occasions, and at other times all but forgotten to even notice when something is growing far to rampantly.

In the final analysis, though, our intentions have always been pure and our individual and collective efforts towards harmony sustained at all costs. If a few struggling plants in our garden can teach us this, literally walking us through our darkest hours, what deeper lessons might be in store in the seasons to come?

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Tricia Narana McDowell