At long last, the unrelenting heat of summer gives way to cooler temperatures, shorter days and – if we’re lucky these days – a little rain. As the LANPS garden begins to reawaken, it sometimes becomes gradually apparent that one or two well established plants didn’t make it through the ever hotter blast furnace of August and September. These plant deaths are often masked by summer dormancy (which can effectively mimic plant death) so that it isn’t necessarily obvious that the plant has died until it fails to green up alongside its neighbors in the fall.
If you’ve been gardening with native California plants for a while, you’ve probably experienced the frustration of a mature, slow-growing shrub just up and dying for no apparent reason. While it can be heartbreaking to see a plant you’ve lovingly nurtured over a period of years suddenly expire, it really does come with the territory, I’m afraid. As native habitat gardeners, we’re not dealing with the bland yet reliable products of the exotic nursery industry – industrialized plants that have been engineered to be as foolproof as possible, like a hard, tasteless, yet easy-to-transport, commercially grown tomato. Cultivars excluded, the native plants we work with, despite being mass produced (albeit on a comparatively small scale), are still at least somewhat “wild,” which is one of the reasons we love them. The flip-side of wild, however, is unpredictable.
Recently, a few Bitter Gooseberries (Ribes amarum) that had been growing happily in the dappled shade of an oak for many years apparently died over the summer. Feeling deflated, I was reflexively making plans to remove them, when I paused and thought, “Why not just leave them?”
snag [snæg] noun: 1. a standing dead tree
I have been allowing fallen oak limbs to remain on the ground for years now in an attempt to recreate, as much as possible, the conditions of a pre-colonial oak understory on my very much post-colonial property. When a dead limb has had to be removed, I don’t have the arborist carry it away, seeing this “coarse woody debris” as a valuable resource for building habitat in support of the tree and wildlife. So why not dead Gooseberries as well? Might they not also have a place in what is otherwise a carefully edited construct?
The imposition of classical notions of symmetry and order upon the unruly natural world may have made sense in the past, when most of the earth’s acreage was still largely untamed. The gardens at Versailles, for instance, in which plants are essentially employed to create living tapestries, represented, to the people who created and enjoyed them in the 17th century, a triumph of civilization over the hostile chaos of wilderness, bending even living tissue to the elegant strictures of a highly refined classicism. Centuries later, there is relatively little wilderness left and, in an ironic twist, the adversarial architects of gardens past are yielding to native plant gardeners who employ the inherent artifice of gardening in order to recreate a semblance of the dwindling proportion of our planet that remains untouched by human hands.
In this neurotic style of gardening, anything dead is an aberration, an insult to the idealized landscape upon which the sun always shines, blossoming never ends and nothing ever dies.
My father, who enjoyed working in his yard (I hesitate to call it a garden) may have been no André LeNotre, but his approach was somewhat similar. He saw the enclosed perimeter of his property as an extension of the house, and treated it in virtually the same way. Not a leaf was allowed to lie on the ground before it was raked up and carted away; not a spent blossom had a chance to drop naturally before it was snipped off. He saw his garden as something to be perpetually “kept clean,” like his living room.
In this somewhat neurotic style of gardening, anything dead is an aberration, an insult to the idealized landscape upon which the sun always shines, blossoming never ends and nothing ever dies. A dead plant is something to be removed immediately, for an obviously dead plant in a perfectly ordered garden might suggest that the gardener has somehow failed, or worse, that the disturbing fact of mortality has slipped through the garden gate unbidden.
To garden in partnership with the natural order (as opposed to censoring it) is to participate in and feel a part of the endlessly repeating cycle of life and death, from germination to maturity to decline to death and back again. Despite our human exceptionalism, which never quite accepts that we are a part of this universal rhythm of existence, we can see our own, all-too-short lives reflected in the ongoing drama of life and death in a native plant garden. For me, it is a kind of comfort to realize that I am not a bystander, that the inevitable extinguishing of my own life is something I share with these plants I love so much. From this perspective, dying can be seen as the ultimate in “giving back.” As a once-living plant begins the slow process of returning to the earth, it nourishes a host of organisms from fungi to bacteria to insects to the animals that eat them to survive. They provide both food and habitat for wildlife and soil nutrients for the next generation of plants.
I realize I am fortunate to have a large yard and can afford to dedicate some of my garden’s precious real estate to leaving a dead plant to slowly decompose in situ. Understandably, gardeners with less space may not have that luxury. But for those who do have the space, before you reflexively pull up a dead plant, consider just leaving it there. Not only will it contribute to the health of the local ecology, your garden will become a reflection, rather than a refutation, of this brief and precious living moment.