Looking around my May garden I’m reminded of the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which Eric Idle walks through a plague-infested village collecting a cartful of corpses. “Bring out your dead!” he shouts. I wouldn’t blame you for questioning my sanity and attitude but let me assure you that I’m not (very) crazy. Or (very) gloomy. It’s simply that that the world is showing sure signs of life now and it’s easy to see — and it’s time to tally — the garden’s dead. It helps to laugh a little.
My Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is the corpse that cries, “But I’m not dead yet!” I’m as tempted as the Dead Collector to knock it on the head and throw it on the heap anyway. Over the past couple of seasons I have noticed wilting leaves and I should have investigated because I might have been able to cure its particular plague: an infestation of elderberry shoot borers. If only I had removed the damaged stems whenever I spotted them and been more disciplined about pruning out the oldest canes. (The little devils pupate in the oldest and dead canes). Within the last couple of weeks, despite showing signs of life in the beginning, all but one skinny trunk has given up the ghost. And that’s beginning to show signs of wilt too. I found the culprit (one of many I’m afraid) tunneling its way through some delicious new growth. Totally gross.
My husband just told me that his favorite tree is a bluer than blue 15’ tall, columnar Lawson cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Alumii’) that grew from a 12” tall cutting planted the year we were married. The very tree that has turned browner than brown over the last few months. I would curse a wicked winter if the tree were less hardy, but since it’s listed as hardy to zone 5, I probably only have a droughty fall and myself to blame for not soaking its roots back in September. Mea culpa. It was my favorite tree too.
My Rosa ‘Mutabilis’, a beauty with clusters of single flowers that open cerise from orange buds and fade to pale pink, is what Miracle Max (from The Princess Bride) would call “mostly dead.” I dug it up on the first of April and replanted it to mark my dear dog’s grave. I pruned it hard that same day, along with a Buddleja davidii ‘Ellen’s Blue’ and Clematis ‘Roguchi’. Wielding loppers and pruners felt a little reckless so early in the spring but cathartic under the circumstances. If only I had remembered that the rose is marginally hardy to zone 6, I might have spared it my grief.
But while it is beginning to show the barest signs of life (thank you, Nino) the clematis and butterfly bush, both hardy to zones 4 and 5 respectively, are dead as doornails. The butterfly bush hasn’t looked super happy since the last time I moved it (for the fourth time in five years) but it had fresh, healthy looking buds when I whacked it back. It was too soon to see any new growth emerging at the base of the clematis. I can only surmise that removing the protection of their winter stems left both otherwise sturdy plants wounded and extra vulnerable to April’s freezes. Mea culpa.
Death in the garden is sometimes humbling but if we were demoralized by every loss we wouldn’t still be gardeners. The excuse to think about and find replacements is great consolation. I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for another slender blue-needled evergreen for the sake of marital bliss. But the birds and I have been wanting an arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) for a while now and I might finally have just the place for one.
Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum and author of “Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter” (Timber Press). Follow Blithewold’s garden blog at blog.blithewold.org.