Do you get overly attached to your plants?

Story by Dan Gill

I’ve attended several funerals in recent years. I guess as you get older that sort of thing is inevitable. Dealing with the death of a friend or loved one is never easy. The rituals and traditions that have been developed over time are there to help us deal with the grief that comes with loss.

Gardeners also quickly learn that death is a part of gardening. We’ve all watched more plants die than we care to admit. If you are someone who feels guilty every time a plant dies, be prepared to carry a heavy burden. It’s far better to learn what you can from the experience, determine how to avoid repeating it, and then leave the guilt behind.

How sad you feel at the loss of a plant is strongly influenced by the degree of affection and attachment you feel. We rarely, if ever, form the strong bonds with plants we tend to create with an animal (think about the death of a pet). This is not necessarily a bad thing given how frequently plants in our gardens die.

Indeed, gardeners would do well not to become too attached to their plants. Still, it’s impossible to be a gardener without forming some attachment to your plants.

That said, there are numerous situations where we kill plants on purpose. Very few gardeners feel any regret when pulling weeds or spraying them with herbicides. Indeed, we may even take considerable satisfaction at their demise.

More difficult are the decisions to remove the offspring of ornamental plants that have self-seeded. I have pulled up hundreds of volunteer seedlings of annual flowers. I knew that they would grow and bloom beautifully if planted in the garden. But I didn’t have the time, inclination, or garden space to transplant them. So they end up in the compost pile.

I suppose the death of plants is a rather morbid subject, but it is something all gardeners must come to terms with sooner or later.

Thinning – the removal of excess seedlings in a direct-seeded bed – is another situation where we kill desirable plants on purpose. When vegetable or flower seeds are planted directly into the garden, more seeds are planted than there is room for them all to grow. This is to ensure a good stand of seedlings. Of course, if most or all of the seeds germinate, there are too many seedlings. Left alone they would crowd and fight with each other, so some are sacrificed so that the remaining plants will be healthy and productive. Removing the extra seedlings is one of the more difficult things a beginning gardener has to learn to do.

Some of the plants we use in our gardens are quite short-lived, and it should come as no surprise when these plants lose steam, languish, and then head for that great garden in the sky. I’m referring to annuals, those colorful, transient plants that grace our gardens for only a single season. Still, it’s not unusual for a gardener to feel some regret as a wonderful display of annuals peaks and then begins its inevitable decline.

Of course, there are plants in our landscapes with which we form strong attachments. Because trees live so long, many of us become attached as the years or decades go by.

Sometimes the attachment is for sentimental reasons, as with plants that have a family history (you know, great aunt Myrtle’s rose) or were given to us by a close friend or loved one. Perhaps it’s a plant that commemorates a family event.

Sometimes the bond is out of respect for a particular kind of plant. I think of live oaks (Quercus virginiana) this way. It hurts me every time I see a wonderful old live oak bulldozed to clear a lot for construction. Even though they don’t belong to me, I still feel a connection to them and a profound sense of loss.

On a more materialistic level, we also form bonds with plants that are more financial than emotional. Rare plants, new cultivars, and large specimen plants can all cost a pretty penny. I don’t know about you, but I feel much worse when a plant that cost $75 dies than when a plant that cost $0.75 cents kicks the bucket.

I suppose the death of plants is a rather morbid subject, but it is something all gardeners must come to terms with sooner or later. If a plant has sentimental value, propagate it if you can. If the original plant dies, you still have “copies.” And when plants die, leave the guilt behind. Learn what you can from the experience and then move on.

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