Gardening 101

Plants I Can’t Grow

Recently I had lunch with three experienced—I mean really experienced gardeners—and we began discussing plants we couldn’t grow. I explained that I was under the spell of the “Echinacea Curse” and they all nodded knowingly. The sad fact is that even the best gardeners run across a plant that for some unfathomable reason they just cannot grow.

Years ago when I was a new gardener, I had a lovely Echinacea purpurea that grew so large that it would flop after rainstorms. I tend to be a patient gardener but my patience runs out when it comes to staking. I loathe staking plants. The fact is: I am a terrible plant staker.

As a result, I took out the Echinacea, thinking I would replace it with ‘Kim’s Kneehigh’, an echinacea that was shorter and relatively new on the market. And that was the beginning of the dreaded echinacea curse. Since then I have tried to grow every Echinacea imaginable. I have fed them; I have held back on the fertilizer. I have watered them; I have told them they are drought plants, undeserving of water. In short, I have pampered them and I have ignored them, all to no avail.

Since the Echinacea curse settled in, the most response I have gotten is perhaps two listless flowers. I would now willingly stake them but I have nothing to stake. Lauri Lawson at Niche Gardens laughingly introduces me as “the only person I know who cannot grow Echinacea.” Beware the Echinacea curse; when it strikes it casts itself with a vengeance.

There is another plant I cannot grow. The native muhley grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris, is always wimpy for me, simply lacking in any sex appeal. Its fall bloom in my garden doesn’t resemble the clouds of purple-pink haze promised—rather my specimens throw out three barely-there wisps of fluoresce. Yet, I can grow Muhlenbergia dumosa, reportedly difficult to grow, which happily returns for me year after year in spite of its classification as a zone 8 grass.

All experienced gardeners can readily reel off the names of plants they cannot grow, as this is simply a part of gardening. Some of the reasons for failure are obvious, such as a lack of sun or too many deer. I have good, rich soil, which I suspect is responsible for my inability to nurture these two tough native plants. In my more rational moments I even suspect that the Echinacea curse probably isn’t the culprit. I think precisely because roses thrive in my lovely soil is the reason Echinacea and muhley grass cannot. Some plants simply want a leaner soil than the rich soil I offer them.

Every gardener deals with life and death in the garden. We manipulate plants, shoving them into environments they wouldn’t naturally choose. Sometimes the plant will rebel and die while at other times it will delight us by thriving—and we rejoice. As gardeners we should sometimes take time out to ponder why certain plants refuse the housing offered our gardens.

This year I’m smelling my roses rather than facing more disappointment with my Echinacea curse.

A serious gardener for the past twenty years, Kit Flynn resides in Chapel Hill. She is also a Durham Master Gardener.

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