Friday, February 7, 2014

A Plant wants What a Plant wants!


As a parent, the natural tendency is to provide the very best you can for your children. Nobody's perfect, but as parents, we have the very best of intentions.

It seems I have transferred a little of this parenting style outside into the garden. 

How I wish this were my own Lavender!

I have always strived to provide my plants with the very best I possibly can. 

I began by amending and improving the soil on our property. 

And then, every spring I add compost, bone meal and manure. To complete the process, I top dress the flowerbeds with mulch to keep the soil moist and weed free.


When summer heats up and rain is scarce, I take pity on my plants and out comes the garden hose. 

I battle red aphids every summer.

When pests line up I strike back (organically of course). I can't tell you how many green worms I have handpicked off my roses or red lily beetles I have swished under foot.

Russian Sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia at Edward Gardens in Toronto

I am well aware that plants like different soil types, but for some unknown reason, I haven't paid that as much heed to that as I should. 

Following those parental instincts I reasoned that if I gave my plants the very best soil, they should perform perfectly. Right? 

Wrong! 

A plant wants what a plant wants. If that means poor, sandy soil, it wants poor, sandy soil.  If it needs gravelly soil with really good drainage, then that is just what it wants.

My long line of failures is testament to the truth in this.

Russian Sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia at Edward Gardens in Toronto

Russian Sage. You think with the word "Russian" in the common name, it would have no problems overwintering here in Canada, but I kept losing my plants every winter for years. 

Most recently, I put my latest Russian Sage in the sheltered herb bed. It made it through winter all right, but it failed to prosper. 

I gave it protection, but what it really needed was the right soil. Russian Sage is a huge, flamboyant perennial that can grow to 150 cm (3 to 5 feet), yet my sorry specimen is pathetically scrawny. 

This is what I aspire to: Russian Sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia at Edward Gardens in Toronto

I think it's finally sinking in: get that soil right or it is never going to perform well. 

Other than heat and sun what it needs most is loamy, loose and airy,well-drained soil.


Ditto on the lavender. 

Right now it is in the same herb bed and it is sulking just as much as the Russian Sage.  The best soil for growing lavender is gritty or sandy loam, so no wonder it is not doing well in the black top soil of the herb garden.

I have done some research and I need to either move it or amend the soil. There is already plenty of organic matter for good soil aeration, but I need to make the soil much more free-draining with fine crushed stone. I think I may also have to add some lime (apparently lavender likes soil with a pH factor between 6.0 and 8.0).

Merlin's Hollow, Aurora Ontario

A closer look at the thyme lawn at Merlin's Hollow

One of my projects for this spring is inspired by the thyme lawn at Merlin's Hollow, David Tomlinson's garden in Aurora, Ontario. 

In my case, it is going to be a thyme walk that runs along the path to the back garden (pictured below)

Out with the boring grass and in with the fragrant thyme!


Like Russian Sage and Lavender, thyme likes really well-drained soil. I have learned my lesson the hard way and this time I am starting with the soil. 

Thyme likes sandy, dry gritty soil and that is just what I am going to give it!

Have a wonderful weekend!

32 comments:

  1. Hi Jennifer, you are so right ! 'The right plant for the right place' should be my motto, but I fall in love with a plant, then try to make it work ! I have had exactly the same sulky lavender in my garden, for exactly the same reasons! Wrong soil type ! As you say, they like it sandy and very free draining. I have given up on lavender now, and grow it's poor relation, Nepeta, which loves our soil. No perfume, but it does a similar job !

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  2. I haven't had long term success with any of these plants, although I think they would do well at the top of our hill, where the medium is mostly sand. I hope you get them growing well in your garden; they will look lovely. You sound determined to give them what they need!

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  3. Your lavender images are just gorgeous, Jennifer.
    I have never tried to grow Russian Sage, but I've been pretty fortunate with my lavender.

    Have a great weekend!

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  4. I struggle with Russian sage too - wouldn't you know that all that organic matter we've been adding isn't helping it. I do have a lavender plant that was here in the garden when we moved here. But it languishes in the shade and I'm afraid to move it in case it lands up like my sage. Oh well.
    On another note - I just spent a sick afternoon on the couch enjoying Fork to Fork. Keep those recommendations coming!!

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  5. I think, I make the same mistake ... I must remember this post every time I plant something new. Thank you !

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  6. Right plant right place is one of Beth Chatto's sayings, she has written so many gardening books and I find they are invaluable, telling us just how the soil should be for each family of plants. She recommends that you look to see where in the world a plant's wild relative grows and what sort of soil it grows in. I have followed her advice here and so far it seems to be working.

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  7. Ah yes...plants do stamp their feet and throw tantrums for sure...here's to your lavender growing beyond itself this year!xxx

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  8. Such a wonderful post and so very true as I begin counting every plant that I have lost for various reasons. I must say that I have been a chicken when it comes to growing lavender for the sheer fact that my soil is a bit heavy in places and I fear that I will kill it if I don't have the perfect spot and conditions for it! HA...just like you said...we are like parents to our plants! Good luck with shifting things around a bit...I have no doubt that you will get it right!!! Nicole xo

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  9. Yikes! Those aphids look like an army on the march! I have tried to grow both Russian sage and lavender. In my clay soil. It was a disaster. So I improved the soil to what they should have loved, but they could not survive my humid wet climate, even with the best of gritty, free draining soil. As you say, a plant wants what it wants! Your garden, by the way, is gorgeous!

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  10. Oh those lavender shots are so pretty. - I love seeing gardens filled with gorgeous flowers. Can't wait for spring to see flowers blooming again.

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  11. A great lesson. I have to remember this post. Thanks for sharing. Beautiful lavender, we can't find it here.

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  12. My lavender (which isn't supposed to survive in this zone) grows like a hot damn. It's planted in gravel. There isn't much "soil" at all, just hot, dry gravel. And it thrives. Go figure. I planted all sorts of thyme varieties in the same spot and they love it too. I pay no attention to them, I don't even cover the thyme with snow to get it through the winter (some of it is under the eaves of the house) and it survives. Thanks for the lovely photos, pinning your lavender!!

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  13. Hi Jennifer. I have just one word for you: Permatill. I am assuming you get it in Canada. It's a fabulous soil amendment made of gravel and in the Raleigh area, where the soil is heavy clay, it's a life-saver. The Raulston Arboretum mixes it into all its soil beds to improve drainage. It's not cheap, but it's worth every penny.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation Sarah! I am definitely going to look for Permatill.

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  14. It always comes down to the soil or the lighting. I've killed or tortured lots of plants because I had them both wrong. I'm growing lavender from seed right now and will plant most of it in pots to give it the drainage it wants. My Russian sage isn't very happy, either. In addition to loose soil, it doesn't like to be crowded by taller plants that might interfere with its sunshine. It needs short friends and elbow room. :)

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  15. I don't grow the sage but I have a clump of English lavender that has survived for almost 10 years. The soil is mostly clay but very dry in the summer and still it thrives. I throw some mulch down once in a while too, but that is all.Those red aphids look scary - hope you don't get them often.

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  16. Russian sage and I have a complicated relationship. For some reason if I prune it back before spring, it resents it terribly, so I let it go until it buds out. I haven't found the ideal spot for mine either, but there is one growing in a parking lot in the big city that is huge and thriving, with gravel as a mulch. Every time I buy groceries I admire that specimen. With our cold weather this winter, I'm hoping some of our insect infestations will be a little less.

    Love the photos, just what I need on this cold day!

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  17. It's a beautiful colored plan Jennifer. Your post and especially your header makes me long more to springtime.
    Have a wonderful day.

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  18. Now I'm worried about the Russian Sage I have planned for my garden. In my clay soil, it's hard to get well-drained. Lavender doesn't do well here, either, and I killed all the thyme I planted. Beginning to see a trend here!

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  19. I certainly don't pay enough attention to plant requirements but I can grow lavender successfully as our soil is very free-draining but I don't do as well with russian sage as you say - mine are pathetic specimens. I love the thought of a thyme walk - a similar thing to a chamomile lawn I suppose.

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  20. I have learned this lesson as well. That is part of my observations. Either move the plants or change the soil. Mine is amended clay and is more neutral or alkaline. I have been a failure with Russian sage. Love the idea of the thyme.

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  21. Great advice, Jennifer! I have some Russian sage that is doing well, but I'm sure I was just lucky. It's in the first garden bed I planted, and I had to remove layers of crushed rock before I could add soil. The sage is on the back edge, where I probably didn't get as much of the rock removed--as I said, pure luck. Lavender, though, is something I've struggled to grow. I saw beautiful masses of it in a garden I toured this summer--the garden was in an old industrial lot, and the gardener said there was lots of sand and gravel where the lavender was planted. And here I thought everything needed rich soil!

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  22. I love lavender too, and after reading a post on Judith's (Lavender Cottage) about how she grows her lavender border, I was intrigued and determined to do it right. When she said that lavender is native to the Mediterranean with hot, sandy, dry locations, I tried hard to find the right spot. I'm not sure it worked ... will find out this summer. But I know only too well how disappointing it is to have plants that suffer despite our best intentions. Good luck with your new strategy! Wendy x

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  23. Hi Jennifer - the Perovskia is one of those plants that should never, ever be moved. Plant it in its perfect rotten soil place and it will be happy for years - move it once and you'll never get it back into any sort of shape. Some of the best lavender I ever saw was grown by a woman at our hort club who did it from seed and made herself two lovely little allee(s). No doubt this will be the year, you'll nail it - this has to be as close to a Siberian winter as I ever care to get to ever again! p.s. Remarkable photos and stories in the river valley - doing the right thing is rarely easy and often not appreciated. B.

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    1. Barbara, I plan to make an allee for my thyme path just as your friend has done for the lavender. I have removed the soil and am going to replace it with a mix of top soil, sand and fine gravel. Fingers crossed, I hope it works.

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  24. Red aphids! I haven’t seen that before. I have green, black and yellow aphids in my garden but obviously haven’t got the right dinner for the red ones – what do they like to munch?

    I have the same problem with lavender, my garden is perfect for acid loving plants that want a soil a bit on the heavy side. My rhododendrons, camellias and clematis are loving it and my roses are doing well. The lavender is sulking. Got a new one two years ago and it is growing in a container where I can control the soil better. Now it is sulking because there is no room in the container. Ahhh…

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    1. I get these ugly red aphids every summer on my false sunflowers, Heliopsis helianthoides Helene. They don't seem to bother the other plants at all, but just love these perennial yellow daisies.

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    2. Hmm, get the right plant and you get the right kind of pest!
      The only plant in my garden to attract yellow aphids is my Dregea sinensis, as it is a milk sap plant and yellow aphids feed on mils sap. But last autumn I bought two oleanders so now I got more food for yellow aphids to munch I guess…! We’ll see this summer :-)

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    3. That's absolutely true Helene. Certain bugs do have favourite snacks.I have a Silver lace vine that Japanese Beetles, which are relatively new and invasive pests, seem to have singled out as a preferred food. I have begun to prune the vine aggressively just to deter them. Japanese Beetles also really love my John Cabot rose (Canadian Explorer series of rose). It is heartbreaking to see them clustered on the beautiful pink flowers.

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  25. You are absolutely spot on with this post! Along with the conditions you mention for lavender and Russian sage, are lots of sun and not too wet. Alas, I have struggled with both these plants as well. Although, I do have some lavender (perhaps)..won't know till the snow is gone. Happy gardening!

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  26. Hi Jennifer
    This is great advice. Gardeners tend to fuss and overdo the fertilizer and watering or the opposite: they neglect plants. They need to understand each individual plants' needs for success. Best of luck with the Russian Sage, Lavender and Thyme.

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  27. They want what they want, and when they are happy do they ever thrive....We are gardeners, and will always be placing our hearts before our minds when it comes to plants.

    Jen

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