Have you ever had a ‘substitute’ teacher?  As most of you know, a substitute teacher doesn’t do things the same way our regular teacher does.

A few years ago, I was asked to step in as a ‘substitute’ for my father-in-law’s landscape.

Meticulously pruned desert ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis)
 
My father-in-law had always been a meticulous gardener and took a lot of pride in his landscape.
Have you ever seen rounder shrubs?
 
A few years earlier, I had designed the landscape around his new home and tried to convince him to allow his plants to grow into their natural shapes.  But as you can see from the photo above, he didn’t follow my advice.
 
He eventually took out his backyard grass and replaced it with artificial turf and whenever flowers or leaves would fall on the grass, he would vacuum them up – I’m not kidding.
 
We would often joke with each other about our very different styles of gardening – especially when he would come over to my house for a visit and see my plants growing “wild and free” as he would say.  
 
But despite our differences, we shared the same love for plants and the garden.
 
Unfortunately, his gardening days were numbered and he asked me to come over and help him with the gardening tasks that he could no longer do.
 
My father-in-law was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in October 2010 and it progressed very rapidly.
 
So, I became his ‘substitute gardener’ and I was happy to be able to help out so that he could still enjoy the beauty of his garden, even if he could not care for it himself.
 
 
In early August of 2011, I lightly pruned back his gold lantana.  At this point, my father-in-law spent most of his time indoors sitting down. But, as I was pruning, I saw him slowly make his way out, with his walker, so he could watch me prune his plants.
 
At this point, he could no longer talk due to ALS and I’m certain that if he could have spoken, he might have asked me to make the lantana ’rounder’.
 
After this light pruning, the lantana would grow back to its original size before stopping during winter.  If they had not been pruned, they would have look quite overgrown for my father-in-law’s taste.
Light pruning involves removing 1/3 or less.  The timing of this light pruning is crucial – prune too late and your plants will be extra susceptible to damage from frost.  Don’t prune after early August in zone 9 (July in zone 8) gardens. Pruning in fall should not be done for this very reason. 
 
 
Another part of the garden that my father-in-law took a lot of pride in was his flowering annuals.  Every year, he would plant the same red geraniums and white-flowering bacopa in winter.  Once spring rolled around, he would plant red and white vinca. He never deviated by trying out newer colors or varieties.
 
I found myself taking over this job as well and when I came home and see all there was to do in my neglected garden – I didn’t mind.  It felt so good to be able to control how his garden looked because ALS had taken control of everything else.
 
My father-in-law died in September 2011, just 11 months after being diagnosed with ALS.  
 
It’s been almost 3 years since he passed away, but whenever August comes around and I find myself lightly pruning back my gold lantana – I enjoy the memory of one our last moments together in the garden as I pruned his lantana.

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Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a horticulturist, certified arborist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."

3 replies
  1. RobinL
    RobinL says:

    The stories about your FIL and his meticulous yard always makes me chuckle, because my inlaws were always the same way. Over the years, every tree was removed from their yard for various reasons. This one dropped catkins everywhere, this one attracted too many birds, this one was bare inside, and on and on it went till there are no more trees left. They landscaped with volcanic rocks, which isn't proper here in the north, and annually, they would wash the rocks with special screens they built. Oy!

    Reply
  2. Bobbi Austin
    Bobbi Austin says:

    This story is about the difference in gardening ideas, and yet, I must say to me it is a story about a very loving person, you Noelle. Your kind heartedness shows so often in all the things you do for others. This time it was your father in law. You loved on him like you would your own father. Is it any wonder that you love plants and all of their wonderful colors and shapes and never trying to force them into a mold to suit you but rather loving them like they grow.

    Reply

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