Firecracker Penstemon

Do you know someone who possesses a green thumb? Usually, it’s someone that has a beautiful garden that stands out among their neighbors, which is filled with thriving plants that are flourishing. 

While you may think that people with green thumbs are born and not made, I’m going to let you in on a BIG secret – behind every green thumb are many dead plants.

 

It’s true. There isn’t a single avid gardener who has never experienced a plant dying on them. Of course, green thumbs may be hesitant to reveal this fact because dead or failing plants are usually pulled out before anyone notices.

I’m not exempt from this either. I’ve got a dead plant or two, currently in my garden that are doing nothing but collecting leaves at their base and I’ve had countless plants die on my watch.

Newly planted ‘Blue Bell’ (Eremophila hygrophana) shrubs

Believe it or not, it’s the fact that plants have died in the garden that helps a person to become a good at growing them. While your first inclination is to get frustrated about the loss of a plant, it helps to look at it as a gardening lesson.

“Each dead plant is an opportunity to learn about what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future and become a better gardener in the process.”

There are several factors that can affect whether or not a plant does well where it’s planted.  These include the following:

  1. Is it well-adapted to your climate?
  2. Was it planted in the right exposure (sun, filtered sun, or shade)?
  3. Did it receive the proper amount of irrigation?
  4. Was it maintained correctly (pruning, fertilizing)?

 

New ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Bouteloua gracilis)

Researching plants before purchasing them will help you to avoid many potential problems, but often the best way to learn how a plant will do is to grow them yourself.

Of course, it’s never a good idea to put a shade-loving plant in full sun, or vice versa as you’ll probably be replacing it soon.

As a horticulturist, I experiment in my garden with newer plants that have come onto the market. I recently planted several ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Bouteloua gracilis) grasses. I’ve heard a few different things from people who have grown it regarding the best exposure for it – one says that filtered sun is a must while the other states that it can handle full sun. So, I am trying them out in my front yard to see for myself where they will receive filtered shade until the afternoon when they will be blasted by the sun. 

*One fun bonus of being a horticulturist and a garden writer is that growers often send me their plants for free so I can let them know how they grow in a low-desert garden.

A new Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi) finds a home next to my gopher plant (Euphorbia biglandulosa).

Other things that can affect how new plants will do are nearby plants – specifically trees.

One month later.

A tree that creates dense shade will make it difficult for many flowering plants to do anything but grow foliage at the expense of flowers. However, filtered shade from desert natives such as mesquite and palo verde create an ideal environment for many blooming plants that enjoy a little respite from the full sun.

New varieties of autumn sage with the brand new lavender ‘Meerlo’.

Sometimes, there isn’t much information available on new plant introductions and how they will do in an area with extreme weather such as our hot, dry one.  I was given the plants above to see how they would do in my Arizona garden. I knew that the salvia would need some shade to do its best in the low desert, but the lavender was a mystery. I’ve seen some other species of lavender doing well in full sun while others doing well in filtered shade.

As you can see, the ‘Meerlo’ lavender did very well in my zone 9 garden even though the actual information on the plant tag states that it does best in zone 8 and below. What it has not done is flower, which I attribute to the shade it needs to survive my hot, dry garden. But, I’m okay with that as I love the fragrance and color contrast that it adds.

This is a lesson that I could have only learned by trying out this plant. While it could have died, it didn’t and I’ve learned from the experience, which adds to my overall garden knowledge. 

So, the next time you find a dead plant in your garden, see if you can figure out why it died and learn from it. Sometimes plants die when they should be thriving with no apparent reason. Nature isn’t always predictable and sometimes you may have no answers, but you’ll be surprised at what you can learn and before you know it, your thumb may slowly turn ‘green’.

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6 replies
  1. Sandy Smith
    Sandy Smith says:

    With help from the Az Plant lady, I’ve learned so much! Dead plants (perennials) can be due to lack of mulch (gravel); too much water (gardeners moving drippers on AZ Natives); clogged drippers; perennials planted too high or low; woody amendments, rather than breaking up native soil. The aforementioned are 50% of my mistakes in Low Desert Gardening. But I love it!

    Reply
  2. 5birdy
    5birdy says:

    I have been learning from AZ Plant Lady Noelle for 3 years while starting my own first black thumb native garden. This third year was actually the worst, not better, in terms of dead plants! Thank you, Noelle, for writing this article. Never ever imagined that green thumb pros ever experienced dead plants. I was ready to give up out of embarrassment!

    Reply
  3. Michelle Pinnola
    Michelle Pinnola says:

    This is so encouraging! I am an amateur gardener and my parents are trusting me to landscape their yard in Phoenix (I’m from WI, learned how to garden in UT). After much study, I chose some shrubs and trees and they look great so far… I know I still have SO much to learn! I’m so happy I found your blog and I can’t wait to read more! And maybe attend a lecture when I return to AZ 🙂

    Reply
    • arizonaplantlady@gmail.com
      arizonaplantlady@gmail.com says:

      Hi Michelle,

      Your parents are so blessed to have your help! I recently had to help my daughter with her northern Michigan garden and I understand the process of learning how to garden in a different climate. I’d love to meet you if you have a chance to come to one of my classes.

      Reply

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