I have every reason to be a good gardener. I grew up planting plants, pulling weeds, watering roses, mowing the lawn. I studied environmental science in school, led tours of an organic farm for years, and have ripped out more invasive plant species from more open spaces than I can count. Despite my exposure, I am a terrible gardener. I’m enthusiastic though, and I’m hoping that counts for something.
Last year, I inherited a window box full of pale dry dirt and decrepit plants. I devoted an entire Saturday to the box’s renovation, much to my neighbors’ delight. I emptied the unsightly box, filled it with beautiful dark brown potting soil, and planted ten healthy plants from Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco–sage, dwarf myrtle, little olive, lavender, rosemary, and black mondo. By the end of the day, I was covered in dirt, my back ached from hanging out the window, and I had an enormous sense of accomplishment. I couldn’t stop checking on my charges for days after.
But then disaster struck. Six months later, the sage and myrtle are dead, one rosemary came close but is still hanging on, and one lavender’s fate is up in the air. On one end of my window box, my lavender is thriving. On the other end lives (I think) a shadow of the lavender that once was. These plants are three feet from each other, in the same box. How did I kill one lavender and not the other?
Photographs by Meredith Swinehart.
Above: Poor little guy. How did this happen? It all seemed so promising at the beginning…(cue the flashback music).
Above: Day One. I wanted a contemporary mix and I like the look of Mediterranean plants, so I chose this group at Flora Grubb: ‘Ken Taylor’ rosemary, ‘Anne’s Purple’ Spanish lavender, black mondo grass, a dwarf myrtle, ‘Little Ollie’ dwarf olive, and ‘Berggarten’ sage. I later added a few small herbs and flowers for groundcover.
Above: Before planting, I had to tear out the existing dead plants in the window box and remove the dry dirt. I did this with my hands until I found a garden tool (which I learned is called a Dandelion Weeder and can be purchased for $19 from Garden Tool Company) buried a few inches deep in the dirt I was moving.
I used this to chip away at the rock-hard mound of dirt, but it came in especially handy when I reached the bottom of the box. In the eons between me and the last competent gardener, someone had plugged the drainage holes with insulating foam. I used the weeder to re-punch the holes so excess water could drain. As I dug, I uncovered big pieces of broken brick, which I later laid in a flat layer on the bottom of the box to make draining easier.
After I planted, everything seemed fine. Until…
Above: First the myrtle turned an unattractive yellow-brown color.
I thought to myself: “If I’d known that plant would eventually turn that color, I wouldn’t have planted it.” For months, I frowned at the plant when I looked at it, disappointed in its change in color and vivacity.
Then one day, it finally occurred to me that the myrtle had not turned some weird seasonal color: it was dead.
The carnage continued. The sage was next. Then the lavender went. But–and here’s the weird part–only one of my lavender plants looked dead. At the other end of the box, my other lavender plant was fine.
Panicked, I turned to an expert–the Internet.
I skimmed articles on the kinds of soil and minerals lavender likes, how much pruning rosemary needs, how much sun, water, on and on. Overwhelmed, I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut off anything that looked dead. I left a few green branches on the rosemary, and a few silvery green stems on the lavender.
Above: The mystery deepens. The lavender at the north end of the box is doing fine.
It dawned on me: the dead lavender is in full sun. The live lavender is in shade. Investigating further, I realized that the soil beneath the dead plants was bone dry whereas the soil at the shadier end of the planter retained more moisture.
Had my plants died of thirst?
As a novice gardener, I expected the opposite: I’ve seen lavender thrive in hot, dry environments, and I’ve heard time and again that lavender can suffer from too much water.
Above: As an experiment, I have started watering the box every day. Also, I inserted a bag of All-Purpose Fertilizer Spikes. (Do you think this will help?)
A bag of Jobes Organic Fertilizer Spikes is $4.99 from Drugstore.
Above: I told the folks at Flora Grubb that I wanted little black spider grasses, called “black mondo.” These, so far, seem to be the hardiest and happiest plants in my garden. They never look thirsty or tired, and they’ve even colonized their surrounding few inches with baby grasses.
Above: I added some mint and a zinnia to take the place of the dead myrtle. Both are flourishing so far. But I wonder about my decision to put in the mint; will it kill its neighbors and overtake my box? I want it to thrive (I want mojitos), but thrive just enough.
Above: After I confessed at work that I didn’t like to water my plants because the water floods and pours over the edges of the box, Michelle suggested I try a watering can instead of the ceramic pitcher with which I’d been making do.
Above: The showering spout distributes water evenly and drives each little stream into the ground. I know, I know everybody else probably already knows this about watering cans–but I’m a novice.
Above: No more floods. And the can is bigger than the pitcher, so that means fewer trips to the sink for a refill. It’s also just more fun to water this way.
Above: My cat, Reine, supervising the garden.
Any bets on whether my lavender will revive? Do you think regular watering will do the trick? Or is there something else I should try? I’d love to hear, in the comments below.