Like most 21st century gardeners, I learned about gardening by reading. I didn't know any gardeners aside from my friend Gerald, and while he would talk movies all day long, I always got the sense that he considered my gardening chatter faintly impolite. Maybe he was bored by my ignorance. Maybe it was a subject like love…too important to discuss.
Or maybe he had already arrived at the conclusion I've just been coming around to: Advice is nonsense.
So, to learn what I was doing, I just read a lot. And much of what I read were long catalogs of plants and descriptions of various degrees of fussiness: doesn't like manure. Will overwinter if well mulched. Must be sprayed against thrips.
And so, because I read that clematis prefer a more alkaline soil, every time I sweep out my fireplace, I give my clematis a dustpan full of wood ash. I've noticed that given this treatment, some of my clematis have thrived–mainly the smaller-flowered ones like sweet autumn clematis or clematis viticella 'Purpurea Plena Elegans'–and most of them kick the bucket anyway.
On the other hand, lilies that the catalogs assure me will reach 4 feet tall top 7 feet in my garden. I lifted some bulbs last fall to give to a friend, and they were as big as cantaloupes. What magic cultural requirement am I meeting? My soil is very sandy. Otherwise, this success is pure mystery.
I amused myself recently by picking up a vegetable gardening book and reading through its growing advice for a long list of vegetables. At least 75% of the advice would be lethal if practiced in my garden. The author was British. What works in Devon on some velvety green hillside above the sea won't necessarily work in Washington County, NY, where I've seen the thermometer reach -35 degrees Fahrenheit on more than one occasion.
Yes, of course, a basic understanding of whether a perennial prefers sun or shade, dry soil or wet, is helpful–the kind of thing you can generally understand at a glance by seeing whether the plant has big, slick, moisture-loving leaves, or small, grey, drought-loving ones. Yes, in the vegetable garden, it is helpful to know whether the plant wants heat or cool, whether it prefers to grow while the days are waxing or waning.
But beyond that, I am increasingly convinced that trying to answer the needs of any individual plant is like trying to psyche out a relationship with a human being. It either works or it doesn't, and the subtleties involved are so subtle that they are almost beyond human comprehension.
It was my vegetable garden that led me to this radical conclusion. I started gardening at a weekend house, so I had to find a way to succeed without a daily effort. To my surprise, I was much more successful doing less. All I do now is mulch. I don't dig anymore. I don't lime my soil. I don't add bagged fertilizer. I've given the management of the joint entirely over to the worms, and they are far better at understanding the demands of my plants than I ever was.
There have been a few superb books in recent years confirming my sense that the interaction of plant and spot is so complicated that it makes cultural advice seem like a very blunt instrument indeed, including The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Amy Stewart and Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to The Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.
Read these books, and you'll understand that what's occurring underground between the organic matter and the minerals, the bacteria and fungi and protozoa and worms is very intricate. Read these books and the question, "What did I do wrong?" when some expensive perennial dies begins to seem like a really witless form of narcissism.
By focusing on the particular requirements of individual plants, we are missing the forest for the trees. If we want to be successful in the garden, it's all about healthy soil, baby. So mulch.