Are there difficult plants? During a conversation on the podcast, we were discussing roses and the subject of roses being perceived as difficult came up. My guest was Michael Marriott, who is one of the leading rose experts in the world. Michael described roses as "tough as old boots." I completely agree with Michael and am always amazed at how vigorous and resilient roses are in the garden. So how did roses and so many plants obtain this reputation as difficult or problems in the garden?
The answer lies in how we see all plants. We tend to look at plants and gardening and only look at it from our perspective as a gardener and not from the perspective of the plant. Plants have evolved in their native habitats for tens of thousands of years or more. Even cultivated varieties are still carrying these genetic links to their parents. Is this a place this plant is accustomed to or adapt to changes the conversation.
I'll use Agapanthus as a great example of this change in mindset. Originally from South Africa, Agapanthus are a family of plants that has evolved in an area with sunny warm days but also excellent draining native soil. Here at Natchez Glen, I have plenty of sunny hot days but the soil does keep moisture. If I plant an Agapanthus like above and it doesn't do well or even dies, does that make Agapanthus difficult?
Now the conversation changes to are we giving this Agapanthus what it needs or are we willing or able to give the plant what it needs? Can we improve the drainage slightly to give a plant like Agapanthus a better chance? Yes, we can improve drainage by adding grit, never sand. We can plant higher and raise the soil line with a faster draining mix. We could bring in hundreds of yards of faster draining soil and make a new bed just for Agapanthus. All of this depends on us understanding the plants needs and are willingness to fulfil those needs.
I don't believe any of the above make Agapanthus difficult. It just doesn't love my area as well as it likes a place off the coast of Washington state. That's why we hear so many contradicting stories in gardening. Where one person can grow a plant with ease, and it looks beautiful. While you try and the plant struggles. That doesn't mean that the person knows a secret you don't or has a magic spell. It simply means their micro-climate and ecology is giving that plant something your area is not. Soil, air temperature, humidity, and the speed of seasonal shifts are the most important factors that decide if a plant is happy in that place. Notice "you" aren't on that list. The only of those factors in gardens we can either improve or change is soil. All of the others are completely out of our control.
Roses are not difficult at all. They are as Michael said "tough as old boots." What does happen is we generalize roses as if they are all the same. There are over 350 species of roses and tens of thousands of cultivated varieties. Many of those roses need different climates or soils to do their best. If you give them close to what they want, they thrive and reward you with blooms.
We can fall in love with a plant. For me, it's Rhododendron loderi 'King George'. As much as I'd love to grow 'King George', I know it is not meant to be. Rhododendron loderi wants to grow in temperate areas where winter lows don't go below 15 and does not tolerate heavy soils or high humidity. I have tried three times and killed 'King George' three times. Does that make Rhododendron loderi 'King George' difficult? No, that makes Natchez Glen the wrong place for 'King George'. Will I try to grow 'King George' again? Yes, because I love the creativity of experimentation, and if it fails again, that will not make 'King George' difficult. That makes me stubborn.