Botanists have confirmed what gardeners have long known – plants communicate. They communicate with nearby plants by relaying chemical warnings of dangerous pests and diseases when they are being attacked. In addition, they communicate with humans when their needs are not being met. All that is required of us to understand this communication is to pay attention. Listen.
For example, a wilted plant can be the result of one or a combination of causes (besides poor gardening skills) – too much or too little water, too much or too little sun/heat, soil that is too acidic or alkaline, compacted soil, soil with little water-holding capacity, etc. A plant showing discolored foliage can be caused by any one or combination of the above problems, as well, or an overabundance or insufficiency of specific nutrients. Again, paying attention to the plant is the key to understanding your garden.
Let’s say you had familiarized yourself with the needs of a new plant you added to your garden and determined that your garden environment would meet its needs, and the plant seems to be struggling or growing at a slower rate than you anticipated. When that happens, do a bit of detective work. Some perennials and grasses are slow to establish and may be very slow to come up in spring. Be patient! For instance, my first experience with Sporobolus heterolepis, Prairie Dropseed, showed that this warm-season grass may not “green up” until mid-June if spring temperatures are cool; long after other grasses are up and filling out. I discovered this during the plants’ first year after I had pulled out the dormant grass and dumped it on the compost pile. When I checked the pile a month later, the little grass was covered with pale green blades. Apparently, it responded to the heat in the compost pile. I took the hint, replanted the grass in a warmer area of the garden, and it is thriving.
Last summer I encountered my lovely little Cascade Azalea (Rhododendron albiflorum) that I had purchased in early spring. After nurturing it all through spring, I had forgotten to water it as summer wore on and when I came upon it on a very warm, dry morning it was in bad shape – curled, crunchy leaves, a couple of dead stems, some leaves already gone. That’s as clear a cry for help as a plant can give. After transplanting the Rhododendron to a container where I could water and feed it throughout the remainder of the season, the plant returned to health, although a bit smaller than when I purchased it. I hope the plant will show its gratitude by blooming this year.
Paying attention, being present in the moment, is crucial to the success of any effort one makes. Be it relationships, work, hobbies, the expression of creativity, prayer, or meditation, paying attention to the moment at hand develops awareness of our actions and their consequences. I learned this deceptively simple yet painfully difficult lesson during the 3 years I took meditation instruction directly from a Buddhist monk. He taught Vipassana insight meditation, and I can attest to the fact that it takes a strong constitution to make it through that course. I learned to put aside what I wished reality was and work with what was in front of me. I gained immense insight into my actions and thoughts. One of the many things I learned about myself was that I can turn any situation into something to worry about. No matter how pleasant a situation may be, I can find something in it to worry me. But, along with this insight, I learned not to take my worrying seriously. In fact, I have found much humor in this great talent. So, even though meditation does not alleviate ones’ true nature, it teaches how to work with our nature and not be overwhelmed by it or succumb to it. This insight has helped me in my gardening work more than anything else – even more than my Hori Hori knife which I feel a deep attachment to. (This is one attachment I am not willing to let go.) Although I “failed” at Buddhism, the lessons I’ve learned from 16 years of meditation have taught me to respond to traumatic or disappointing experiences in a flexible and graceful manner. And at times, I succeed.
As a new gardening year begins, I realize that I have become a bit more successful in listening and responding appropriately to my plants and their needs. The garden becomes healthier each year, more wildlife find sustenance and safety in our property each year, and failures decrease and become less painful or embarrassing as time moves along. Years ago I took a trip to Vancouver, B.C. to take meditation and dharma instruction from The Dalai Lama (along with 8,000 other folks). I learned much from him, but what I remember most was that if you approach a task or situation with sincerity, honesty, and openness, the outcome will be positive even if you perceive it as a failure. And the means to that end is to pay attention. Listen. Be still and listen.
You will be amazed by what you are taught.