Thursday, August 19, 2010
Where Have All the Coneflowers Gone?
I love coneflowers in my garden. Echinacea purpurea is the common purple coneflower that many of us see in public gardens or in our own. Today's photo is from one of my gardens in 2004. This year, after moving to the new house, the very first new gardening bed I prepared was devoted to coneflowers. There was already one large echinacea there, next to a larger Potentilla. I dug it up and divided it into three smaller plantings. Ten new plants from High Country Garden's catalog were purchased; I ventured away from the standard purple by selecting new varieties with colors ranging from yellow to salmon. After removing sod and weeds and amending the soil with compost and seasoned manure, the plants were placed in the ground and mulched with medium bark chunks.
Then they began to disappear. Today only one of the original plants remains.
Gardening is rife with failure. Even if you have found what works and continue to follow the same practices day after day, you can be met by failure when the unexpected happens. A wayward dog, a surprise hail storm, an eager child. The best laid plans of mice and men, and such. One of the things that makes gardeners special people is the desire to continue on even when things don't turn out as planned. My plan certainly didn't work out.
This is where the analysis begins. Gardeners try to figure out what happened so they can fix it for the next time. Because there is almost always a "next time". Who wants to be defeated by a plant or a bug?
That's a good place to start. Did a bug kill my plants? I don't think so. I've seen few signs of damaging insects, particularly this spring. I once had a newly-planted garden eaten to the ground overnight by pill bugs, or roly poly bugs as my kids liked to call them. Technically they're not insects, but crustaceans, and typically they are decomposers, but have been known to damage tender plants. When I found thousands of them holed up next to the damaged plot, I had to believe they were at fault. But as to the coneflowers, I could find no evidence of insects.
How about animals? I've found slugs in the area around this particular garden bed. As dry as our region is, slugs still abound. Like virtually every other intelligent gardener, I hate slugs. In the past they've destroyed my strawberries just as the ripe fruit is ready to pick. I suspect they're the culprits for some of the cucumber seedlings that disappeared overnight. I like having my garter snake in the garden because he is a major slug predator. Slugs will eat any plant, but prefer tender leaves. The echinacea looked pretty sturdy when I planted it and many other tender shoots of grass and weeds should have been more appealing to the squishy monsters. I don't think slugs were the criminals in this case.
What else does that leave? Soil and root-related issues account for more than 80% of plant problems. And sadly, that's where I think the problem lies. As I cultivated the area I discovered I'm blessed with a pretty solid layer of clay soil that begins 12 to 18 inches below the surface. That's a primary reason why I amended with compost and manure in an effort to minimize the negative effects of the clay. The snapdragons and other annuals in the same bed are doing fine and the Shasta Daisies are gaining strength, but the coneflowers faded fast.
If you take the time to research a plant's needs before planting, and you should, you can foresee potential problems. Every gardening and plant guide says that coneflowers need well-drained soil. I knew the new bed had large amounts of clay, which is the opposite of well-drained, but that's where I wanted to plant them and besides, there was already one growing there. Sure the established echinacea was rooted in an area abounding with small river rocks, the definition of well-drained, but wouldn't it do better when divided and planted in "good", amended soil?
Be careful when your vision and desires overtake your reason and understanding. The new coneflowers did okay for a couple weeks. It was probably about the time their roots hit the clay layer that things took a downturn. Continued watering made a bad situation worse as the moisture stayed in the clay at the roots. Echinacea prefer "dry feet" or roots that aren't saturated by water. The plants died and I was the one who killed them.
I'll still have coneflowers in my garden, but not in that particular bed. I've started preparing a new bed, with new clayless soil, that will host a new generation of echinacea next spring. There will be new purchases and new plantings.
I've learned from this failure. It won't be my last; I'm a gardener, after all.