When a Gardener's Soil Fails Her

A gardener's soil is supposed to be a healthy place for a plant to grow and thrive. But what happens when that soil fails?

Just like your home is ideally a place to be comfortable and safe, so is a gardener’s soil a place for her plants to grow and thrive. A gardener’s soil provides her plants with the moisture and nutrition they need to live a happy life. In that soil is an ecosystem where earthworms and beetles and millions of microscopic organisms work in harmony, creating a balanced environment where everyone can get what they need.

As gardeners, though, we know it doesn’t always work like this. We end up amending our soil or making raised beds to cart in new, fresh soil. We know that the wrong organisms can move in and cause plant diseases, or that the soil is too acidic for a particular plant. And I imagine we have all learned some of these things the hard way.

We plant and hope for the best, knowing the soil isn’t ideal. The drainage isn’t right or there’s not enough sunlight or the ground is too rocky. But we move forward, hoping our love and care will make up for the deficits in the soil. That’s the story we have today from Brooke Harris. In her poem, Letter to the Rhododendron, she is hopeful that her attentive care can overcome anything missing in the soil. Will that be enough? Or is this gardener’s soil too far gone?

A Gardener’s Soil Can Tell A Story, Too. Luckily, There Are Plenty of Stories To Enjoy.

This story comes from our archive spanning over 30 years, and includes more than 130 magazine issues of GreenPrints. Pieces like these that imbue the joy of gardening into everyday life lessons always brighten up my day, and I hope it does for you as well. Enjoy!

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Letter to the Rhododendron

By Brooke Harris

You are so thirsty, little one,
your leaves droop in the dappled
shade of the maple,
but when I send water your way,
you perk up, shaking
like a golden finch drying from a bath.
And still you end each day forlorn
and every night I awaken you with the cool tube of the hose.
But what’s that inside you?
Behind those glossy leaves are bare sticks.
Dead and brown as the dirt you
sit in. You are dying.

But why? I water you. I feed you. Are you
doing this on purpose because I bought you on sale?
I promise the price isn’t what matters.
You are still beautiful. Your blossoms
will still be fragrant. But only if you
grow. Please grow for me.

I lost three azaleas last year and I can’t
bear to lose another. I thought you would
be better, bigger, more hearty.
You are going to have to fight.
Fight that poor earth you’re in. I am sorry
it is clay and root-filled.

Fight the shade and sun that confuse
your photosynthesis and fight me

and whatever I am doing wrong
that makes you the way you are.

By Brooke Harris, published originally in 2016, in GreenPrints Issue #105.

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Have you had similar dilemmas where your attention and care just wasn’t enough to overcome poor growing conditions?

  • Janice W.

    We live in Oklahoma, where it is hot and dry. we also live in a river bottom area–think very sandy soil. I lost count of the trees and shrubs we planted that died. I have two thriving flower beds, which I have amended the soil and regularly add compost and use a soaker hose. Last year the heat and drought were unbearable and I lost at least three roses and several other things, despite watering! I always look for drought tolerant plants and those that can take a lot of sun. I have only two small areas for shade. I love flowers and keep trying!

  • Cheryl P.

    I have dealt with this. I has a whole front yard of Azalea’s, they got a rust disease. It was hard to get rid of them.


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