Gardening With What You Have

What To Do When Plants Die: How To Make The Best Of It

Christine Froehlich 08/25/2020 Comments

A few months ago someone asked me what advice I would give new gardeners. Here's my two cents - cultivate a sense of humor and don't give up when plants die. 


Sometimes - no matter what you do, it happens. With no warning,my favorite Redbud tree, Cercis canadensis 'Hearts of Gold' sang it's final song in mid-summer. It was the centerpiece of my back garden for 15 years - I affectionately called it the Neil Young tree. It was perfect for this spot - big enough to make a statement without overpowering the rest of the garden. Every morning I admired the graceful heartshaped leaves from my living room window. It accentuated the gold theme I had going on so nicely. Sigh...


hearts of gold redbud tree


It's downward spiral began in early spring. I knew something was up when it produced hardly any flowers. Tiny sick looking leaves followed. It looked like it was suffering from drought, but that was not the case. I flashed back to last summers flooding and high water table. I suspected Phytopthora, a soilborn fungus that affects the vascular system of the plant. 


I treated it with a systemic fungicide, but it didn't help. By late June, this is what it looked like. It felt like loosing an old friend. 


dead redbud tree


I couldn't bear to look at it. I thought about cutting the poor thing down, but then I'd have a big hole right in the middle of summer. I was stuck with a dead tree and no ideas.


That's why you need gardening friends - they help you keep a sense of humor. Nellie Gardner and Martha Lightfoot are in my Covid pod. When we're not gardening, we sail. 


sailing at sodus bayjunior sailing club

Community sailing at the Sodus Bay Junior Sailing Club


When they came over to commiserate over the demise of my cherished tree a few weeks ago, they had no shortage of ideas. Nellie said, "why don't you cut off the dead branches and make it into a Charlie Brown tree? You could hang things on it."  "Spanish moss," added Martha - she ran home to get some. Nellie climbed up my ladder and began lopping off branches. 


nellie pruning branches off redbud tree


While she was doing that, I scoured my garden shed for suitable things to hang from the remaining branches. Most of them - birdhouses, bells, chimes and such looked too busy and kind of silly. I needed a theme. That's when I remembered the hanging driftwood sculptures I bought from the neighborhood kids last summer. 


kids making driftwood sculptures
It takes a village... I couldn't resist their entrepreneurial spirit!


I never figured out exactly what to do with them but they looked right at home in this tree.


decorating the redbud


With the driftwood beachy thing going on, this creation called out for plants. I surveyed my collection of suffering houseplants and things I didn't have a home for. Too sunny for ferns and sedums might not be big enough to show up. My eyes landed on a group of bromeliads tucked away in the corner of the patio. I've never figured out a good way to showcase them outside and this was my chance. After all, they grow up trees - at least in Florida, and they don't need much watering. 


I tried wiring the pots into the crotches of the tree but they were too heavy and kept falling out. I gave up and made my own version of a pot using burlap, potting soil and green twine.



potting up bromeliads


I hope I don't get busted by the bromeliad police for doing this, but I bundled the root ball of each plant in burlap, filled it with potting soil and tied it at the top with green twine. Then I wedged each one into a crotch and tied it to the branch.


potting up bromeliads


 Voila! The Spanish moss covered the rootballs and made them look like they belonged.


bromeliads in redbud tree


The moss gives a southern effect to the whole thing. It keeps the rootballs from drying out too. I mist them periodically with the hose and they're happy in their new home - at least for now. When fall hits, I'll repot them in their original container and take them back inside.


bromeliads growing in redbud tree


I had so much fun with this project, I almost forgot about the pain of losing the tree. 


growing bromeliads on a redbud tree


 I'll eventually replace it with something, but I have all fall and winter to think about it. 

And if nothing else, it's a great conversation piece. 






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