“Unkapputbar” – selecting plants that will survive a nuclear holocaust – or just my balcony

Temperatures hit 16° today, and the sun was shining for a change.  Thanks to a nasty cold I am sneezing and a bit wobbly. However, when you want to get out to your plants 16° will pass as a heat wave and the sun WAS shining, so I decided a sortie outside was in order. My friend grows only plants that fit her selection criteria, they need to be, “unkapputbar” – ie indestructible or “unkillable”: the plant equivalent of a cockroach.
My current experience leads me to suspect that this in my case would be a plastic plant, but then to date I have blithely ignored my friends advice on ideal plant selection and instead followed where my heart led me.

Plants that didn’t make it: Coreopsis, death by mildew one warm humid summer. Sage and lavender doing ok last summer, but no shoots showing now. Mint, which is supposed to survive most things up to a nuclear holocaust, hasn’t survived my balcony and looks challenged in the vitality department (translate dead). However, not known to give up easily I dug it up, and spotted some sickly yellow shoots. Giving the plant a chance I lovingly patted some earth on the roots again. That was last week, this week, my reward for clemency? Zip, nada, nothing, I suspect cat pee……..

The skimmia, golden pine and lovingly selected apricot Damascus and pink Musk roses also died one winter -30°C killed them.  Their replacements succumbed to the cat. Roses do NOT like cat pee.

However, if the plants survive the vagaries if the weather, hot, cold, humid, my cat and the fact that I go on long business trips and they are under- or overwatered, then all is not won. Au contraire at that point a succession of parasites – fungus gnats, aphids lovingly farmed by ants, spider mites, some nasty black beetles that chew holes in the leaves and eat the roots and effectively kill anything that was still alive.

There are only three plants that grow on my balcony, without fail, every spring: a stinging nettle and two snapdragons.

So what would a chinese fortune cookie tell me on my approach to gardening? Right plant in wrong place makes much unhappiness. Thich Nhat Hanh gives a lovely talk on this where he likens humans to plants, and tells the story of a woman who was a great gardener and had a small son. As she was poor she lived in a bad part of town and her son fell in with a bad crowd. He started swearing and stealing. Instead of being upset with her son, the lady considered the situation and realized that her son was “planted” in the wrong environment. She saved up all her money and moved to a different part of town. And her sons development changed dramatically.

What have I learned: you cannot force plants to grow happily where they don’t want to, especially if you don’t want to use pesticides etc. I do still have a half dead, or maybe fully dead Cestrum Nocturnum in my house of course, but the path to change commences with acceptance.

So in consequence I will plant no more damascus roses, but loads of  small, simple wild plants, fragrant, hardy, and useful as herbs.  Then I will let things just develop the way they want to. I will stop trying to control the environment, other than ensuring the cat cannot pee on them and hopefully I will soon be able to enjoy whatever my balcony provides me, stinging nettles for tea and soup, snapdragons for colour and hopefully herbs for teas, omelettes, blanc manges and flowering lilies to shower over desserts.

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