5-minute drill: the nature of nature/read it!

I remember standing in my parents’ kitchen several years ago listening to my mother complain about the trees in the back yard, how the branches had all grown back, how shaded the area had become, how poorly the sun-loving perennials she’d planted were doing. All this by way of discussing, yet again, the apparently never-ending argument she and Dad were having about pruning the trees on their woodland property. “Wouldn’t you think after all this time,” she was saying, “he’d just take care of it?” She meant, of course, wouldn’t he just give in and give her the bright, sunny space she wanted? No, actually, I wouldn’t have thought that; Dad liked the trees and didn’t give a damn about the flowers. I managed a certain amount of diplomacy in my answer, I think, but I really wanted to say, “What are you, nuts?”

Expecting my father to change was as crazy as expecting my mother to change, but that pales in comparison to the kind of crazy you have to be to expect Nature to change. If you build a house in the woods, it doesn’t matter how many trees you remove, you have a house in the woods. You do not have, and you will not have, sunny meadows full of flowers, because nature will work overtime to fill that space with the things that were there before you. All you have to do to see the advantage that Nature has over you is to take a look at a pine cone and count the seeds, then take a look at the number of pine cones on a tree. Think you and your little pruning saw are any match? Think again.

While you’re thinking, take a look at the little propellers the surround a maple seed. They’re designed to carry that seed far enough away from the parent tree that the sapling will get all the sun and nutrient it needs to survive, and oak trees are so clever they get squirrels to do the work for them. Clever as we are, with all the tools at our disposal, we are simply outgunned. Nature has a bigger arsenal and all the time in the world.

It’s easier to find the right environment — for a plant or a person — than to continually manipulate a wrong environment in an attempt to get it to behave according to your desire. My favorite example of this happened a few years ago and involves a couple of peegee hydrangea, an extraordinary oceanside property, and people with way too much money.

The hydrangea had been planted in partial shade, which is okay everywhere except waterfront property. On waterfront property things planted in the shade never completely dry out, and things that don’t dry out are the ideal breeding ground for mold. When I saw these poor little trees I realized that fully half of the branches — the half that were in the deepest shade — had blossoms that were absolutely black with mildew. The other half — the ones that received a bit more sun — were lovely. The damp ocean breeze enveloped the entire tree, of course, but the sunnier side was able to dry out before the mildew could take hold.

Now most of us would say, Oh, I get it, I need to plant something else there, and put the peegees in another spot. That was exactly my advice. Did the owners take my advice? No. They hired a guy with a tree spade — a nifty, but very expensive, bit of machinery — to dig up the trees and turn them around. Yes, you heard correctly; they rotated the hydrangea 180º and stuck them right back in the ground. That, by the way, is the too much money part.

Nature doesn’t care how much money — or time, or energy — you throw at something; she’s going to do what she’s going to do. Our best hope as gardeners is to read a site correctly and to plant accordingly. Our best hope as humans is to do the same. If you’re happiest in full sun surrounded by lots of open space, or if you want to grow the things that are, plant yourself in that environment. If you want to be cozy, or cool and quiet, wrap yourself in a cocoon of trees and grow woodland things. Attempting to change the nature of Nature is a project even Sisyphus would reject.

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