Photo by Erica Browne Grivas : Hydrangea can be fairly resilient once established, but events of the last two years caused some to lose stressed specimens.
Photo by Erica Browne Grivas : Hydrangea can be fairly resilient once established, but events of the last two years caused some to lose stressed specimens.

If you’ve noticed some anomalies in your garden this season, you’re not alone. Plants that have toddled along fine for years in your yard suddenly kicked the bucket. Transplants rejecting their new location, rather abruptly. Rose bushes that never gave blackspot a home until this season.

The answer, at least in my opinion, to these seemingly unrelated scenarios, is the weather. I’ve mentioned the brutality of 2021 before — drought from January to April, followed by summer heat dome, and long winter freezes. Many plants just couldn’t handle the onslaught of abuses to their systems and just shrugged off their mortal coils.

The soggy, bone-chilling spring that overstayed its welcome into June this year is to thank for the blackspot on roses, the general failure to thrive of heat-loving vegetables or annual flowers.

In contrast, when the sun DID come out, it was such as shock to the unaccustomed plants, that philodendrons scorched at their windows and, of course, the cool-loving veggies and annual flowers bolted much sooner than expected. Transplants, even if initially watered at planting, may have up and died in the face of sun 20 degrees hotter than it had been.

The longer I garden, the more I realize there is to learn. Every single plant has its own requirements. Every. Single. Plant. Not just every species, but each plant. Just like when I’ve been living in fleece all winter, I wilt the first couple of days that temps crest over 75 degrees. That’s why gardeners harden off seedlings raised inside or houseplants getting a patio vacay.

There are general guidelines for various plants: Delphiniums like moisture, clematis like cool feet and warm faces, and so on. Just like people, however, what benefits one may not work for another. Or may work this summer, but not next — for a million reasons.

Plant tags, books and columns like this one exist for this reason: to be touchstones to start with as you diagnose what’s happening with your plant. You can’t go by tags, apps, moisture-measuring devices or columnists alone, however. There are many differences of opinion, varied location conditions and evolving knowledge. You need to decipher what the needs are as far as Google and the plant-loving community has determined during the history of its cultivation.

The main categories to check are:

Cold hardiness — Seattle is United States Department of Agriculture zone 8b, which indicates plants should survive as cold as 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Plants rated zone 9 will need protection to have a chance, and 10s should just come inside.

Light — Sun, shade and all the degrees in between. Is your plant facing south but with a wall of English laurel blocking the midday sun? If the shade is deciduous, spring bulbs and ephemerals may still thrive. Have conditions in your yard changed? A tree fallen or pruned can create new pockets of sun, and, of course, alternatively, plants grow, creating new shade.

Moisture — In the air (humidity) and the soil. In Seattle, extra care needs to be taken so the plant can survive the wet winter soil conditions we have when it is dormant. Read up on how this plant looks when it gets too much or too little water. Some plants inconveniently look the same in either case, but it’s a signpost.  

Nutrients and Ph. level — If your plant has those top three covered yet fails to thrive or has yellowing leaves, look at its nutrient needs and soil acidity preference. Rhododendrons may turn chlorotic, seeking more acidic conditions, gardenias seeking more alkaline. Get a King Conservation District soil test, https://kingcd.org/programs/better-soils/healthy-soil/, for an accurate window into what’s happening in your corner of the world and recommendations.

Pests — Even if there are no obvious chomps in your leaves, something may be nibbling the plant’s root or sucking its life force while you’re not looking. Check above and below leaves, the soil, in the light of day and with a flashlight, and see what’s going on in the dark.

And then, even despite our best efforts, sometimes plants still die. Some gardeners say you need to try a plant three times in three places in your yard before giving up on it. Or maybe in that time, a tougher cultivar will have been introduced, starting the process all over. Because every plant is different.