Column: In the Garden: Trial Run

My yard runneth over with plants — free plants

Three springs ago, Karl Lagerfeld offered to send me a box of his latest creations — for free. No catch; no stipulations: His haute fashions were mine, to treat however I pleased. If I wanted to wear a ballgown to shop at Redner’s, Karl didn’t mind in the least. It was better than hitting the lottery.


Three springs ago, Karl Lagerfeld offered to send me a box of his latest creations — for free. No catch; no stipulations: His haute fashions were mine, to treat however I pleased. If I wanted to wear a ballgown to shop at Redner’s, Karl didn’t mind in the least. It was better than hitting the lottery.

Okay, okay — it wasn’t Karl Lagerfeld; it was a conglomerate of plant propagators known as Proven Winners. And they weren’t giving me frocks and jackets — but the principle was the same. I’d get to plant the newest of the new in my garden every spring — for free! They’d send me annuals, perennials, shrubs — and all they asked was that I complete a brief online survey about my plants’ performance. (Such are the perks of writing a gardening column.)

I hit “Yes please” on the e-mail offer so quickly that I knocked over my coffee.

The box, when it arrived that first spring, was bigger than I’d dared imagine. I sliced it open and let out a long, happy sigh. Inside were row upon row of pots of diminutive greenery. I greedily paged through the Accompanying Planting Guide. The names were a little daunting: Argyranthemum? Physocarpus? But then I recognized some old friends — petunia, hydrangea — and felt more at ease. I grabbed my trowel and set in.

An hour later, I’d found room in my garden for 10 of my 48 Proven Winners. Another hour on, and I’d placed another eight. I wasn’t even halfway done, and every available inch of loam in my yard held a white-plastic-tagged start-up. Trouble was, my Proven Winners hadn’t arrived until Memorial Day, by which time I, impatient as I am, had already filled my beds with humbler offerings from The Home Depot. I went back to the Accompanying Planting Guide, hoping for inspiration. “Great for containers,” a number of descriptions said. So I dragged out the haphazard collection of pots and planters that always accumulates in my garage, planting them up with angelonia and arctotis.

I didn’t even make it past the A’s before I ran out of room.

I called my BGF (Best Gardening Friend) Ruth. “Want some plants?”

“Sure!” she said cheerily. “What kind?”

“All kinds. They’re from those test
garden people I told you about.”

“Cool,” said Ruth, who’d been very impressed by my becoming a Trial Gardener. Now she would be a Trial Gardener, too.

Ruth’s yard is much bigger than mine; she took a lot of plants. But there were still leftovers, which I gave to my neighbor Marcia. She was also excited. I was somewhat less so, since I now, in order to feel right about taking all those free plants, had to keep track of how they performed in three yards, not one.

And I was a little ticked off at Proven Winners. My box of plants was awfully light on some stuff that I really craved. The Accompanying Planting Guide listed four kinds of phlox. I love phlox. I didn’t get any phlox. I got four kinds of something called calibrachoa, though.


Thinking these thoughts made me feel unworthy. Who would look a gift horse in the mouth that way? I’d wanted free plants; I’d gotten free plants. And if my calibrachoa weren’t as exciting as phlox, I could always just let them die.

Only I couldn’t, of course. Having accepted my free plants, I was now in thrall to them, doomed to water and weed and fertilize them, and fret over their survival. As a gardener, I tend to anthropomorphize. I talk to my azaleas and rose bushes. They don’t talk back. But even so, having a conversation with a plant, even a calibrachoa, is like giving a captured enemy soldier one of your cigarettes. It establishes a relationship. Afterward, you can’t just shoot him in the head.

That summer was a rough one. A lot of my Proven Winners didn’t make it. I was deeply ashamed as I filled out the final online survey: “Rotted in the ground.” “Browned out in July.” “Lost to aphids.” Proven Winners now knew I was a total loser, a confessed mass murderer. There would be no more freebies for me.

So come springtime, I stocked up early at The Home Depot again. My garden was overflowing by Memorial Day weekend. Which was when the huge box of brand-new Proven Winners arrived.

This spring is my fourth as a Trial Gardener. Despite the death count, there’s even less room in my garden. Ruth and Marcia are still happy to take the overflow. And while I’m still not getting enough phlox (Proven Winners, are you listening?), trial gardening has made me much less provincial. Without it, I’d never have known the delicate, long-stemmed beauty of gaura, or the flirtatious frillery of Cuphea llavea ‘Flamenco Rumba’ in bloom.

It’s not the giddy joyride I imagined. There’s a lot more responsibility, a lot more loss. The rewards are fewer. Somehow, though, that only makes them sweeter. I guess trial gardening is like life that way.

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