(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 30, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)
I moved to the American desert southwest in the summer of 2003 from the market town of Watford which is just outside London. I left behind a few favorite pubs, many good friends, two cats and the grandest garden in all of the UK. Well, okay, that is stretching it a bit; but when you are personally the one cultivating a bit of earth, it is always the most grand.
Dahlias towered above a multitude of vibrant, multi-coloured pansies, the roses stood majestically and perfumed the air with the sweetest of fragrances and the cotoneaster, ajuga and creeping jenny filled every crack and crevice of the rock garden. The kitchen garden presented itself proudly with delectable treats and the apple trees produced a bounty of the most delicious fruit. It was my paradise and I hated leaving it behind. I still miss it in fact. Alas, one must embrace today and begin to let go of the past.
As I mentioned in Part II of my “You Can’t Grow That Here” series, I had to set aside my melancholy and get on with gardening in a new climate. Gardening in the desert is so much more difficult than gardening in England. Still, my source of inspiration Alan Titchmarsh taught me that to garden effectively, one must always be outside gardening. This is the only way you learn and consequently the only way you can become connected to your own bit of earth. So, I purchased desert gardening books, visited local nurseries and I learned about my gardening options. As indicated in the before mentioned article, I purchased several starter plants; which is to say I purchased plants that were “easy to grow” in the desert. One of these plants was Salvia greggii or Autumn sage. I will be honest; I didn’t really think much of the plant when I bought it. It was small, seemingly brittle and was not in flower at the time of purchase. Due to lack of space, I grew everything in containers. I potted the Salvia, placed it in area where it would receive filtered sun and waited.
The Autumn sage thrives in well-amended soil and of course good drainage. Though it is a common desert plant, it should not be placed in full sun. It will suffer. After I met all the plant's requirements, my little Autumn sage became a very healthy, vigorous plant and before long it beamed with radiant fuchsia coloured blooms. Among the blooms hummingbirds chirped and buzzed around and struggled for dominance over the sweet nectar contained within the pink profusion. It has been noted in many publications that individual hummingbirds take ownership of a particular Autumn sage and will defend it fervently against other hummers. Considering there are more than enough flowers available for a score of birds, this behaviour does tend to baffle me. With all its attributes, I fell head over heels in love with this beautiful plant.
If there is one thing I attempt to avoid at all cost when gardening, it is regret. I am very careful not to weed an area that might yield self-seeding annuals or perhaps a perennial that may come back to life. I don’t like to coddle plants and I strongly believe in self-sufficiency. However, if a plant is making an honest effort to survive, I won’t deny it that right and will help it along the best I can. I will also do everything in my power to preserve and propagate plants I become strongly attached to. Among the original plants I purchased when I first began gardening here, I only have one left. I ruthlessly cut down and removed a lantana from a large pot in favour of something new and did the same with a Baja Fairy Bush. All that is left now is the Autumn sage. Now that I live in a house, it no longer resides in a pot but is in a special place in the ground and it is still performing well. To add to the sentimentality, in early summer a quail made a nest beneath it and we were blessed to have baby quails running through the garden, albeit briefly.
I was reading through a wonderful book titled Perennials for the Southwest by Mary Irish and stopped to read a very disheartening paragraph about my beloved Autumn sage.
It is always wise not to become overly attached to any individual salvia. Like raising wild animals, salvias won’t be with you long. As a rule they are short-lived plants and you can count on five to seven years from them, especially in the hottest areas.
I consulted this book for reaffirmation of how to prune my plant. It is wise to take it all the way to the ground to encourage new growth and I wanted Mary to reconfirm this. I wasn’t expecting this sort of news. I have had the plant five years this autumn. Right before I sat down to write this article I was outside staring at this plant. We’ve been through a lot together and I don’t want it to die. Despite Mary’s advice, I AM attached. It is like family now because it has been around for every life changing moment while living here.
The dahlias, roses and all I left behind smile upon gardens past. Today, I can take delight in the fact that no matter where I garden, my sentimentality will follow. It is the love of the plant and the attachment that gives the garden its spirit and life.
I am pleased to say that my Autumn sage is putting on new growth rapidly and it does not appear to be languishing. Still, in light of what I have read, I best take some cuttings now so I can always have a part of this plant with me always. If you are like me and love plants with a story, I can send you a cutting of this very plant. Just D-Mail me and I will grow one for you.
All images were taken by the author