Toad lilies. Astilbe. Switchgrass. All plants that I should be able to grow well here in Central Illinois (Zone 5b). All plants that have never survived more than a season in my garden, no matter how many times I’ve planted them. Yet, still, I somehow can’t resist these plants as I sail my shopping cart through the aisles of our local garden center. Perhaps I need someone to tie me to the mast so that I can resist their siren song.
Why don’t I let my experience guide me and walk past these plants? Obviously, I find each of them aesthetically pleasing. Why else would I want them in my garden? But there are a lot of plants that please my eye, but I pass by without a second thought. There has to be something about these plants that keeps tempting me despite previous disappointment.
It’s the label, the plastic plant tag stuck in each pot that tells me in no uncertain terms: This plant will grow in your garden. With such encouraging terms as Zones 4-7, part to full sun, regular to wet soils, the label baits me with its simple prescription for success.
In their defense, plant tags have come a long way in the past decade, offering far more useful detail than their predecessors. They help to put plants into categories for us as consumers, to help us differentiate in broad terms. They keep eager gardeners from shelling out big money for that plant that is destined for the compost heap. But they are not a magic wand of guarantee that the plant will thrive in the specific conditions we offer in our own gardens.
We humans love our categories, our labels. Just think of our libraries, grocery stores and just about any place where we need to make choices in life. Labeling things helps us focus within the overwhelming chaos that an unorganized universe presents. We even do this to our own, placing each other into rigid buckets of assumption.
He is a (insert religious, political, social label here), therefore (insert general assumption here).
We find ourselves frustrated (or perhaps just surprised) when individuals defy these expectations, when they jump out of our neat little buckets. We’re perplexed when that shade-loving plant doesn’t grow in our shade garden.
When plants or people don’t act as we expected, in ways both pleasant and disappointing, it may be that we’re relying too much on a label. Labels are valuable aides in ordering the chaos, or in simply choosing the right plants for our garden, but always remember, individual results will vary.