The Laidback Gardener reveals his dark side in this sad tale about how inattentiveness and neglect led to the tragic death of a beloved plant.
By Larry Hodgson
Yes, I killed my beloved Rosemary, Salvia rosmarinus, aka Rosmarinus officinalis. It happened suddenly, earlier this spring. We’d been together for 13 years, a faithful, loving relationship. I watered her, fertilized her, pruned her until she looked like a twisted bonsai. And she gave abundantly of her piney-scented, needlelike leaves. I doubt if I’ll ever be able to eat lamb again without bursting into tears. Such a tragedy!
Not the Easiest Plant
I must say, though, that Rosemary never made it easy for me.
In the first years, just keeping her alive was a struggle. Not outdoors, where she spent the summer; she was always fine out there in the sun. Few potted plants need less care! I just watered when the soil started to feel seriously dry. Nor was it a problem even in the fall, as I used to leave her out late. (She did love those brisk fall days!)
But indoors, oh my! She sulked if I watered her too much, and also if I didn’t water enough. Never did she seem happy.
She clearly hated my growing conditions. Yet I tried everything. For example, my sunniest window, but also the hottest one. That was a no. My cold but none too sunny basement window either. There she seemed pleased at first, but started to spiral downhill long before spring had sprung. What about average indoor conditions? So-so light and average indoor temperatures? Would that work? Nope.
Overwintering Rosemary just was never going to be easy!
Fuzzy Leaves: An Annual Occurrence
The main symptom of her extreme unhappiness with winter conditions indoors was powdery mildew.
After spending several months looking reasonably happy, by February, the months of too much warmth or not enough light (or both) began to tell. Whitish fuzz began sprouting on the leaves. By the time I could react and spritz them with neem oil (I needed a safe fungicide, as we consume rosemary leaves, and neem is organic), it was too late. The disease would stop spreading after I sprayed, but the infected leaves never recovered and soon dropped off, leaving my beautiful Rosemary looking barren and half-dead.
Every year, I worried I would lose her, but as the bright light and longer days of spring reached her, she would react and start to recover. Then she would grow back over the summer . . . only to retreat drastically again in late winter. Every time, I feared I would lose her, but she always pulled through.
I finally found the spot, though. But it took me 5 years to figure it out.
You see, Rosemary is from the Mediterranean. She’s used to long, hot, dry summers, but likes a cool to cold and somewhat rainier winter. Yes, she’ll even take some frost: down to 20 °F (-7 °C), some even say 10 °F (-12 °C) if it doesn’t last too long.
*Where I live, winter temperatures drop to -31 °F (-35 °C.). In no way could Rosemary survive the winter outdoors here!
So. . . What spot did I have indoors that would suit darling Rosemary?
Well, there was always my cold frame. I was worried about trying it though. My cold frame is unusual in that it covers my basement window, right next to my office, so I have access to it all winter from indoors. But temperatures inside drop to below freezing. That struck me as awfully cold for a tender plant!
But Rosemary is more stalwart than you’d have thought. It turned out she loved her cold winter, including freezing temperatures at night.
Trial and Error
The first year, I used to bring her into the warmth of my office on particularly cold nights. Eventually, I discovered it wasn’t necessary. It never got any lower than 26°F (-7°C) in the cold frame. (I knew that from following the temperature inside over the years on the handy little remote temperature sensor I keep on my desk. It tells me what is happening inside the cold frame.) So, I tested leaving it out at lower and lower temperatures. They never bothered her.
Once I began putting Rosemary in the cold frame, she came through the winter in perfect shape every time. She didn’t even lose a leaf! Nor was even a trace of powdery mildew ever seen.
Instead of barely clinging to life and looking half dead by spring, she filled in, grew dense and started to really expand. I mean, she was turning into quite the shrub! And also she started to bloom, with lovely pale lavender-blue flowers in spring! What a joy!
That all came to an end this spring.
I usually open a sash or two on my cold frame when days are above freezing (starting in April where I live), then close them again at night. As spring progressed and nights warmed up, I could leave the windows open for longer and longer periods, even overnight. After a few weeks, the cold frame would be open to the elements all the time, unless a major late frost was announced.
But my situation has changed since previous years. I’m now handicapped and have serious physical restrictions. I can no longer open and close a heavy (to me) cold frame sash as I used to. In fact, just getting outdoors to the cold frame and back again indoors after is a major undertaking that requires careful planning.
So, I figured I’d ask my wife to open the sashes for me. Only I didn’t. I didn’t want to bother her with all the opening and closing rigmarole I used to go through.
Instead, I just watered more (I could still do that, from inside the house), figuring I’d never seen a temperature higher than 95 °F (35 °C) inside the closed cold frame. And Rosemary’s from the Mediterranean, right? Surely, she can take that kind of heat?
But I hadn’t counted on a spring heat wave. We just don’t have them here . . . or, at least we didn’t used to. But then we had 3 days in a row with outdoor temperatures around 80°F (27 °C). Sweltering heat for us! Yet I didn’t give poor Rosemary a second thought!
At one point, busy at my computer as usual, I happened to glance up at the cold frame from my office chair. Rosemary clearly wasn’t well. Even from a distance, I could see her color was terrible! I checked the remote temperature sensor: 117°F (47°C)! Yikes! I headed towards the cold frame to open some windows and douse the roots in water.
But the doorbell rang just at that moment! Getting to the front door in a timely manner is a major challenge for me, but I rushed my very reluctant body up the stairs and towards the front door as fast as I could push it. And forgot all about poor Rosemary. She was left stewing in the heat and humidity!
It turned out to be only a delivery. And the package was already on the front step, the delivery person long gone. So, I crashed onto the couch to recuperate from the effort . . . and didn’t return to my office that day.
The Morning After
The next afternoon, when I sat down at my office desk and just happened to look up in Rosemary’s direction, I was horrified! There she stood, tall and still leafy . . . but her needles were grayish-brown. Not a trace of green. I rushed slowly over and pressed against one of her branches. It made a crunching sound! The needles themselves were bone dry, snapping easily in half. She hadn’t wilted in the slightest. Instead, she had dried through and through!
I did my best to reanimate her. I got my wife to open the cold frame sashes and let in some cool air. Then had her retrieve Rosemary.
I gave her a long soak in water, put her back in the now very cool cold frame (the heat wave had come to an abrupt and seasonally cool end) and thereafter tried to keep her moist. But to no avail. Days passed, then weeks. I finally had to admit it to myself . . . and now to you as well: Rosemary had gone on to the great herb garden in the sky!
Well, of course, Rosemary is just a plant. I can easily buy another. But I’m still mad at myself for not having cared for her the way I should. And at least I’ll try and turn this sad tale into a lesson for other gardeners. Like, for one, don’t put me on a pedestal. Maybe I write a lot about gardening, but I’m just as likely to make a gardening blunder as anyone else!
And learn this lesson well: if a doorbell rings when your plant needs you, give the plant priority!