Not All (Plant) Diseases Require Quarantine

Weaving up the north side of Skinner’s Butte through the lush growth of April, the bird song grows louder and more layered. I walk this route often and it’s remarkable how consistent this pattern is, as if someone turns the volume up the higher you climb. There’s one spot in particular where I regularly see spotted towhees, fox sparrows, Bewick’s wrens and bushtits singing the glory of the morning and foraging their breakfast.

Here, an ancient saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia) grows, its multiple stems stretch up and arch out, sheltering thickets of snowberry and a flowering ground of candy flower. Overhead, Oregon white oak stretches its muscular limbs, while osoberry stands companionably nearby.

This community on the northwest curve of the butte’s peak is a riot of life – from the songbirds to the flowery herbs and creeping grubs. I suspect the saskatoon as the ringleader of this uprising.

As a nature-inspired landscape designer, I inevitably start thinking about saskatoon’s garden value. I’ve used it in edible plantings (the blueberry/apples are very good), in native gardens, and for it’s drought tolerance in a hellstrip.

What’s stopping saskatoon from being more widely planted in home gardens?

Besides a lack of nursery availability (sadly true of too many natives), it’s likely saskatoon’s susceptibility to rust that keep people away. A fungal infection, rust colors the leaves and sometimes the fruit in orange splotches. You might see fungal rust and feel something between curiosity and repulsion depending on your tolerance for nature’s funkier side. But, here’s the thing, the plant itself just keeps growing, pushing out new wood, leaves, flowers and fruit every year regardless of the rust. It’s as if rust is just part of the plant like freckles are part of your face.

As I write, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Disease is on everyone’s minds. Just as with our own bodies, plants are vulnerable to a wide range of infection and infestation. Some are devastating, like verticillium wilt in Japanese maples or the bronze birch borer which mirrors the coronavirus in its rapid spread. But many other plant diseases or pests are simply part of the cycle of life, like the common cold.

Rust on saskatoon reminds me of a favorite childhood book I read to my son, The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater. When a seagull drops a pail of orange paint on Mr. Plumbean’s house, he responds by adding more color to his house. He paints stripes and murals, adds a tower, plants a garden and even brings an alligator to the scene. Though his neighbors are at first outraged, one by one, they drink lemonade in the garden with Mr. Plumbean and go on to transform their own homes to match their dreams.

The saskatoon atop Skinner’s Butte has done the same by welcoming all manner of life to its party. If you plant one in your garden and spy the rust after a good April shower, will you panic and pluck at it in distress? What I’m saying is that you don’t have to worry so much. Knowing more about the specifics of garden diseases and pests will open your mind to the subtle complexities of nature. Wait a minute on spraying those aphids and you’ll witness the voraciousness of ladybug larvae. Watch in wonder as the leaf scorched vine pushes out fresh growth.

You can be smart and sight the potentially rust prone in an open, sunny spot where the wind and light can keep the leaves drier. You could even prune the suckers a bit to ensure it has an open form. But, what you don’t need to do is grab chemicals to douse on your garden in search of a blemish-free scene. Nature has blemishes. So do I. But you still love me, right?

Let’s drink lemonade with Mr. Plumbean and see the orange splot as an opportunity to embrace life, to live our dreams of a bird-filled and beautifully complex garden, to let go of fear about all diseases and learn what really calls for diligence versus what can be left to run its course.

Is there something in your garden that gives you more distress than joy? If it’s on the level of bronze birch borer destructive, then get rid of it. Social distancing for very sick plants should be ruthless. If it’s as simple as some powdery mildew on a gorgeous flowering azalea, you could shift your perspective. Try seeing it like the quirk that makes your spouse beloved to you, or like sweet powdered sugar rather than dreaded mildew. Layer some late blooming Japanese anemones nearby to add more color around the azalea during powdery mildew season. Check out a white dusted leaf under a microscope, learn about it, wonder. And if all else fails, use a natural remedy like compost tea. Chemicals don’t belong in a wildlife friendly yard.

What funky thing in your garden are you going to learn more about? Let me know, I’ll learn along with you. Leave a comment below.

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