I was looking at a failed piece of work while visiting a knife smith friend the other day. It snapped in two while he had been finishing a last bit of heating and tapping. As I looked at the area of the break, I could see that there was a small bit of the crack that was dark black where the rest of the break was a normal light silvery color. The black part was where an unseen flaw had been hiding. In the stage he was at the flaw could not be seen, and depending on the level of finish he decided to give the knife it may never have been seen.
Sometimes an Autopsy is in OrderOur gardens are much the same way. We may look over a long period of time, but never see a problem until something happens suddenly that we cannot stop. When that happens it is important to stop and take a look at what is observable. I learned from my tree mentor many years ago that sometimes you need to slow down and do an autopsy on a tree when it dies. You may not learn the cause of death, but you will definitely learn something new each time you do it.
Look for Patterns, Disruptions in PatternsSimilarly, when you work with annual or perennial flowers, a good long look at the plants before you dispose of them is a valuable experience. When you do a plant autopsy remember to look at the whole plant – the leaves, stems, and roots. Don’t forget to look at the hidden or hard to see points: under the leaves, between the stems, and where the stems and roots meet in particular. Cut the root ball apart and cut the stems lengthwise. Look for patterns and look for things that do not match the pattern.
Get a Feel For What's NormalLooking for problems also means that you need to know what normal is, and so some experience with less damaged plants is also in order. This comes during planting time for all plants. Annuals can be inspected when they come out at the change of seasons and perennials can be inspected when they are divided. If you are managing a wild area it gets a little harder to determine what is normal. You may need to take a chance and sacrifice a few of the less important plants, or just wait until more obvious mechanical cause of death takes a plant out.
Knowledge, the Gardener's Greatest ToolWhen you have a number of plant autopsies under your belt you will find that you can see many problems quicker and may even be able to treat the damage before it kills the plant. Or you may find that it is better to let nature take its course. It really doesn’t matter what you do so much as you’re leaning more to give yourself more choices. Of course, there will still be plants that die without warning and plants that die from mysterious causes, but with time there will be fewer of those, and you will learn about other plants as well. That knowledge is the greatest tool will ever have as a gardener.