May Ye Find Truth in Your Coneflowers

In my comeback post, I promised I’d tell you about the coneflowers.

During this post-truth pandemic period in world history, nothing enlightened me about the challenges involved in finding truthful information on the information highway as much as coneflowers . . . specifically red coneflowers.

After feeling pretty proud of myself for banishing the weeds from my environs, it dawned on me that if I didn’t plant something on the slope I’d just cleared that I could wind up with a hot mud sundae. I didn’t know what to plant, so I asked my wife and our roommate for their opinions because they had way more gardening experience than I did (zero). At the time, they were into growing food plants to offset pandemic-related shortages, so they suggested corn, sunflowers and chives. Here’s how that worked out:

  • The birds ate the sunflower seeds and an unknown animal ate the one sunflower that survived the birds.
  • The chives were swallowed up by sod and weeds.
  • We did get some corn . . . three or four cobs, in fact. Cobs about two inches long. We named the corn “George Costanza Corn” in honor of the “shrinkage episode.”

I really wasn’t into growing food anyway, so I asked about flowering plants that could thrive in a full-sun environment with the crappiest, sandiest, rockiest soil imaginable. The answer was “lavender.” I planted four of them and they grew beautifully.

My success with lavenders sparked curiosity about other flowering plants and after exploring the offerings at the local nursery, I decided that red coneflowers were a good bet for my miserable growing conditions. I planted two and they thrived, producing dozens of gorgeous red flowers.

When autumn arrived, I’d learned enough about gardening to know that perennials like coneflowers required some pre-winter care to increase their odds of returning next summer. Various gardening websites agreed that I could leave the bare cones at the end of the flowerless stems through the winter to provide snacks for the birds and wait until spring to pare the plants to ground.

But in reading further, I learned with dismay that apparently I blew it by planting red coneflowers in the first place. At least three prominent gardening websites told me that my red coneflowers would not bloom in the second year unless I stopped them from flowering in the first.

“Well, shee-it,” I said to myself. Though I was disappointed by the news, I certainly wasn’t about to dig up two living, healthy plants simply because they weren’t going to deliver the goods for another year. I resigned myself to tending a red coneflower plant sans coneflowers in year two.

Flash forward to the following summer. The two red coneflower plants that weren’t supposed to flower produced a grand total of fifty-eight flowers between them.

I did nothing special to achieve this result. I watered them according to their needs. I refreshed the mulch. I threw in a little compost now and then. I added no fertilizer or other soil amendments.

The Internet lied to me!

Okay, this wasn’t a lie on the scale of QAnon, but the story does illustrate a common problem with information gathered from the Internet. Most sites cater to the extremely short attention spans of people who shop for information on the Internet, producing short, punchy pieces you can read in a minute or two. We’ve become a world oriented towards headlines, one-pagers, bullet points and tweets. We want answers NOW and any old answer will do. Information relieves anxiety, even bad information. Even partial information.

This is a problem because the truth behind anything is never simple. If truth were so easy to come by, we wouldn’t spend half our lives looking for it.

The truth behind anything involves sifting through lots of variables and looking at the problem from different angles. In the garden, there are oodles of variables in play, and every plant has its own unique needs—and gardening doesn’t involve a tenth of the variables at work in human relationships. In our quest to have answers NOW, we simplify things and leap to conclusions based on scant, superficial evidence.

Years ago I interviewed a woman for a position with the firm I was working for and after thirty minutes of conversation classified her as an uptight, superficial, arrogant know-it-all who got good grades in school because she learned how to memorize and regurgitate her memories in midterms and finals but really knew nothing about life. A classic, success-oriented bore if there ever was one.

We’ve been together for thirty years now because I chose to read beyond the headlines.

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