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Murphy's Laws of Gardening

Geoff Clarke

Editors Note: Astute readers will recognise that the Jacaranda and the other plants mentioned here are not Australian natives. It doesn't matter!!! This story is a testimony to one woman's determination against flood, frost, fire, drought, offspring, friends, livestock and miscellaneous machinery. And the Laws of Gardening formulated by Geoff will be found to be just as universal and immutable as anything postulated by Newton and Einstein!

It was 1950 and times were changing. We were even moving to a new home. It was right beside the Hume Highway so the front garden would have to be a showpiece. And it was: pink masses of "Dorothy Perkins" roses scrambled over the bush timber pergola which framed the front gate; brightly coloured annuals bordered a small patch of green lawn and the front door was flanked by two deep purple hyderangeas which contrasted nicely with the natural white of the fibro walls. In fact all went well - except for the jacaranda.

Now jacarandas were uncommon in that part of the New South Wales Southern Highlands although they succeeded if planted in a favourable spot and given frost protection for the first few years. My mother longed for a jacaranda; it would be the garden's crowning glory. She raised one from seed and planted it near the front fence where, in the fullness of time, passing truck drivers would be stunned by its purple magnificence.

When the first winter came I was made custodian of the jacaranda with the awesome responsibility of covering it each night. I started off quite well, remembering consistently even if I sometimes had to sneak out in my pyjamas. Then one fateful, starry night in mid July I forgot. The morning revealed a sparkling frost and a sort of jellied jacaranda which turned black to match the family mood. Its replacement fared no better. It suffered a violent end under the wheels of a motorbike which strayed from the driveway in mysterious cicumstances.

" The fourth jacaranda survived a drought and even the bushfire of New Year's Day 1957 which burned down the house next door....."

Jacaranda number 3 flourished for more than two years and was over a metre high in the sunmmer of '55. They one day I set out to mow the yard with our primative rotary mower equipped with home made blades fashioned from angle iron. I was sure I could get a little closer to the jacaranda and made another pass. It keeled over like a stalk of paspalum, cleanly and finally severed. The fourth jacaranda survived a drought and even the bushfire of New Year's Day 1957 which burned down the house next door and consumed our paddocks, back garden and woodheap. Unfortunately the fire deprived Lucy the goat of her grass so she made an unauthorised visit to the front garden and ate the jacaranda.

Jacaranda the fifth made a promising start but I got married and left the district while my mother moved to a smaller house on the other side of town. She kept her eye on it for a couple of years but it had not flowered when the new owners pulled it out to make way for a swimming pool. Meanwhile, at her new place jacaranda mark VI went in by the front fence. A few years later a wet spell saw the front yard submerged for a week. The jacaranda bravely waved its crown above the flood but as the waters receeded it turned a sickly yellow and died. In spite of improved drainage, two more met a similar fate. For the first time mother's enthusiasm waned and the great jacaranda project faltered.

Then as she walked along her own street one day she saw a purple vision; a jacaranda flowering in a neighbour's garden. She took up the struggle with renewed vigour and planted another. Alas! It was accidently composted by a helpful friend during a cleanup of her yard. Assorted disasters befell three more in the following years.

"Finally a sheltered corner of the orchard helped jacaranda mark XIII to survive the crucial years and the long awaited flowers burst forth."

Finally a sheltered corner of the orchard helped jacaranda mark XIII to survive the crucial years and the long awaited flowers burst forth. Mother did not see them....she was in hospital recovering from eye surgery. But, a year later in 1984, she was able to enjoy seeing her very own jacaranda in flower just 34 years after she planted the first one!!!

Why this tale of aboricultural tragedy and triumph over adversity? It is an illustration of Murphy's Law: "If anything can go wrong, it will". It seems that this fundamental law of nature was first stated by Ed Murphy in 1949, just one year before my mother planted her first jacaranda. Ed was a development engineer at Edwards Airforce Base, USA when Col.J.F.Strapp was doing crash research involving hair raising rides on his rocket sled. Starting with engineering, Murphy's Law has been applied to an expanding range of activities.

Numerous articles and books have been written about Murphy's Law but its relevance to gardening has received scant attention to my knowledge. Now, as the jacaranda story shows, the Law certainly applies to gardening. So to assist gardeners of the future to avoid pitfalls, I have formulated some special laws based on years of bitter experience.

General Laws

  • Murphy's Law (Common Version): If anything can go wrong, it will.
  • Murphy's Law (Academic Version): There exists a universal propensity for phenomena to diverge from the optimum.
  • The Jacaranda Principle: If anything goes wrong in your garden, it goes wrong with your favourite plant.
  • The Perversity Paradox: The plant you want to grow the most is the one that is the most difficult to grow in your garden.
  • Joneses' Law: A shrub that is vigorous and showy in your neighbour's garden will turn out scrawny and dull in yours.
  • Bragger's Rule: Your best flowers will finish just before the flower show or will reach perfection just afterwards.

Laws Pertaining to the Weather

  • O'Clarke's Law: The heaviest frost of the winter will occur on the first night that you forget to cover a tender plant.
  • The Shrivel Principle: When you omit to water your pot plant, there will be a heatwave.
  • The Rainfall Rule: Rainfall is concentrated on weekends and public holidays.
  • Noah's Hypothesis: The planting of a new garden will be followed by a flood unless there is a drought.
  • The Phantom Breeze Enigma: If spraying is carried out in calm conditions, weedkiller will be blown towards the shrubs but insecticide will be blown back in your face.

Newton's Laws of Motion in the Garden

  1. Falling apples, branches of trees always land where they will do the most damage.
  2. A cricket ball will attain maximum velocity as it hits the glasshouse.
  3. A moving milkman will continue in the same direction no matter what botanical treasure lies in his path.

Laws Pertaining to Children

  • Junior's Theorem: The shortest distance between two points is across the rockery.
  • Young Helper's Axiom: Nice plants are easier to pull out than weeds.
  • The Tracey Theory: A game of chasings in the dark has the same effect on the garden as a cyclone.

Laws Pertaining to Animals

  • Lucy's Law: Stray livestock will always eat the most desirable plant first.
  • The Catastrophe Theory: Cats find newly planted seed beds superior to kitty litter.
  • Canine Corrollary: Dogs find lovely plants superior to lamp posts.

Weed Axioms

  1. Weeds can never be eradicated, only changed in form.
  2. Weeds are hardier than wanted plants.
  3. Weeds multiply to fill the space available.

Pest Principles

  1. All pests prefer desirable plants to weeds.
  2. For every pest you can see there are a hundred you can't.
  3. If the bugs don't get it, the fungus will.

Plant Identity Crises

  • Type I: Dwarf eucalypts will turn out to be forest giants.
  • Type II: Windbreak plants will turn out to be prostrate varieties.
  • Type III: The unusual form with large crimson flowers will turn out to be the common form with insignificant white flowers.

Laws Pertaining to Equipment

  • Geoffrey's Law of Mowing: A little bit closer is too close.
  • Pobble's Rule: Never mow in bare feet or thongs.
  • The Clunk Rule: Never stoke a mulcher with a metal implement.
  • The Geyser Principle: Underground water pipes are found where you least expect them.

Reprinted from the September 1987 issue of the newsletter of SGAP's Canberra Region.


  1. The Hume Highway is the main connecting route between Sydney and Melbourne. Even in the 1950s-60s, it was a busy road carrying many interstate transport vehicles.
  2. The "Tracey" reference recalls "Cyclone Tracey" which devestated Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory on Christmas Day, 1974.

Editor's Challenge!

Now, with just a little effort we could build up the definitive collection of Murphy's Laws of Gardening and Related Activities! Readers are invited to submit additional rules and corrolories that they may have observed...in the garden, in nurseries, while propagating, while pruning, while composting, while photographing. ..well, you get the idea!

What law governs the loss of a finger while pruning? Is there a relationship between the use of Band-Aids and the number of cuttings produced? Is there a rule governing the life span of a plant and the distance from the nursery that produced it?

One rule that occurs to me after many years of photographing plants is The Precipice Principle; "All blooms occur on that side of the plant overhanging a 90 metre cliff" and its corrolory, The Reptile Rule; "Physically accessible blooms occur directly above a 2 metre brown snake". Then there's The Tyranny of Distance Doctrine; "The rate of loss of power from camera batteries is independent of the time rate of power useage but directly proportional to the distance from the nearest town"...and The Black Hole Hypothesis (with slight modification also applicable to pens, pencils and rubbers); "A lens cap, when removed from a camera, compresses to a singularity and is never seen again".....

....somebody stop me!

What about The Inverse Square Law of Light, a rather long one; "The quantity of light falling on a surface decreases in proportion to the square of the distance from the source, except in photography where light either decreases on increases with distance depending on which is less convenient."

OK, I'll stop.

Surely you can do better....

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Australian Plants online - September 1996
The Society for Growing Australian Plants