Archives for September 2011

Sunday Opinion: Starting Over

Needing to start over is one of my least favorite states of being.  I would do just about anything to avoid it.  It is a tough go to face down a chunk of  time, a lot of effort and materials that got paid for- invested in a plan that comes to no good.  A discouraging turn of events doesn’t indicate a need to start over.  I have had plants take a turn for the worse, that I managed to turn around. Plenty of times I have been faced with a poorly placed tree that I managed to make work with a new bed that made the placement of that tree seem intentional.  Replacing plants that die is not starting over.  Plants die all the time, for any number of reasons, many of which are beyond my control.  Replacing plants dead plants is part of a good maintenance program.  Spots that need a new start usually have to do with a poor choice of plant material, or poor placement.  The 7 years I spent trying to get a large patch of Helleborus Argutifolius to thrive is a testament to my dread of starting over.  The blackened stems and leaves, the distorted flower buds that very first spring was all the proof I needed that my climate is just too cold for this plant.  It took another 6 springs just like the first one before I finally tore them all out, and started over.  What was I thinking, living with that bad choice so many years?  I did not want to start over. 

I am not the only gardener with this problem.  I have a neighbor with a hedge of burning bush planted between the garage wall, and the walk to the back door.  I would say the space might be 3 feet wide.  They were probably 18″ tall when they they were planted.  They want to be 8′ tall and 8′ wide now.  This is their natural mature size.   She spends hours in the spring hacking them back to bare branches, and more hours all summer long further heading them back.  She’s got to know she should tear them out, and start over.  They are so large, it would take four men and a front end loader to properly dig and move them.  I would chop them down, save the branches for my winter pots, and dig out the stumps-and start over.  How the euonymus are pruned to fit the space has produced a look less than pretty.  The interior of each plant is sticks; the layer of leaves on the top and sides is very thin.  There are no leaves at the bottom.  They look terrible, not through any fault of their own.  A hedge of burning bush with plenty of room to grow wide and tall is robustly branchy in the winter, and fiery red in the fall.  Big growing shrubs need a lot of space to grow into what they do best.  What’s wrong here is a gardener who does not want to start over.

 I had a meeting with a client yesterday.  She tells me it is very difficult for her to pitch any plant.  Gardeners are devoted to keeping plants alive, right?  If you grow daylilies or bearded iris, you divide when the clumps are no longer producing well.  Some gardeners leave the divisions they cannot replant at the curb, with a please help yourself sign.  This is a good way to distribute the plants you have no room for.  I have a friend whose driveway is packed every summer with perennials, shrubs and trees in pots.  She and her husband are devoted plant collectors.  She has a large property; when the summer weather cools off, she plants.  When the perennials outgrow their space, she divides, or transplants.  Half the fun of a garden is moving things around, doing better by the plants. This is not starting over-this is fine tuning. 

This scheme does not work so well with large growing suckering shrubs.  It can be a monumental task to dig one with a sufficient rootball that it could survive the transplant process.  Moving it to a new location is another issue all together.  Setting it at the proper height for planting is yet another job.  My crews move plants all the time.  Watching the incredible effort and care that this takes, I think three times before I plant one in the ground.  Moving an established shrub is a major undertaking-both for you, and the plant.  I would suggest that the planning part of planting is a step you don’t want to skip. Have I ever skipped the planning part?  Sure, plenty of times.  Have I made mistakes?   Many more than you have, I promise.  From all the experience I have had with failure, I can assure you that once you overcome the “gravity” of your situation, a better garden is within your grasp.

At A Glance: A Saturday In September

Yard Dog

If you garden, I am sure you understand what it means to be a yard dog.  You dig the dirt, turn and spread the compost, wheel the mulch, prune the shrubs, drag the hose to the thirsty tree, plant new plants, divide old plants, pull the weeds, rake the leaves, and then start all over again.  All of the aforementioned jobs take place in the spring when it’s cold, in the summer when it’s 90, in the fall when it’s raining and very cold.     

Every landscape is threatened by trouble.  No rain, too much rain.  Weather that is too hot, or too cold, or too humid.  Woodchucks, deer, chipmunks, the neighbor’s children, Japanese beetles, anthracnose, fungus, white fly, spider mites, slugs, nematodes-even dogs.  There is ample evidence in my yard that I have two male dogs.  Can you hear me shrug??  I am always on patrol for trouble.  It makes much more sense to stay ahead of trouble, than be left in its wake. 

Some trouble pops right out in front of your face.  A shrub with leaves so green on the outside may be hiding trouble on the inside.  Scale-have you ever had it?  This revolting insect attaches itself to to the stems of magnolias, and euonymus.  A severely infected plant has stems covered in white; scale is very difficult to eradicate, once it has taken hold.  Be a great yard dog-inspect your plants regularly.  From top to bottom.   I like to hand water.  The time it takes to water deeply gives me time to see what is going on behind the scenes. I see Milo running in and out of the boxwood hedges-they do not seem to mind the intrusion.  I see the hummingbirds on the nicotiana.  I have lots of them right now-they must be on their way south.  I see the hydrangea flowers pinking up-who knew pink could be a verb? I can process a lot of trouble, and my plan to combat said trouble, while holding the hose.   

I see the hawks riding the updrafts. I see the clouds-are they not beautiful in the fall?  I see those giant messy structures I know to be squirrel’s nests in my big Norway maple.  The black tar fungus has decimated the foliage on this tree-this is trouble over which I have no control.  Whether on not I have control, I stand watch. 

Milo has a squirrel friend.  This squirrel chatters at him, leaps and runs through the trees ringing the property.  Milo never takes his eyes off that squirrel.  His focus is an astonishing thing to behold.  They have quite the relationship.  My very low to the ground corgi, and that tree hopping bushy tailed rodent have a mutually satisfying relationship.   The same could be said for me and my garden.    

Milo works very hard, keeping up his end.  He may patrol the perimeter of the garden 10 times in any given evening.  His nemesis, that squirrel friend, is bound to show up sooner or later.  At some point, he will take a break, and get a drink.  I understand perfectly the responsibility involved.  Nature dishes out all kinds of  trouble.  Weather is to be watched, and cleaned up after.  There is no intervening in this.  I don’t intervene with bugs-I live through them.  I will treat a bacterial infection, and I will treat a fungus.  But no matter how little control I have, I have the yard dog gene. No doubt, there are those moments when I need a drink of water.  

The pleasure of a garden is considerable.  What it takes to have one, more than well worth the effort.  No matter what job needs doing once I get home, there are rewards.  Every dog has his day.  

Gardening is a dirty business. The dirt may be the best part of it.  Given 15 years of compost and ground bark turned into and returned to my soil, my plants thrive.  What could be more thrilling?  That dirt-in my socks and under my nails-part and parcel of being a yard dog.       

It’s a dirty job, but some of us have to do it.

Fabulous For Fall


I think my summer may be over.  Though Buck and I are still cruising the garden every night, we have broken out the fleeces, and jackets.  As loathe as I am to give up my summer, the fall season has its charms.  I had best get ready to be charmed-the fall is here.  I am so happy that my local nurseries have seen to supplying replacement plants for those tired spots in my containers.  The petunias are fading fast, and the leaves of the coleus have thinned, and lost color.  Luckily lots of plants are very tolerant of cold-and they are ready to step in wherever you have gaps.

My favorites are the ornamental kale and cabbages.  Available in white, pink, or red, they do not begin to color up until the night temperatures drop.  Cabbage have the big wavy leaves; kale leaves are frilly and lacy.  Both do well and grow until there is a truly hard frost.  An ornamental cabbage grown in a one gallon pot has a huge rosette of leaves, and a relatively small rootball. 

 Just a few of these plants go a very long way.  I love how tolerant they are of a deep planting-I set them at whatever level I want in a container.  I tip the faces forward, so I can see into those rosettes.  They do not mind in the least the back side of their rootball set above grade.  The color and texture is moody and jewel-like-perfect for fall.  Their very thick leaves are very weather resistant -at least that is my theory. 

Persian Queen geraniums that have been in containers over the summer will go on representing well into the fall.  Given that their chartreuse leaves are their big attraction, fewer fall flowers matters not.  Other summer container plants that do well through the fall-vinca maculatum is one of the best.  These long trailing plants are not in the least bit fazed by cold.  Nicotianas can revive and soldier on with the advent of cold weather.  My nicotiana mutabilis is sending out new shoots, and growing like crazy right now. 

If you need your container plantings to thrive on through the fall, choose carefully in the spring.  Impatiens of any sort, and coleus will collapse into a heap of mush given a short string of cold nights.  Tropical plants need to be brought in ahead of any really cold nights.  Trailing verbena is amazingly cold tolerant, as are nasturtiums, dahlias, and ornamental grasses.  But in the event that your containers are full of plants that have little love for cold, you still have choices.   Pansies reappear in the fall-they really do thrive in cooler weather.  The Clear Sky series is actually quite perennial.  Plant them in early fall-they will reward you all fall, and on into the spring to come.Their cheery faces look great in fall containers-try a few.

For years I rolled my eyes whenever I saw a sign for fall mums.  They have a form completely unlike garden chrysanthemums-they are trimmed to within an inch of their lives until it is time for them to set buds.  Mum balls, I call them.  Garden grown mums have a much more natural appearance.  Why I ever had the need to make a comparison, I do not know.  Mums grown for fall planting are just that-fall plants for containers.  I love the giant balls that have been perfectly trimmed all summer.  Thinking of planting on in a pot now?  Pick a plant that is budded up-no flowers.  Once those budded plants are in your containers, you have all fall to watch them develop, and bloom.

Gourds, pumpkins and the like-I am starting to see those shapes and colors at market.  Fall colors are like no other.  A pot full of gourds with sme left over creeping jenny from the summer is a good look.  It will be late Novemeber before I start my winter plantings-that is two months from now.  Too long to have nothing to look at near the front door. 


Bare branches-I have no objection to them in fall pots.  Every shrub and tree reveals a beautiful branch structure, once the leaves fall.  The structure of a garden is never more clear.  Subtract the flowers and the leaves-a gardener is faced with the bones.  I design with the bones in mind. Bare bones-I like that look.  There are enough cold tolerant plants, gourds, pumpkins and squash- and enough bones to make a festival of fall.