Sunday, December 4, 2011

Refresher Course

It is far easier to leave things alone than to change them and the garden is no exception.  In 2004 I planted out the front of the house after ripping out the non-native foundation shrubs that the previous owner had installed.  The design of the arrangement that I implemented looked very nice upon completion, but the plants were still small.  The last seven years have produced a lot of growth, and the area to the left of the doorway has grown into an area where shrubs have embraced each other with abandon.

A beautiful clump of Shuttleworth ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii) as
originally planted; it is now obscured by one of the shrubs.

Nature often produces tangled thickets of growth in the wild, but let’s be honest – this is a garden.  I appreciate being able to recognize individual plants for what they are and would like to be able to do so here.  So I decided it is time to exert a bit of control over this area.  In particular, the shrubs in the back – a white flowered form of Illicium (I’m not sure that they were properly labeled as to species or cultivar in the nursery!) – have become a bit of a pruning challenge to keep them from overtaking the area.

Initial planting, spring 2005 view

Here is what it looked like in early 2005, less than a year after being planted. This represents one half of the front left side.  The two Illicium shrubs are in the back - they were chosen to be larger so that they could screen some part of the window (mostly because we wanted to obscure the view from inside the window).  Between the shrubs is a group of non-native variegated Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum) - a group that is no longer visible, by the way. 

In front of those is a grouping of Leucothoe axillaris plants that have grown leggy because of the crowding of the other shrubs. In front of those are three native azaleas.  At some point I added a fourth azalea and one of the Leucothoe died..  I have since moved the 4th azaleas in recognition of the overcrowding so at this point I am still dealing with 3.  At the very left of the front you can see a healthy clump of Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) and that small bit of green in front of the rock next to it is the Shuttleworth ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii).

Now that I have explained what plants are there, here is a picture of what it looks like now.  It's a bit of a jungle! I've added a few perennials in front, so that is a contributing factor, but it clear that the area was over-planted to begin with and the shrubs in the back are too big for the space.  Where are the windows?

Fall 2011, seven years after planting

Gardening is change – things grow, things die, people make mistakes!  I don’t think that is a surprise to any of you.  What I’m faced with here are two of those factors: things grew a LOT and I made some mistakes.  Here are some of the steps I plan to take during the next few months to restore some sanity to this area.  These are things that anyone can consider when it comes time to refresh an area:

1.       Recognize that changes are needed.  I’ve done that.  Reasons for my change include: plants have grown too big, excessive pruning is now required, other plants are being crowded which is affecting their appearance.  You could have other issues like poor plant performance or drainage problems that need to be dealt with.

2.       Evaluate what the space needs.  This is the time to do a site analysis: How much space do you have, what is the sun exposure, what is the moisture level, do you have any restrictions for size and height of plants?  I have measured the area and it is 15 feet long by 11.5 feet deep.  The sun exposure is full morning sun until about 12 pm, so it should be able to handle sun/part shade plants.  The moisture level is a bit on the dry side especially the area that is closest to the house.  I have two windows so the plant height needs to be considered for them.

3.   Research what to put there (use the details from your evaluation!), including what to keep of the existing vegetation. To satisfy the aesthetics of the general population (including future buyers of the house), I will get something evergreen for the area closest to the house.  I already know that I want to keep the Leucothoe and at least two of the azaleas, but I will not keep the non-native Solomon’s seal.  I want to incorporate a native perennial in that area instead and it needs to be something tall.  This step is actually the most fun, I think.  It should also be time well spent so that my choices are good for at least another seven years!

4.   Consider your implementation details  – what is the best time to plant and where can you get the plants?  Luckily I can plant almost year round in this area.  My only concerns are obtaining the plants and waiting to prune the Leucothoe close enough to spring to protect the open plant stems from freezing weather. I think I can work on the layer closest to the house first since all of that will be removed and replanted.

5.   Take pictures to remember what it looked like when you finished so you can compare later.  Who knows, I may have a whole new set of issues to deal with next time.  But I hope that if I did my planning correctly, I’ll have very few.

I would encourage you to finish up with mulch to protect the area and to consider labeling your plants.  If nothing else, when the label gets swallowed up by the plant, it will be a sign that your plants are growing!

All this will take some time for me to complete (need to do some research!) so I can't show you the finished project now.  So far I have removed one of the large shrubs in the back and the non-native perennial in the back.  Here is the progress so far - and look, the window is rediscovered!

Fall 2011 - on the way to a new look


  1. I can't believe how fast everything grew since 2005! Must be your longer growing season? Nothing grows that fast around here except weeds. Can't wait to see what you decide to put there, I love seeing how other gardeners design, it's always so inspiring!

  2. Some great lessons listed Ellen, I have made many mistakes. Especially with natives that I do have a reference for how they grow in the 'wild'. I have been eyeing up an area that needs refurbishment - one of the first places we planted. It's dominated by too many really tall perennials and looks extremely unorganized. I plan to mass more shorter perennials there to make it a little more aesthetically pleasing.

  3. I didn't really want to show my "messy" side, but I decided that perhaps it could be a "teachable moment"! And it's fun to have a chance to make a change.

  4. Thank-you for showing your messy side! Best laid plans often do go awry. I also have a wife who seems to think that you and Heather wake in the morning with fully formed plans for your garden.You then prance around the grounds pointing your magic trowel and "POOF",a 10' Latin named something or other appears. A lite lunch, a no effort post for your blog and perhaps a nap before dinner. Please say it isn't so!

  5. It is not so! At least for me - it might be true for Heather, she's pretty sharp.

    But I am amused by your hypothesis. In fact, it took me 30 seconds to stop laughing about it. You are clearly a comedian in your spare time - I love your comments!