Gardening 101

The Aging Garden

As they mature, gardens get shadier, much to our dismay, and we start running out of planting space. Sometimes we gardeners want to shout, “No! Wait! That’s not what I was aiming for,” but like teenagers, these words go unheeded.

Because plants and trees are growing creatures, our gardens get shadier as they mature. Consequently, if your aim is to have 365 roses you probably will have to take down some trees; otherwise you’ll have to change the progression of your garden’s future with the proviso that some factors, such as the neighbors’ trees blocking out the sun, are out of your control.

Fall is the best time to assess our gardens: in the winter we see the skeleton with great spaces between its ribcage; in the spring we are excited—and grateful—when plants return, while in the summer we’re busy nurturing our plants through the heat and humidity.

The garden space is finite, something we all have to learn sooner or later. I loved ordering plants with simple abandon—and I could do so because mine was a new garden. However, that was twenty years ago and today I’m wracking my brain trying to figure out where I can put the five roses UPS is bringing me as I write this column. The climbing rose, ‘Cl. Clotilde Soupert’ will present no problem as I have one spot against some latticework where she can reside. However, the other four present a dilemma because there is no room to provide for plants requiring a sunny location.

Meanwhile, I have inspected the garden with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Because I’m in the midst of my rose mania, the new roses are a given: they are staying. I surveyed the area and my eyes stopped at Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’, a lovely goldenrod that has not performed one hundred percent for me. This is a lush goldenrod and for everyone else it stands high but it persists in drooping, requiring staking, in my good soil. I cut it back by half in May, and still it cascades all around, covering way too many plants in the process. So I am saying goodbye even though I love the time when it blooms right before the asters and the chrysanthemums.

I’m also saying goodbye to those I classify as “dumb plants.” Vernonia lettermanii falls into this group. I can only say that I have tried and finally during its third growing season it has thrown out some violet blooms. I apologize but the plant does not speak my language and it is hogging sunny real estate that could harbor a rose.

Sometimes I site a plant too close to a shrub simply because I abhor blank spaces and, lacking imagination, I cannot fathom the size the shrub will eventually reach. Sometimes this has worked to my advantage as when I planted a bunch of dahlias near a camellia. The camellia grew out, sheltering the tubers from the cold and forcing the dahlias to stretch for light. They need no staking as the skirts of the camellia disguise their stretching stems. The result is a charming circle of dahlias surrounding the camellia.

However, my Baptisia x ‘Purple Smoke’ is now too close to my lovely willow, Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’. Baptisia puts down a large taproot, making it hard to dig out while the Salix prevents it from expanding to the size it wants to be. Eventually I shall have to decide between the two but for now I am putting it off.

A particular camellia, ‘Taylor’s Perfection’, had never performed well for me in a particular sunny location so after four years I decided it needs to say goodbye. I had now found four places for the five roses and I was about to shout “Eureka!”

It’s important to go through this period of reassessing the garden, as not only does the garden change but we also modify our garden priorities. Plants we thought were cool ten years ago are no longer quite as appealing. The fact is this: the aging garden now is home to high priced real estate so we have to be choosey in our plant selection.

Meanwhile, I have just come back from one of my favorite nurseries, one that offered me a free rose. ‘Bailey’s Red’ is a climbing rose discovered in Holly Springs, NC. How could I possibly have refused to give this orphan a home? I have planted it right next to my windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei. So when you see a lonely red rose climbing a palm, you’ll know that I have totally run out of room.

A serious gardener for the past twenty years, Kit Flynn resides in Chapel Hill. She is also a Durham Master Gardener.

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