Between the Rows: Tackling perennial proliferation

  • The Japanese anemone, Calycanthus and rudbekia are crowding each other in Pat Leuchtman’s Greenfield garden. Separation or elimination are required. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • The yellow twig dogwood is overcoming the Culver’s root and chokeberry in Pat Leuchtman’s Greenfield garden. The bee balm is also being squashed. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • The white spherical blossoms of the buttonbush are almost ready to bloom, the golden winterberries will appear in the fall, and the lacy foliage of the dappled willow is attractive all year. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman


For the Recorder
Friday, July 06, 2018

Perennial proliferation is what you never expect when, as a young gardener, you carefully plant your first perennial bee balm or Siberian iris or coral bells. You set out your plants neatly, and sigh with accomplishment and pleasure expecting that these perennials will look just as they do that day forever.

After caring for flower gardens for the past 40 years, you would think I had outgrown this daydream. But, alas, as I evaluate my Greenfield garden, I realize unchecked proliferation has occurred and I have to deal with it. I should remember the old saying: “The first year newly planted plants sleep. The second year they creep. The third year they leap! And the gardener might weep.” I added that last part myself.

Since I intended that my new Greenfield garden should be a low-maintenance garden, it includes many shrubs. My definition of perennials is a plant that comes back next year and is bigger. I have many shrubs, and many perennial flowers intended to fill the spaces between the shrubs. All of these plants were chosen because I find them beautiful, but also because they are tolerant of wet soil. In addition to having heavy clay soil, a river runs beneath my garden. I have learned that there are many streams hiding under Greenfield streets and neighborhoods, seemingly filled in, but rivers and streams have their own energy and they do not completely disappear.

It is not too hard to find beautiful water-loving shrubs. I have planted three dogwood shrubs: red twig, yellow twig and osier. They are all thriving, but the yellow twig is the most vexatious. It does not grow much more than 6 feet tall, but it grows out in every direction. I have been pruning it to shorten many of its branches, especially those near the ground where I have planted perennial flowers. Even so, right now the branches are tangling with 6-foot tall Culver’s root, a native perennial that produces spikes of white flowers, as well as a 6-foot chokeberry that then leans into very tall bee balm. All these plants are thriving in this wet site.

I have decided that the chokeberry, which is barely visible at this point, will be removed entirely. Maybe I can donate it to the Energy Park garden. The Culver’s root and bee balm will need to be dug up and reduced in size, probably in half. After visiting some wonderful gardens on the Hawley Garden Tour last weekend, I realized that another aspect of my problem is the similarity of foliage color and size. I need to consider how to have more variety in groupings. You can see that in late September I’ll be busy.

Happily, I have a Rhus aromatica, a wonderful low sumac which makes a great ground cover in front of the Culver’s root and bee balm. On either side of the sumac, I’ll have to consider perennials that might provide more color.

Another overcrowded site includes three pink Japanese anemones that bloom long and joyfully from late summer into the fall, a young calycanthus shrub that produces amazing deep wine red blossoms in spring, and a border of rudbeckia given to me by a friend last year. All three are in the leaping stage.

What I know so far is that the calycanthus, also known as Carolina allspice or sweetshrub, is a native plant, tolerant of clay soils. Now that it has bloomed, I am told it is a good time to prune to keep it a manageable size. It can grow to 8 or 9 feet with an equal spread. I am counting on its willingness to be controlled.

The Japanese anemones are favorites of mine and I find a big clump really beautiful, but they will have to be moved. But where?

The rudbeckias will mostly disappear. Last year, they made a nice border and didn’t grow more than maybe 15 inches high. This year, the border has doubled in width and height. I look at this arrangement from my kitchen window dozens of times a day. It irritates me to see such a crowded clump of plants. Again, foliage color and texture are similar. A problem all by itself.

I wish I could tell you that these are the only two areas that need redoing because of overcrowding, but there are others. Blue and white Siberian irises increase altogether too fast. They are beautiful and early bloomers, but two clumps kept under control may be my limit. Bee balms and Joe Pye weeds also need to be reduced. These are important plants for pollinators, but they need to be kept under control.

One section of the garden looks handsome as it has increased in a very wet spot. The golden-leafed buttonbush now kisses the dark green foliage of the winterberry with its autumnal golden berries, and it snuggles up against the airy foliage of the dappled willow. All three are amenable to pruning.

Summer is generally not considered a time to work on garden planning, but it is in summer that many of the problems of our plant arrangements reveal themselves with painful clarity.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her website: www.commonweeder.com.