Slash and Burn Season

Originally published on

Slash and Burn Season
Ilga Jansons

 A few days ago, I was sauntering through a very stylish nursery with a fellow plant maniac. As we looked at the stunning fall leaf color, pots of asters and chrysanthemums, baskets of bulbs, and (Oh, no!) the beginnings of Christmas displays, I whimpered about how awful my garden looked and how I had been neglecting it for the past few weeks.

“Don’t panic,” she said reassuringly, “Everybody hates their garden at this time of year.”

 While a bit overstated, there is more than a little truth in this. After months of care and feeding, this is the time when I go into demolition mode with a vengeance, when all the glaring errors start to stand out even more, when I have the least patience with plants, when small annoyances become ‘big deals.’ It is the most objective time of the year for me, when summer flowers are turning to mush. When I can stand back and take a really good look at the garden and not be wowed by the successes of spring and summer, the colors of early autumn. The weather is going bad, my mood is less tolerant, and I can make judgements. I can say once and for all, I don’t like this or that plant, and yank it out with impunity. All this rampaging is tempered with serious consideration. This is the time for seeing overall design as well as assessing individual plants in that design.

In the spring, the tiniest aggressor can beguile you with its soft new growth and tenderness. Now I look askance at the golden Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) around the koi pond that has trampled the lovely and fragrant Primula alpicola and P. florindae behind my back. When Phuopsis stylosa (a great little ground cover when it minds its manners) has flung itself over the rockery and wedged between the pots and rooted firmly in the gravel of the path. When Fairy moss (Azolla  filiculloides) has finally blanketed the frog pond and the goldfish in it are gasping. When the rhododendrons have completely covered the guest room windows while I wasn’t looking this summer, and the squatting Japanese lanterns have been engulfed in Corydalis ochroleuca.

After all the work and fussing of the last eight months, do I actually LIKE this plant anymore? We are often bewitched by magazine articles, nursery catalogs or just plain ‘fad and fashion’ to plant all sorts of beauties that are marginal for our gardens. Not only do climates vary, but the aspect and particulars of your site. My garden cascades down a north-facing slope, much of it in shade. I go through a lot of ‘zonal denial’ but also ‘site denial.’ Though I coax many plants into doing a good performance, some just can’t make it.

For example, no matter how beautiful the pineapple lily (Eucomis bicolor) is in other people’s gardens, I simply can’t provide it with enough sunny warmth away from slugs. Similarly, the lovely foxtail lily (Eremurus robustus) has succumbed several times in my damp, shady garden. I have given both to friends who have more satisfactory conditions. On the other hand, I have conditions for blue poppies (Meconopsis grandis, M. betonicifolia, and M. x sheldonii) that those same friends would die for.

I need to decide whether to move the silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica, ‘James Roof’) that drapes itself awkwardly against the wall and shows not the slightest inclination to display the hundreds of streamers of catkins it’s supposed to, contenting itself with a few tantalizing dangles. Is it too shady? Too moist? Time for some serious research on my part.

Now, at the end of the season, is a great time to think about your satisfaction with those marginally successful plants. Can you help this poor thing by working on the soil or moving it or pruning it? Or should you just give it to a friend and go visit and enjoy it there? Even if the work will be done in the spring, this is a good time for assessment, because you might well be reeling from the disappointment of its current condition. If it transplants in the fall, move it now, if it prefers spring, mark it now.

And then there are the more grievous questions about whole beds or vistas. Should I make major changes? Do I need to rearrange the metaphorical furniture? The dazzle of the garden is gone. Without all the distraction, it is easier to look at those ‘bones’ everyone is always writing about.

I’m not usually into gimmicks, but I have learned of two easy design helpers that you can try. For adding potentially large trees or shrubs and trying to envision what they will look like a few years down the line, try taking a photograph of the location. Then scribble in the approximate size and shape of that tree or shrub or grouping at maturity. A few snapshots from several angles might help you see things you could have missed, such as how close to the power lines your tree might reach, which windows it is going to cover or how much shade that perennial bed is going to get in the future. It may not be as sophisticated as the computer programs you can buy to help you plan your garden, but for a simple change it can give you a quick check.

The second easy tip is useful any time of the year. It will help you see your garden structure more objectively without the distraction of color. By taking a sheet of red cellophane (one of those clear red notebook dividers works well) and holding it up in front of your face, the red tint cancels out the distraction of color. In essence, you see the abstract forms forms of the garden, like a black and white photo, but in this case, in black and red. When I first heard about this, I was a bit dubious, but it works. You can walk around your garden and see the shapes and architecture. The nice thing about this technique is that even in the height of summer, you have the ‘eyes of winter,’ seeing the essentials without the distraction of color details!

This year, I have many changes to consider. For example, a forest of firs across the road was cut down a couple of weeks ago to make way for two new houses. I need to rethink that particular ‘borrowed view’ and start planning a new hedge or lattice or tree to plant next spring. We built a new shed that needs camouflaging, changed a parking area, and moved the chicken coop. The variegated Japanese laurel (Acuba japonica) on the north side of our house has overgrown its bounds. Do I remove it and replace it with a nice compact variegated holly, Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ perhaps? Or just prune it and leave it at that?

At this time of year, I am also much more conscious of how the garden looks from inside the house. After all, most of us in the temperate zone are spending more time inside during the coming months. My French doors are closed now. Gone are the breakfasts on the deck, looking out at our koi, begging for their food at the sound of our voices. They are thinking about hibernating now, and so am I. I’m ready to cuddle up with garden catalogs and those Technicolor plant-pornography books (can my garden ever attain that kind of perfection?) and look out the window.

A dear 80-something gardening mentor of mine declared, with more than a little exasperation in his voice, that he couldn’t understand why people didn’t pay more attention to how their gardens looked from the inside of their houses. “The Japanese understand this, Americans don’t.” he flatly asserted.  He was particularly agitated about the uninspired, boring habit of ‘foundation plantings’ in the form of ‘evergreen necklaces’ that plague our suburban landscape. “And how often do you see those plants tucked up against your house? Walking up to the house, that’s all. But, you look out the windows half the year!”

That really got me thinking and looking. Especially in my wet, gray climate, you really DO spend a significant amount of time looking out. Winter just amplifies this design consideration. Of course, you want to plan your garden to give yourself a pleasant vista any time of the year, but especially plan for the months when you are most likely to be indoors. In some climates, this may be the dead heat of summer rather than winter.

Walk around your house, sit in your favorite chairs, try out the bed, the couch, the dining room table and breakfast nook. Look out the windows. Do you need a large shrub or tree with fabulous bark or twigs? Some of the maples might do the trick. The paperbark maple (Acer griseum) or the striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) both have interesting bark, as have the birches (Betula nigra ‘Little King’ for brown peeling extravaganzas or Betula jacquemontii for a more austere white effect. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ or C. stolonifera ‘Isanti’ are shrubs with stunning red winter twigs. Maybe the solution is smaller. Heaths (Erica) and heathers (Calluna) come in a dizzying array of species and cultivars that bloom nearly every month of the year. Remember to give them a good trim right after they bloom and you can keep them to a manageable size and restrain their somewhat unkempt appearance. You don’t want your winter considerations to outweigh the overall design of your garden, it should supplement not supplant that design.

So, take this opportunity to assess your garden. Be brutal and ruthless with those failures now before the emergence of buds and nubbins distract you. And when you come in, cold and wet from the garden, hunker down with a pile of the new nursery catalogs and start coveting this year’s starlets and start pushing those zone and site barriers all over again!


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