Get Growing: The power of editing in the garden

Erica Browne Grivas

They say gardens are never finished — the truth of that saying was brought home to me recently as I had to make some hard choices.

When we bought our house, it was nearly a blank slate — bliss for an enthusiastic plant collector. I was overjoyed to see the south-facing hillside by the front door, but it was covered in lawn. First, I prefer more useful plants than lawn, but second, what a pain to mow that must be!

Enter the magic of Craigslist, and the people who wanted to divest themselves of plants they had become too successful in their gardens. I was given all the plants who believed in Manifest Destiny — Crocosmia ‘Lucifer,’ Daylilies, and lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina), to name a few.

Then I hit the plant sales, and promptly installed all the plants I’d been wanting to try, without considering their ultimate size. Soon the hill was bursting with plants.

Fast forward (well it feels like that anyway) twelve years and it was time for a change.

My husband was about to trim the ‘Lady Banks’ Rose — a twice-yearly occurrence to keep it from reaching our roof, when it came to us that mayyyybe we didn’t have to do this anymore. From the driveway, it looked like our arbor had grown a Bob Ross afro. It’s a lovely sight in May smothered in yellow blossoms, but did we really want to keep this up? We really didn’t. It sounds crazy, but I began to feel irresponsible for planting large things that I wasn’t ready to prune.

If you have planted something in the wrong place, there will be a moment of reckoning in which either you or the plant will be unhappy. The plant may need constant pruning, causing irregular growth, or it may have weak branches from being in too much shade. It may be growing lustily, but smothering other plants you like. Hence the oft-repeated saying “Right plant, right place”.  Also, if I’ve planted something in the wrong place, it’s up to me to either take proper care of it including finding the right place for it. That may be at someone else’s house. In which case it’s time to say thank you and goodbye.

As I write this, a few lanky houseplants are coming to mind ...

Faster than I can believe, I gave the OK, and my husband literally tied a 600-lb. rope around it and pulled it off the arbor with the car. (The 300-lb rope snapped within seconds.) This is not a professional technique. We are lucky the whole arbor didn’t come down.  While I’ll miss the plant, and am sorry to lose it, it’s a pretty epic video.

Normally this would have been a tougher decision, but I could see the future of this plant. I bought a cutting in a 4-inch pot bought at the University of Washington arboretum, an impulse purchase fueled possibly from the Wayside Gardens catalog. I Googled it upon returning home from the Arb, and learned according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world’s largest rose, in Tombstone, Arizona, covering 9,000 square feet, is a ‘Lady Banks’ rose. It’s very possible it may come back from the trunk, which is now about six inches wide. The one in Arizona is at least 12 feet across. I knew what I was doing and planted it anyway – and here we are.

This event started a cascade of changes. I’d noticed, but managed to ignore, that the Phlomis russeliana (Jerusalem sage) was swallowing the black elderberry (Sambucus nigra), while the philadelphus aggressively loomed over passersby on the sidewalk. 

Today, social media allows we plant nerds to enable each other with ease.

I posted in a Facebook group called PNW Plant Geeks, and soon had several interested parties. One, a professional gardener — and new homeowner — came by and filled his pickup truck with a Baptisia (he was very gracious about the brick-like taproot that broke one of his shovels), the Philadelphus, a Cestrum, and a Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara). Most were over six feet tall.

As I gave him a tour, I began offering choisyas and callicarpa, pennisetum and salvias – but as I’ve said, his truck was full.

I am posting others on Plant Amnesty’s web site ( Plant Amnesty is a non-profit that educates about proper care and pruning of plants so that you don’t get in this situation. If you do anyway, it’s free to list and donate, but the info you post is only accessible to its paid members.

When you are planting an area, always believe the mature size specs – you can’t go wrpong

It feels like the landscape is breathing a little easier with added space and room to grow. I’ll try not to fill it all in.

But my beautiful neighbor, whose 'Lady Banks' is neatly sheared to flat green panes, just surprised me by dropping off four Geum seedlings that would fit very nicely where the Cedar was. What’s a gardener to do?