What I Did Then I Would Never Do Again


Midsummer has arrived, and July and August are draping the garden with raggedy crazy-quilts. I knew, deep underneath my intoxication with our garden this spring, I would have to pay the piper for all that bliss (or some other designated creditors.*)

Perfectly respectable clematis ‘Henryi’ attacking the porch — for the second time this year!

Summer is supposed to be carefree, overflowing with peaches and cream. That does not seem to apply to this garden, where rowdy plants are staging guerilla-style invasions. Somehow, the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye has a loftier ring than the poison ivy has almost come to the top of the ratty old gum.

Haven’t tackled the poison ivy yet (obviously). Note invading fern. #4 below tells the story

I am a laissez-faire gardener. That’s French for ignoring messes. Most years, though, we do lick-and-promise clean-ups before visitors come. Those hefty, hefty barrowsful keep things under loose control, cosmetically anyway. This year, no visitors, no licks, no promises.

But lots of time. So I walk the garden to figure out what I did then that I will Never Again do. (Notice, I said Walk, not Work.) I’ll plan some strategy, dream up some shady ploys for Laissez-faire, or enjoy a sunset.

Practicing Laissez-faire

(Of course, Dear Reader, I know that you would never have any Never Agains in your garden.)

1. I shall never again plant a tulip tree in the middle of the front lawn.

Why did I do it? Long ago I fell in love with a tulip tree in an enchanted woods. So I rescued a stray seedling and gave it a place of honor in our garden. Ah, the rosy dreams.

Tall and straight. A model tree?

The reality is: This glory of the woods, come midsummer, flings a bumper crop of out-sized brown, crusty leaves over the lawn. We should be blowing, mowing or raking, but Laissez-faire works best. By the way, did you know that tulip-tree limbs make outstanding missiles in hurricanes?

Misguided launch, last hurricane

2. I shall never again plant a quince at the end of the driveway.

Why did I do it? You should see this quince in spring, when daffodils bloom. I wanted everyone to admire its red blaze. Unfortunately, there’s a hitch. I am not a good backer-upper. Quince thorns scraping the side of a car are like chalk on a blackboard.

An old photo, today the quince is even fuller now than it was then

So far nobody has been impaled, fortunately, since you don’t notice the thorns until midsummer, when the plant defoliates. That’s when neighbors are sure to spot that quince and ask why I keep a dead plant with thorns at the end of the driveway. One year I let clematis sprawl over the naked quince. Then people asked why I didn’t cut down that vine that was invading that dead plant with the thorns.

3. I shall never again make paths narrower than four feet.

What was I thinking? By midsumer, hungover plants make narrow paths uninviting, at precisely the time The Big Itches arrive.

There is a path there…somewhere. Annabelle hydrangea was caged after deer discovered it and dined heartily (Laissez-faire) or, in this case, “closing the barn door”

So laissez-faire trumps industrious cleanup and I tell visitors I am waiting for plants to set seed (though I have no idea what seeds). Alert visitors want to know names, might ask to collect seed heads. Go right ahead, I say, but do watch out for the diabolical duo: poison ivy and chiggers. Sane persons lose interest.

4. I shall never again experiment with unknown plants.

Take the East Indian maidenhair fern. (Please.) Such an exotic name. I purchased one and now there are hundreds.

So I give up, no more pulling, digging, blaspheming. Now they have free rein of one whole garden bed. The deal is, they share space with a hodge podge of the toughest of the toughs: quince, mahonia, spirea, calycanthus, formosa azalea, and a certain deutzia that never stops growing. So far I can’t tell who is winning. Next year will be better, I’m sure.

Enormous Solomon’s seal, a volunteer, holding its own. Can’t really see the shrub-toughies,  can you? (A renegade band is pictured in the poison ivy photo)

5. I shall never again say that next year will be better.

From now on I will accentuate the positive and say instead: You should have seen the garden last year. Since most people can’t remember what they had for breakfast yesterday, they surely won’t question my version of the-fish-that-got-away story.

((Sorry, no photo is available for this Never Again.))

6. I shall never again overcrowd plants.

Each plant must have its own space, I say, but something always seems to go awry.

I blame our clay soil (Never the gardener). Plants often spend four, maybe five years rebelling before they decide to explode. Some plants simply give up. That leaves lots of open space in a bed for a long time.

This is a sad-looking bed, second season. Try squinting and you may find a couple more plants

I am impatient. So what’s the harm of tucking in a few plants from friends or some special finds from nurseries? Space may be a little tight, but, well, not every plant will grow.

One year, everything does grow, and I have Horticultural Armageddon.

Duking it out. The apricot ginger lily came from good friends.

How come they can plant close — real close — (we sneaked peeks  as we toured) at Hever Castle in England (Anne Boleyn’s home) and not have Horticultural Armageddon?

7. I shall never again let an unknown “interesting” plant get more than two feet tall.

Three years ago we found a stripling with leaves similar to a redbud’s. (Should have looked more closely.)  We’ve won the lottery on this one, we crowed, as we watched it grow to a height of thirty feet this year and imagined a splendid cloud of lavender bloom next spring.

Our true redbud, recovered from being cut to the ground and left for dead because of canker and rot. It surmounted its troubles and now blooms faithfully near a front path where everyone can see it

The buzzing in June tipped us off. Bees? On yellow catkin blooms? And green berries instead of pods? Our “redbud” was an imposter! This was a Chinese tallow tree (Triadica sebifera), fast-growing to 60 feet, its long-lived seeds loved by birds. Once grown as an ornamental, today it’s invasive.

At thirty feet, Chinese tallow tree dwarfs six-foot Joe pye weed

We might have delayed removing it, but a certain gardener was not happy with the idea of taking down a forty-foot tree next year.

Bob is using an extended pole saw to cut away the lower branches first

He’s finishing the job using a chain saw to cut the trunk

8. I shall never again buy or accept as a gift a plant that has already died three times in my garden.

Twice maybe, but not three times. Especially those plants that look haggard for months before they give out — though in their favor, dead plants usually don’t hog garden beds. And one can always replace them with others that will. Having said that. . .

Arborvitae occidentalis will replace arborvitae occidentalis lost to wet conditions. Second try for this columnar accent. (Do losses of other arborvitae count?) Nurseries say this one is good for zones 3 to 8; university web sites say it’s good for zones 2 to 7. We’re zone 8. Hmmm

A gumpo azalea died here this year, the first to actually give out. In prior years, three or four others were rescued in the act of dying. I gave each one rehab and filled the space with a recovered substitute. So, is this #1 or #5? When weather cools, another that’s been in the wings is going in

9. And finally, I shall never again read articles with titles like How to Conquer Weeds, Spectacular No-Care Annuals, and, the one I like best, Plan Ahead for a Carefree Garden.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always planned ahead. Every spring I would make lists, and sub-lists for the lists, and sub-sub lists for the sub-lists. Each time I finished a task, I would cross it off the list(s) with fanfare.

I never got beyond Task Number 3 before July Fourth. So that’s why I don’t make to-do lists any more.

A summertime bed in Chanticleer Garden, Pennsylvania. They got through their to-do lists. Photo by Susan

Instead of to-do lists, I make Never Again lists and fine-tune my Laissez-faire.

*Designated creditors: Wheelbarrows and truck

A bumptious summer duo that makes it all worth while (Ashy sunflower with variegated miscanthus grass

And the never-fail crepe myrtle.

An old, reliable dwarf species against a white summer sky before sun has set

This entry was posted in Garden Humor, garden maintenance, Garden Never Agains, Summer and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to What I Did Then I Would Never Do Again

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Oh my! That last one is SO relevant! care free?!

  2. Karen Rose says:

    Same here! I was laughing out loud at the last one. That’s SO me! I am an incurable list maker. It’s almost September and I’ve still got at least 10 things I never got to (and never will, this year). I am slowly learning that the garden doesn’t really need me as much as I thought it did.

  3. Douglas Dion says:

    What a terrific list, you ought to submit it to some garden magazine. One thing, though: don’t you get any fruit from the quinces? They do have problems, but the orange/peppery smell of the fruits in fall more than makes up for its failings, I think.

    • Thanks for the kind words, though I think magazines would balk at the last entry. The quinces we have are flowering quinces and are not supposed to fruit, though I did not know all this when I bought them. I have several varieties and I love them — they thrive and bloom with only occasional thinning and chopping. Now, occasionally they put out fruit but you never know when it is ripe because it stays as hard as a rock until it falls and rots (eventually). Wish you could bottle that wonderful scent.

  4. KDKH says:

    I can’t believe how lush your garden is. Wet conditions? I don’t know what those are! Even if we have an especially snowy winter and some spring rain, at best we leave drought conditions. Our garden must be watered religiously, and only the strong survive! You have beautiful plants and I admire your green thumb. I’ve never had the thrill of rehabbing a plant, although I have managed to kill quite a few. Now, my only houseplants are succulents, because they are the only ones hardy enough to survive my ministrations and neglect. I do appreciate your Laissez-faire approach. Gardens should include wild abandon rather than absolute control. I don’t think plants like a dictator or bully any more than people do!

    • I truly understand your frustrations. For 25 years we gardened on a sand pile. I never knew what a puddle was, and amendments to the soil seemed to disappear into never-never land. I lost many plants that were gifts from my mother-in-law, oh dear. So springtime here is most rewarding. To be truly honest I should take pictures of our fried plants in August. And I’m not talking about green tomatoes. I liked your final comments about bullies. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Thanks to so many who commented directly to me about this post. I can’t resist quoting one particular email from Carole: “This gave me more than a chuckle. I was laughing so hard. Even got a french lesson while reading it. I never thought a master gardener would admit to a plant that just didn’t make it or took over large areas of the garden that were meant for a different plant. I thought it would only be a once a month gardener like myself. By the way did you see my Charlie Brown crepe myrtle. It has one branch shooting for the stars and I refuse to cut it because of the flower on it.”

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