Bringing a Critical Eye to the Garden

By LeAnn Locher, PQ Monthly

We’ve been building our garden for 16 years and through this time, my approach to it has shifted and changed. In the beginning, I focused on plants for full sun and ones described as fast or vigorous growers. Anything to help fill in what felt like a vast, hot and dry space exposing us to our neighbors. Ah, and then there was that “tree climbing” rose that yes, covered our small stand-alone garage with decadent flowers every June, but it also ended up taking over half of the backyard. Don’t get me going on the Clematis Montana rubens. It grew so large it created a wind sail on the fence, eventually toppling the whole structure on a soggy windy day. Today? Our standard North Portland corner lot has very little grass left, with most of it smothered with cardboard and mulch and planted thickly with perennials, shrubs and favorite specimens. Trees and shrubs provide canopies to what now includes dappled and full shade areas. I even find plants hiding beneath other plants as they grow together.

It’s time to edit. To deal with the garden thugs. To divide the iris and lilies and daisies and hostas and fill friend’s gardens with plants from our own. To prune the overgrown viburnum, and coppice the Sambucus nigra. It’s time to remove all but two of the Euphorbia wulfenii: yes they seed and in general they’re fantastic but other plants are being nudged out. While this crazy Dr. Seuss-like plant is great, they’ve become too much of a good thing. (Snark alert: Joan Rivers’ plastic surgeon should take note of that statement as well.)

Romney coultieri? Oh how I love you. But your runners have created a small forest of Matilija poppies. Instead of standing as a singular and wondrous specimen, you’re now a sugar overload. Don’t even get me going on the hedge of nandina we planted to provide privacy. It flops and brushes at me while I try to pass by it: prepare to be reduced by half, my pretty.

While many gardeners use this time of year to make lists of seeds and garden designs for new beds, I’m making my list of reductions. I should be using little axe icons for the bulleted list. Lady’s mantle will be dug and divided and spread to multiple areas of the garden. Wisteria? Prepare yourself. You’re soon to be whittled down to your very nubs of main structure. Friends who have admired the 8 foot tall Scheherazade lilies? It’s your lucky year. I’m digging and dividing and gifting at least a dozen of them.

cultivating lifeI still believe in planting tightly together. It keeps weeds down and I love the abundant look and feel of a garden bursting with discoveries. But having that kind of garden means to not hesitate to wield my pruners and shovel.

Plant lovers, do not fret. I’m not topping trees or committing random acts of senseless pruning. Lilacs will be reduced by a third, not just hacked to four feet tall. Limbing up heavy evergreen trees provides a whole new space for understory planting, and for people. Careful branch removal or reduction can create new vistas and scenes to enjoy and admire. Increased air circulation not only generates good chi in the garden, it helps prevent mildew and fungal diseases by allowing plants to dry more easily between our rainy downpours.

Instead of lists of seeds and new plants, here is my list to prepare for The Great Edit of 2014.

• Sharpen my tools. A well sharpened spade makes digging and dividing easier and healthier than hacking away at root balls with dull. Ditto with pruners and loppers.

• Research proper pruning techniques for the specific plants I need to prune. I’m not going to use the same technique on viburnum as I do for nandina, as they have very different growth patterns. My goal isn’t to destroy the plants, it’s to reduce their size and create more room in the garden.

• Create a list of the plants I plan to dig and divide and calendar in possible timing for this work. Perennials will need to be dug and divided when they begin to show their growth, but not so late they’ll experience hot weather, which can create stress. Dahlia tubers will be dug and divided in March. Bring on the return of the giant dahlias!

• Have a plan in place for the debris, either through city yard debris removal, or truckloads to the Metro waste station. Props to you who compost.

It’s going to be a long process, definitely not achieved in one weekend. But I hope to return our garden to fresher days of healthy blooms and room to breathe and take in the beauty. Here’s to a fresh edit!  P.S. I sense a theme here: I recently cut my hair short too. Hmm.

LeAnn Locher is an OSU Extension Master Gardener and all around home arts badass. Connect with her at