Give your garden room to grow

Give your garden room to grow


This time of year, a full garden may benefit from a little editing.
Recently I went away from my garden for a week and in that time my garden grew. I know I shouldn’t be surprised because over the summer plants generally need very little encouragement to reach in all directions. But perhaps because I had spent my vacation focused on the starkness of printed pages and gazing across an expanse of water to a tree-lined distance, when I returned to my small, abundantly packed and full-grown yard, I noticed the closeness of its horizons and felt a little hemmed in. I needed to reclaim my garden from its plants.
I like to think that one of the best things about an intensively planted garden, one in which no soil shows between summer flowers and foliage, is that weeds don’t stand a chance. But that’s not altogether true. The weeds that survive, thrive. Every year around this time I suddenly notice that my beds are dotted with shoulder-high pokeweed, lambsquarters, and crabgrass that need to be evicted before they go to seed. Right now my pile of yard waste is rather large.
But it isn’t just full of weeds. It was high time to edit some plants too. Back when my garden was as sparsely ornamented as a novel’s title page, I intentionally introduced some perennials and shrubs that promised to quickly fill its empty spaces. And ever since, as those generous plants have grown, I have worried about what would happen to my garden if I was ever hit by the bus. I picture butterbur (Petasites japonicus) marching its elephant-footprint sized leaves across the side yard and under the hedge to stomp all over my neighbors’ tidy garden. I see flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) and the spiny canes of its golden autumn fruiting kin making a run for it towards the street. Not to mention a skyline full of plume poppy (Macleaya cordata). I can imagine a civil war between colonies of rice paper plant (Tetrapanax paperifer ‘Steroidal Giant’) and Tiger Eye sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’). I’m not sure who would win that contest but wouldn’t they look outstanding surrounded by a sea of purple perilla (Perilla frutescens)?
Ever since those plants, and so many others like them, fulfilled their mission of making my garden feel full and established long before I could reasonably expect it to, I have considered eviction. I no longer feel the need to have a 10-foot tall Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’ (a non-invasive but suckering cousin to autumn olive) filling my narrow side yard and obscuring my view of one of the neighbors’ prettier trees. It will be easy to let that shrub go because one of its transplanted suckers, growing in precious front yard real estate, is perfectly situated to distract my gaze from an ugly telephone pole.
As much as I love violets in the spring, especially the purple polka-dotted Viola sororia ‘Freckles’, I have been systematically removing their horsy summertime clumps of plain green foliage to make way for anything else more delicate and lovely. And every time I walk from the back yard to the front, I pull out whole stalks of butterbur, stems of plume poppy, and flowering raspberry canes just to be able to continue along the side yard path without feeling like I need to put on a pith helmet.
After eviction I don’t expect these plants to be gone for good and, in truth, I wouldn’t want them to be. Plants that grow by leaps and bounds are the very ones that get me off my lazy aster during the summer. If I didn’t have to spend a few minutes every so often reclaiming my garden I would run the risk of forgetting how much I love being out there. If not for them I might not make it a priority to ponder and endlessly tweak my garden’s design. The truth of it is, even though most of my favorite plants continue to take up a lot of space, they will always give me and my garden room to grow.

Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum in Bristol, where she’s worked since 2003. Follow her garden blog at