In the Garden: The Editor

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by Charles Kidder

Some of the tougher jobs in gardening fall under the rubric of editing. Not tough in the sense that they’re necessarily physically demanding, but rather, they may require making difficult decisions. Now that we’re past the summer doldrums, it’s a good time for some editing decisions, even if you put off the actual work until cooler weather.

When you first put in a new garden or bed, space is abundant. Often you’re left staring at your tiny new plants—while they’re staring back from a sea of mulch—and wondering when all that space is ever going to fill in. Eventually they do indeed put down roots, things start looking really good, and then before you know it—too many plants! Or perhaps, too-big plants. Something has to go.

If you try to do your editing in early spring, you will get an unrealistic idea of how much space is available. Take my word on this; I speak from experience. In March I might tuck a new plant into what looks like plenty of open space and then watch as an established perennial comes charging out of dormancy and overtakes it. But by August your garden will have done most of its growth for the season, allowing you to get a good picture of what’s going on.

Some editing is just a matter of reducing the size of a plant; that is, pruning. I’m not a fan of pruning on a regular basis—unless you’re into topiary or formal hedges, or course—figuring that it’s a clear indication of “right plant, but wrong place.” After spending a couple of years pruning three feet of annual growth off some Chinese hollies, I bit the bullet and tore them out, replacing them with a dwarf variety. Still, most foundation plants and hedges will require the touch of the editor’s shears at some point.

Sometimes the need for pruning sneaks up on you, especially with small trees that you walk under. When a low-hanging branch is only a few feet long, for example, it may not present any obstacle to your passage. But as it grows longer, two things can happen: It might poke you in the eye directly, or the branch will become heavier as it lengthens and begin to droop into the path. At that point you have two options. Either cut the branch back, encouraging it to grow laterally and buying yourself some time, or just take it back to the trunk for a more permanent fix. Aside from the obstruction factor, tree branches will gradually increase the amount of shade underneath. You may have started out with enough sun for some woodland plants, but now find that they’re getting lanky and are reluctant to bloom. Time to either do a lot of limbing up on the trees or to move your understory plants to a sunnier spot.

Much editing involves removal of excess plants. It’s nice when plants are happy in your garden, but at some point, enough already! The current number one happy plant in my garden is Echinacea. A few plants, given a few years, have now produced a plethora of purple, and even a few white ones have spontaneously popped up.  The goldfinches are so happy that I have a hard time bringing myself to remove excess coneflowers. Still, even if I send half of them either to the compost pile or to friends, plenty remain. If you don’t want to yank out the whole plant, deadheading some of them will reduce the rampant reproduction.

I also spend a lot of time uprooting tree seedlings. Don’t really need any more pines, and red maples and cherries would take over if I let them. But some trees I do take pains to preserve. Oaks and hickories are major components of the climax forest in much of the southeast; I just hope that future owners will allow these sprouts to grow to maturity.

Unless you have unlimited gardening space, at some point you may need to remove a healthy plant for the simple reason that you don’t really like it, and something better can take its place. Sometimes a plant just doesn’t live up to your expectations, or perhaps you received it for free in a plant exchange. Even though you might have the only example of an unusual plant within a hundred miles, if every day you look at that plant and wonder, “Why am I keeping this?!” then it’s probably time for you and the plant to move on.

And editing might merely consist of shuffling your plants around. I have little eye for design, but sometimes it just hits me that Plant A would look so much better where Plant B is, and with any luck plant B could conveniently slide into where A used to be. As obvious as this may seem today, in a few months—heck, in a few minutes—the idea will escape me. As garden editor, don’t forget to write these ideas down. When you actually get around to doing some of that editing, you’ll get double satisfaction from putting check marks by all your notes.