In the Garden: Know When to Hold ‘Em…

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Photo: Charles Kidder

Some plants in your garden are clear winners. You’ve always liked them, they look good every year, never get sick, and you’d never garden without them.

Others were troublesome almost from the get-go. Some may have had the good sense to die quickly and take you—as well as themselves—out of misery. Others may have lingered for a few years, but then you pulled the plug on them with few regrets.

And then there are plants that lurk in a gray zone. They don’t up and die, but they never seem to live up the marketing hype that lured you in. Or they may perform well, but there are other “issues.” What to do?

An Underachiever

A Weigela in my garden fits in the former category. Small-to-medium-sized shrubs, Weigela happens to be both the common and scientific name for the genus. (Occasionally you might see the common name as Old Fashioned Weigela, but I’ve never heard anyone actually use that term.)  Officially it’s pronounced wye-jeel-lah, but people often change that to wye-jeel-yah. No big deal; people will know what you’re talking about. All six species—or up to 38 if you believe some taxonomists—are native to east Asia. Flowers are typically red, pink or white, although one species blooms in a soft yellow. Most Weigelas that you’ll find are either W. florida or a hybrid of that species and can reach 6’ to 9’ with a slightly greater spread.

As deciduous shrubs, traditional Weigelas tend to disappear after their two-week flowering period in mid-spring.  To liven things up for the remainder of the summer, breeders have come up with a slew of varieties with more interesting foliage, typically either burgundy-colored or with some type of variegation. At the same time they’ve also worked to provide some degree of re-bloom later in the summer and have developed more compact varieties, as well.

All of this sounds pretty good on paper, right?  But if you open up Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, the picture is not so pretty. In his typically thorough and unflinching style, Dirr discusses Weigela in general terms, then goes on to say a few words about each of dozens of cultivars. For instance, “Weigela appears forlorn in the winter landscape; looks like it needs a place to hide.” Or his take on the My MonetTM variety: “Great name, so-so plant, especially under heat and drought conditions.” You get the distinct impression that Weigelas might do pretty well in the U.K. or the Pacific Northwest, but not in the Southeast.

As for my particular Weigela, the accompanying picture shows a reasonably attractive plant when it was in flower this May, but it took a while to get to this point. It languished when first planted three years ago, and I was even wondering if it was supposed to be a weeping or prostrate plant. Last summer it shot up a couple of stout stems, only exaggerating the weird form, and I was thinking that I might soon rip it out. But this spring the floral display redeemed it, at least for the time being. After flowering, I trimmed the overly enthusiastic stems back by a couple of feet to give it a less gangly look. We’ll see what this summer brings. In the meantime, I invite you to share any Weigela experiences you may have had, good or bad.

Overachievers

Other plants can outwear their welcome by performing too well. Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare purpureum) is an attractive perennial herb in the carrot family (Apiaceae). The straight species of fennel has green leaves, but most gardeners prefer the additional interest of the bronze-foliaged variety. Leaves are wispy-feathery, with a mild aroma similar to anise or licorice. Golden yellow flowers appear in mid-summer atop four-foot stems and are visited by several species of pollinators. Following pollination come the seeds, followed by a gazillion offspring.

I appreciate the additional fennel popping up in my garden, up to a point. As small plants with a slender taproot, they’re pretty easy to pull up; wait too long and things get tougher. To complicate matters, when the seedlings are only a few inches tall, their brownish foliage barely shows up against mulch. Unless you look really closely, they’re easy to miss. As for that taproot, don’t think you’ll be harvesting a nice big edible bulb like the fennel (or finocchio) you see in groceries. That’s a special variety of the species.

Now I’m trying to be more attentive to pulling all those baby fennels, perhaps throwing the foliage into salads. There might be yet another approach to control, as well. I’ve always been fond of snacking on fennel seeds; you’ll often see a dish of them by the cash register at Indian restaurants. Instead of buying them, I’ll try to harvest my own in order to further reduce the excess population.

Another plant-gone-crazy in my garden is Rudbeckia ‘Herbstonne’ (or ‘Autumn Sun’), a robust hybrid related to Black-eyed Susan. I appreciate its six-foot stature and mid-to-late-summer yellow flowers, but the seedlings! Not to mention, the aggressive spread by rhizomes, although I can deal with the latter issue by digging and sharing plants with unsuspecting gardeners. I don’t know who might be eating the Rudbeckia seeds, but they’re not doing a thorough job. Guess my plans call for some deadheading.

Gardening isn’t always simple, with only clear-cut choices. But at least if a plant does die or you choose to remove it, that just leaves room for more plants!  

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