Assessing a Neglected Shrub

A situation that could arise in any garden, including your garden: the gardener becomes aware of a shrub that has been neglected and that has outgrown its space and become rather misshapen. In addition, the gardener has lost track of the shrub’s name and can’t locate cultivation notes on the Internet.

I recently had such a challenge in my garden’s Australian bed. While I was not paying attention, a shrub grew to about five feet high and eight feet wide, and began crowding adjacent plants. In addition, it had been produces leaves and flowers at the ends of its branches, so that the interior of the plant consisted of bare branches. Some of those had died back so that lifeless tips of branches appeared among the greenery.

The plant had been in place for a few years, and I could not recall its name.

For the past several years, when I added a plant to the garden, I searched the Internet for a photo, a verbal description, cultivation notes, and any other information of interest, and compiled it into a one-page “fact sheet” to be added to my files. Such searches begin with the plant’s botanical name, which is almost always listed on the plant’s tag or nursery container.

As a result, I had a binder of such information for the plants in the Australian bed. Despite this preparation, I could not identify this plant.

After staring at my files for Australian plants, I realized that one fact sheet described this particular plant quite well, but the accompanying photo showed red flowers. The plant in question has white flowers!

Apparently, I had included a photo of a different cultivar of the plant. I learned that the red-flowered cultivar is more widely used than the white-flowered species in my garden. (The ‘Snow White’ cultivar has double, green-centered blooms, but my plant has single white blooms with unremarkable centers.)

I replaced the photo, and was satisfied that the plant is a Tea Tree or Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium), a member of the Myrtle plant family (Myrtaceae) and a native of Australia and New Zealand. The generic name means slender seeds, and the specific name means broom-like.

Tea Tree or Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium)

I then learned that this plant has several desirable characteristics. It is drought-tolerant, fairly slow-growing, appealing to bees and not appealing to deer. It has fragrant, evergreen foliage and a profusion of small flowers that appear in the late spring and summer, and linger into the fall. Its leaves can be brewed into a fine tea and Manuka honey produced by bees from its flowers has medicinal properties.

On the downside, at maturity this plant can reach ten feet tall and wide, making it too large for my Australian bed.

I considered pruning this shrub to manage its size. My Internet research found advice that the Tea Tree could be pruned after flowering to maintain shape and encourage bushier, more floriferous growth. However, pruning should never cut into bare wood “as new growth is unlikely to sprout.”

This reflects the pruning advice for plants that also flower on the previous year’s growth, including Camellias, Rhododendrons, Lavenders, and several others. This is critical information, because hard pruning of the Tea Tree would leave it looking and performing essentially dead.

While a light pruning after pruning would stimulate next spring’s growth at the ends of branches, there is no opportunity to reduce and maintain this sprawling plant to a more compatible size. If had been grown as a hedge or as a backdrop for the garden, it could have had long-term value in the landscape. In its current stage of growth and its present location, however, it will be an increasing problem.

This assessment of a particular plant recalls a basic guideline for landscape planning: always know a plant’s size at maturity before buying and placing it in the garden.

Great satisfaction can result from a well-placed plant. Conversely, removing a healthy plant leads to regret. From a positive perspective, removing the Tea Tree will eliminate conflict with nearby plants and free space for smaller Australian native plants.

Anticipating Change in the Garden

We can experience the garden as an instance in the flow of time, beginning in the past, through the present, and into the future.

Except for rare occasions, we give little thought to the garden’s past. We might take pride in the improvements over the wasteland (or mess) it once was, but usually we focus on the present.

We enjoy the plants that show good health and colorful blossoms.

In my garden, for example, I am currently appreciating an irregular row of Madeira Germanders (Teucrium betonicum) that are growing to screen the view to and from my neighbors. These evergreen shrubs began as divisions of and cuttings from an established plant, and are growing to about six feet high and five feet wide with attractive inflorescences of fragrant, violet-rose flowers.

Madeira Germanders (Teucrium betonicum)

Several other plants are still in flower at this time, but as the season winds down, many blossoms are beginning to fade, and some have already shriveled. At this time of the year, the present includes the late stages of seasonal blossoms and the anticipation of their natural demise.

Our attention shifts now to the anticipation of the garden’s future, which unfolds in a series of stages.

The first stage embraces the emergence of the fall-blooming plants; here are three examples from my garden.

Tree Dahlia (Dahlia imperialis). This amazing plant from Mexico sends up twenty-foot high stalks and blooms in November with sprays of light lavender-pink flowers high above the ground. These are single blossoms, unlike the multiple forms of hybrid dahlias. After bloom, we cut the stalks to the ground and begin the cycle over again.  

Daisy Tree (Montanoa Grandiflora). Another dramatic plant from Central America, the Daisy Tree grows from its base to produce multiple branches up to twelve feet tall. In November and December it produces an abundance of white, daisy-like flowers with yellow centers and a fragrance reminiscent of chocolate or vanilla. It is cut back hard in early spring to encourage the development of new branches form the base.

Black Mission Fig (Ficus carica).  One of the most popular varieties of the common fig, Black Mission was introduced in the United States in 1768 and Franciscan missionaries planted it in all the gardens of the California missions. This plant produces two good crops each year: the first or breba crop develops in the spring on last year’s shoot growth. The main crop develops on the current year’s shoot growth and ripens in the late summer or fall. My tree is bouncing back nicely after last year’s extensive pruning. Its first crop was sparse, but now its main crop is developing now and looks to be quite productive. I might drape bird netting over the tree to enable the harvest of figs for eating and gifting.

The next stage of anticipating the garden’s future targets the spring bloom. This is when we see irises, daffodils, other spring geophytes, and annual flowers coming into their own, assuming of course that we planted them in the fall.

The spring is also the time when fall-planted perennial plants leaf out, after developing their root systems during the winter months, drawing upon the seasonal rains.

Our stages of anticipation then address the gradual development of young plants that we had installed in our gardens. Each year’s growth advances these plants toward their mature size, and the realization of the goals we had when bringing small plants to the garden. There is great joy—and little effort—in watching plants achieve their potential.

The last stage of anticipation begins with the gardener’s vision of what the garden could be, and could sustain for a very long time. The vision can only become real when the gardener puts hands in the soil.

It can be satisfying to enjoy your garden in the present, but the joy of gardening also resides in these stages of anticipation. Gardens evolve continuously, and gardening includes engaging with nature’s processes.

A Cautionary Tale About Ivy

 Ivy brings a combination of pleasure and pain to the garden, and the potential to surprise gardeners who do not pay attention

Forty years ago, when I moved to my current residence, the property had a generous crop of English Ivy (Hedera helix). This most common species of the genus Hedera has some appeal in the garden. The Royal Horticultural Society has honored fourteen cultivars of H. helix with its Award of Garden Merit, reflecting the plant’s apparent good behavior in England’s climate.

Despite its British credentials, H. helix grows rampantly on the west coast of the United States. Washington and Oregon have listed it as a noxious weed. California’s Department of Food and Agriculture has not yet listed this plant as a noxious weed, but hopefully is considering that action. 

This plant had covered much of my new garden, grown into some shrubs, and overwhelmed a large evergreen tree. We removed the tree, with great regret. After several months of hacking at this invasive plant and uncounted ivy hauls to the local landfill, we had it under control. During the following years, we pulled many sprouts and still do today. The more recent sprouts probably began with bird visits, but it is not impossible that dormant ivy seeds have been lurking in my garden for decades, awaiting a taste of moisture and sunlight.

More recently, perhaps five years ago, a variegated cultivar of Algerian Ivy (H. algeriensis) caught my eye, and I planted a small amount near the base of a chimney as a groundcover. All ivies grow horizontally, and are often selected for groundcover duty. My willingness to give this plant another chance in my garden reflects both short memory and persistent optimism.

In the same area, and with similar optimism, I installed a Big Mexican Scarlet Sage (Salvia gesneriiflora). This plant quickly grew well above ten feet in height (it can reach twenty feet high in the mountains of northeastern Mexico) and spread to four separate shrubs.

These beautiful but huge plants concealed the ivy’s relentless spread. The Algerian Ivy/Big Mexican Scarlet Sage collusion continued for weeks, until the enormous salvia finished blooming, and became ready for renewal pruning (i.e., cutting it to the ground).

That drastic action revealed that the ivy had discovered the chimney that rises about thirty feet beside the house, and used it aerial roots to grow to the top of the chimney and spread in both directions across the side of the house. This growth had not been impossible to observe, but the tall shrubs close to the pathway effectively screened the situation from view.

There’s a certain charm to ivy-covered walls, but the plant eventually can cause damage and rot, and harbor unwelcome wildlife. My best choice was to have the ivy pulled down, expecting that it would take down some of the thin-brick veneer, which it did.

There is no simple solution to ivy on the house and chimney.

The next steps of this project include reattaching the missing pieces of the veneer, removing the ivy and all but one specimen of the Big Mexican Scarlet Sage, and keeping it pruned to appropriate size.

Then, the project includes shopping for plants to re-landscape the area. The UCSC Arboretum’s Fall Plant Sale will be a fine opportunity to acquire California native plants for this project. The sale begins at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow (Saturday, October 13th).

Lesson learned: if you plant any variety of ivy in your garden, check occasionally to make sure that it is growing only where you want it to grow.

Landscaping Priorities

This year’s Fall Equinox lands on September 22, marking the unofficial start of the planting season.

Installing new plants in your garden during the fall provides them time to establish roots and prepare for leafing out and blooming in the spring. Ideally, we would have our historic pattern of winter rains during this time, so that the plants will have ample moisture to work with.

An additional benefit of this planting schedule might include end-of-season plant clearance sales at your favored garden center or nursery. You can feel like a savvy garden shopper when you acquire plants at good prices in the fall, and resist the temptation to stock up in the spring, when small plants have been forced into seductive blooms with nitrogen fertilizers.

The planting season is still a couple weeks away, so right now is a good time for planning to select and install plants in your garden. Having a plan when you open a mail order catalog or walk into a garden center will prepare you to focus your targets and avoid becoming overwhelmed by the array of possibilities.

Strategies for garden planning in the Monterey Bay area include emphasizing drought-tolerant plants, or California native plants, or a particular theme of your own choosing. Earlier versions of this column have addressed such strategies.

Today’s column describes additional strategies suggested by Rochelle Greayer, author of Cultivating Garden Style (Timber Press, 2014). In her online newsletter, Pith + Vigor, Greayer recently identified three mistakes that gardeners make when designing with plants:

  • Too many different plants
  • Not enough plants
  • Planting just the plans you know.

Let’s consider positive strategies in these three areas.

First, develop your landscape around a just nine to twelve different plants. Selecting plants in this short list for specific roles will bring order and cohesion to the landscape, and avoid the chaos that too often results from impulsive additions of individual plants.

Second, once you have selected your short list of plants, install lots of them. This strategy is related to adding plants in clusters of three, five, or any other odd-numbered quantity, to present them in a natural and pleasing manner. As you reach larger numbers, install the plants in swathes or bands to provide a landscaping effect. Greayer says, “Repetition gives a scheme flow and rhythm. Repetition is a savvy designer’s best trick.” For example, I recently planted two parallel arcs of blue and yellow irises as a color statement for next spring. Over the next few seasons, these plants will increase to provide increasingly dramatic displays.

A swath of Dalmation Iris (Iris pallida ‘Variegata’) backed up with Lavender plants
A bed of hardy geraniums (Geranium × cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’ ) with a garden art pheasant

Related to the idea of repetition planting is the installation of plants with close spacing. While you might be tempted to spread plants out to cover space in the garden, having open areas between plants reduces their visual impact and invites the growth of weeds. Close spacing reflects the natural tendency of plants to propagate and develop into colonies. It also functions as “green mulch,” denying weeds the sunlight they need to develop.

Third, explore the wonderful world of plants to find good choices for your short list of selections for the landscape. It’s always important to select plants that are suitable for the climate, soil and exposure of the locations for which you are planning, but there are always many interesting selections that are both suitable for your garden and new to your experience. Relying on common and familiar plants will doom your landscape to being (gasp!) ordinary. Discover interesting plants that will bring excitement to your garden, and invest time in learning how to cultivate them successfully.

In review, there are three strategies for planning the development of your garden during this planting season: develop a short list of plants, install significant numbers of each kind of plant, and select some unfamiliar plants that will fit into your plan and provide a fresh new look to your landscape.

Enjoy this fall’s planting season, and your garden’s coming spring!

Landscaping for Historical Homes

The MontereyBay area was settled in the 1800s; incorporation of Santa Cruz was in 1866, andMonterey in 1889. The area has a good number of older houses, and some current owners of those earlier residences might wish to create a garden that reflects their home’s historical landscape.

A landscaping friend recently began work with a client who lives in a residence built in 1895, and wants to create a garden typical of that era. My friend would like to identify plants that were in home gardens at that time.

A gardening nerd could not ignore such a challenge!

I search the Internet for lists of plants that were in residential gardens of the Monterey Bay area in 1895 (or around that time), and discovered that homeowners did not share lists of plants in their gardens.

There were several missions in central California that typically had gardens of edible and ornamental plants, and missions often recorded their activities. They seemed a promising source of information, but my searches yielded no fruit.

By chance, I learned that the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley was formally established in 1890 “to form a living collection of the native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants of the State of California…” and “within two years the collection numbered 600 species.” Given this garden’s impressive online database of plants, compiling a list of native California plants of the era seemed simple.

I found, however, that the earliest entries in the garden’s database begin with acquisitions in 1900, and very few in the early years of the century. Vanessa Handley, Director of Collections and Research told me that the initial acquisition records were not maintained after the garden was moved in 1925-28 from its original central campus location to its current position in Strawberry Canyon, above the main campus.

I visited the website of the California Garden and Landscape History Society, which pointed me to “the most extensive scholarly treatment of California landscape history,” CaliforniaGardens: Creating a New Eden, by David C. Streatfield (Abbeville Press,1994). That book and others that looked helpful were available in used (but good) condition for quite reasonable prices, so I ordered a few additions to my library.

The first book that arrived is Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants, 1640–1940, by Denise Wiles Adams (TimberPress, 2004). This book includes an appendix of plant lists extracted from nursery catalogs, focusing on about 100 of the most popular plants, organized by different regions in different eras. These lists represent an extraordinary research project by Ms. Adams.

Her lists for the Mountain and WesternStates include but of course do not target the Monterey Bay area. They would provide fine guidance for planning a historical garden for specific periods: 1870–1899,1900–1924, and 1925–1940.

The plants listed are mostly recognizable; today’s plants certainly existed 150 years ago. The plants we find in local garden centers or mail-order catalogs, however, are often contemporary cultivars that would have developed many years after early gardeners planted their gardens. Projects to create an accurately historical garden should feature species plants, rather than the latest hybrid introductions.

The next challenge would be to find species plants!

Shopping for Help in the Garden

Eventually, your horticultural aspirations will exceed your time and energy. Mine have!

In such circumstances, it will be time to shop around for help in maintaining or improving your garden. This task is not unlike arranging for other services for keeping the home working or upgrading your living situation.

There are, however, factors that are peculiar to the provision of gardening services. Because some readers of this column have asked recently for recommendations for such services, this column offers guidelines for consideration.

Begin the process by being clear in your own mind about the scope of services for which you intend to contract. You might require a regular schedule of unskilled work, e.g., mowing a lawn, or a one-time or short-term task, e.g., removing a tree stump.

At another level, you might require ongoing services to maintain and improve the garden, including weeding, pruning, fertilizing, installing new plants, and all the myriad of activities involved in gardening.

The larger packages of garden services involve significant installations or renovations. Two residences within one block of my own home have contracted for such projects as preparation for the sale of the property.

You might need landscape design preliminary to maintenance and improvement services. We will consider design services in a future column.

The first of these three categories of services, which we refer to as unskilled garden work, is generally available for $15 – $20/hour. People who offer to provide such services might well have related experience and skills, but these contractors generally require explicit instructions and supervision. Workers can be found through services such as People Ready, informal labor pools, or personal contacts with neighbors. Some landscaping services can offer a maintenance crew within this price range but might charge more to cover overhead costs. The additional cost should provide reliable scheduling, appropriate tools, and other conveniences.

The second category of services, i.e., ongoing maintenance and improvement, will be available from several local businesses. Costs will approximate $45/hour; the efficiency of the service can only be made clear through practical experience.

Search the Internet for “landscaping services [your community]” to identify the available services. To narrow the options, ask friends for recommendations and check reviewers such as Yelp. Be aware, however, that businesses could exploit online review services by submitting multiple positive reviews.

The professional standards followed by a landscaping business should reflect your own priorities. The best landscapers are stewards of the environment: they do not ever use toxic synthetic chemicals and rarely (if at all) use gasoline-powered equipment, e.g., lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and edgers.

Exceptions: tree services almost always will use gasoline-powered chain saws, stump grinders, and green waste shredders. When tree work is needed, those noisy polluters are difficult to avoid.

To locate a landscape service that protects the environment, search for Certified Green Gardeners. These are individuals who have completed Green Gardener training offered by Monterey Bay-Friendly Landscaping & Gardening, which is “a collaborative effort between Ecology Action, CA Landscape Contractors Association (Central Coast Chapter), Ecological Landscaping Association, Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, Surfrider Foundation, Resource Conservation Districts, and more than 20 public agencies representing water utilities, solid waste and recycling, stormwater management.”

While this training is very desirable, it sadly does not guarantee that the contractor will always follow environmentally friendly practices. An in-person, on-site interview with a service representative, followed by a detailed written bid, would be appropriate to ensure best practices.

The same standards of environmental protection are applicable to the third category of services, those involving significant installations or renovations. Many landscape businesses are qualified to conduct larger-scale projects and might provide related design services as well. Again, the costs will depend on the scope and circumstances of the specific project, might add up to five figures, could contribute greatly to the homeowner’s enjoyment of the property, and when a sale of the property is planned, could add disproportionate value to the sale price.

When larger-scale landscape services are required, the homeowner should work only with individuals who hold a C-27 Landscape Contractor license issued by the Contractors’ State License Board, which is part of California’s Department of Consumer Services. Check the status of a prospective contractor online by visiting the CSLB website clicking on “Check a License.”

While at this same CSLB website, click on “Guides and Publications” to download and read these excellent CSLB publications, “What You Should Know Before Hiring a Contractor;” “What Seniors Should Know Before Hiring a Contractor;” and “A Consumer Guide to Home Improvement Contracts – Terms of Agreement.”

If you are spending serious money on maintaining and improving your garden, it’s definitely worth serious time on your homework. Hopefully, your project will be enjoyable and successful in all respects. When you are working with a licensed contractor and a well-written contract, you will be on solid ground if anything doesn’t proceed as you intended.

There are many quotations about being well prepared. Here’s a landscaping related quote by Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Small-scale Landscaping

“Landscaping” involves efforts to enhance an expanse of scenery that can be seen in a single view. For the gardener, this term might refer to the front or the back of the property. Developing and realizing a landscape design includes numerous steps and decisions, and a good deal of work, mostly because of the scale of the task. Landscaping the front yard, the backyard, or even a side yard could be a formidable challenge.

To make landscaping more manageable and enjoyable, consider garden vignettes. These are compact horticultural settings that could be regarded as small-scale landscapes.

The garden vignette concept conveys great versatility: it encompasses any of a wide range of areas, themes or design ideas. A vignette might occupy a quite small space, but we’re not dealing here with miniature landscapes, as for a model railroad garden.

Here’s a broad definition of a garden vignette: “a compact combination of living plants in containers or in the ground, perhaps with selected objects, that present a cohesive and attractive appearance.”

A garden vignette in one or several containers could test the gardener’s horticultural artistry. There are many possibilities, e.g., one plant or several in each container, complementary or contrasting combinations, usage of decorative stones or art objects, and the like. The appeal of containerized garden vignettes includes space needs so limited that they could fit on a balcony or a small patio, and time and cost demands so minimal that they could be developed fairly quickly, even by gardeners with very full schedules.

My current vignette project involves digging up three miniature roses into matching terra cotta pots and grouping them on a low wall, where they can be enjoyed better than is possible when planted in the ground. This is a simple design that requires keeping the roses fertilized and irrigated consistently.

A garden vignette in the ground could be quite small or fairly large in scale, depending on the space available and the desired effect. To begin developing such a vignette, identify the intended space and the preferred view of that space. If a desirable tree or shrub is in the space, design the vignette to use that plant as a feature or focal point, and select additional elements.

For a space that is without a desirable tree or shrub—or boulder, for that matter—you are dealing with a blank “canvas” and have the freedom and challenge to design your vignette from the ground up. One approach to this task is to visit your local garden center, find a few plants that you like and bring them together in their nursery pots to see how they look in combination. Most garden centers would support that process, especially when you either buy the plants or return them to their original locations.

This approach doesn’t work as well with mail-order catalogs.

Another approach is to adopt a combination that you see in another garden or in a garden book or magazine. We can all benefit from adopting successful ideas generated by other gardeners.

Because of the wide range of possible designs for a vignette, a useful next step to identify a theme or concept as a guide for selecting additional plants, natural objects or artworks to provide a pleasant setting. Consider, for example, complementary or contrasting forms or colors, or a characteristic that would be common to all the elements.

Developing one or several vignettes for your garden can be a satisfying creative exercise as you work at a limited scale that is both manageable and low in cost.

Organize Plant Selection with Themes

Today’s column is about thematic gardening.

Let’s start by breaking down “landscaping” into its components.

Landscaping includes hardscapes (i.e., pathways, steps, walls, ponds, structures), but plants are enough to think about today. For our purposes, landscaping emphasizes plant selection and plant placement.

These two activities overlap in the development of landscape styles, which can be complicated and subjective. One approach defines styles in terms of décor, materials, plant palette, and fabrics.

Styles can be interesting and important, but for today let’s stay with the basics: plant selection and placement.

Plant placement involves the relationships among plants, e.g., combinations of color, height (tall plants in back) or form, swaths of plants vs. specimens.

We might explore plant placement issues on another occasion, but thematic gardening is about plant selection, so let’s stick with that.

When selecting new plants for the garden, consider the conditions for the plant’s health and growth: Specify the location for a new plant (available space, plant size) and satisfy cultivation issues (soil, exposure, moisture and drainage needs, climate, wind exposure, etc.), then…

…consider the universe of plants you can choose from. The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew concluded that there 391,000 vascular plants known to science. Add the large and growing number of recognized cultivars (hybrids and selected varieties). These creations of plant breeders are featured each year in plant catalogs and garden centers.

Given this enormous range of possible choices, how should the gardener proceed?

For many gardeners, the approach is to leaf through a mail-order catalog or stroll through the local garden center and choose plants that are striking or attractive or familiar.

This approach is not wrong, because there is no right or wrong, just personal preference. Still, a thematic approach is a more organized and ultimately more successful.

Thematic plant selection basically involves selecting plants to have a common characteristic, as a way to focus the selection process and adopt an organized approach to developing your garden.

This approach to plant selection could be used for an entire garden or sections of the garden, i.e., particular beds.

Some of the most popular themes are based on a single plant genus, e.g., Iris, Rose, Dahlia, Orchid, Hosta, Hellebore, Orchid, Fuchsia, Heuchera, Daffodil, Tulip, or another.

A variation of genus-oriented themes focuses on categories of plants within a genus. For example, there are several kinds of irises (tall bearded, intermediate, border, miniature), and the rose genus includes modern roses, old garden roses, and species roses. (My current projects include developing a bed of old garden roses.)

Other themes emphasize the botanical categories of plants, e.g., bulbous plants, succulents, edibles, conifers, variegated, blossom color, and others. There are many other possible categories.

Then, we have themes based on the native region of the plants. A California native plant theme is a popular choice, in the Monterey Bay area because these plants thrive in our climate and are hospitable to the regional fauna.

Thematic gardening can present challenges to identify plants within the theme, and then to hunt for sources of desired plants. Fortunately, the Internet is a powerful tool for success with these tasks. The thematic gardener needs to be an effective user of Google and other search engines. Once you have selected a theme to pursue, search the Internet for websites that offer useful information and ideas.

Thematic gardening offers several benefits.

  • Creates a purposeful approach to plant selection
  • Simplifies plant selection by focusing on a sub-section of available plants
  • Defines the related part of the garden, e.g., “the rose bed”
  • Adds to understanding and appreciation of the chosen part of the plant kingdom

At another level, thematic gardening brings harmony and calm to the garden landscape. By comparison, the all-too-common tendency to add plants with a random selection strategy can result in a botanical hodge-podge. The individual plants in such a garden might have gorgeous blossoms and foliage, but lack any relationship to adjacent plants. The effect could lack coherence, and could even be jarring.

If parts of your garden already follow a thematic approach, consider whether those parts please your eye more than other parts. If they do, develop a thematic approach for other parts of the garden.

Thematic gardening can be challenging and enjoyable.

In Bloom in April

Gardening at this time of the year includes at least two absorbing experiences: plants in bloom and plants on sale.

Several early bloomers are already decorating the garden. I’m enjoying a Chinese Ground Orchid (Bletilla striata), also called the Hyacinth Orchid. It has been cultivated in China for 1,500 years for its medicinal properties, but it’s also garden-worthy for its blossoms.

Chinese Ground Orchid

This terrestrial orchid is very easy to maintain, especially after striving with limited success to grow other members of the enormous orchid family. It had been growing under other plants and seemed to be struggling despite its reported need for filtered shade. It was propagating, however, by producing many small bulbs. I moved the bulbs, which were already sprouting, into containers in sunny locations, and they are doing fine

 

 

 

Australian Bluebell Creeper

Another plant that brightens the garden now is the Australian Bluebell Creeper (Sollya heterophylla). The generic name refers to British botanist Richard Solly; the specific epithet means “different leaves” because the plant produces a few different leaf shapes. This is a three-foot shrub with small, bright blue flowers that are bell-shaped with some varieties; mine are more star-shaped.

 

 

 

 

Mediterranean Spurge

A third performer is the Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias wulfenii), which grows five feet high, with showy heads of chartreuse flowers and whorled blue-green leaves. This plant freely generates seedlings that are easy to pull or share.

Recent and upcoming plant sales are being listed elsewhere, so this column focuses on roaming through such sales to discover and acquire new and different specimens for the garden. I’ve been accumulating interesting additions and seeking time to install them.

 

 

Here are some of my recent additions, and their intended destinations.

At the Arboretum’s recent sale, I found a large Cape Arid Climber (Kennedia beckxiana ‘Flamboyant’), a native of Cape Arid which is in Western Australia. This vigorous, woody plant that climbs with tendrils is one of the Arboretum’s Koala Blooms selections. It produces two-inch long orange-red flowers with a showy large lime-green central spot on a reflexed petal. This plant might grow more robustly that I would prefer, but I’ve learned that it can be heavily cut back after flowering to prevent invasive growth.

This plant will replace a Canna Lily (Canna ‘Cleopatra’) that had overgrown its pocket bed, so I moved it into containers in a sunnier location. Interestingly, the canna has been described as “flamboyant,” which is also the name of this Kennedia cultivar.

I also came upon Aloe ‘Crosby’s Prolific’, which is a cross between A. nobilis and A. humilis, both of which are small aloes that succulent specialist Deborah Lee Baldwin recently highlighted as “growing tight and staying low.” I picked up three of these small plants to fill space in my South African succulent bed.

A third recent acquisition is Spanish Sage (Salvia lavandufolia). After the annual cutting back of a large collection of salvias, the need emerged for smaller plants along the bed’s border. These smaller species (one-foot high ad wide) are not widely available, so I was glad to pick up three specimens as fillers.

As stated on earlier occasions, plant hunting should be done with a specific and appropriate spots in the garden. Impulse purchases, inspired by a blossom portrait in a mail-order catalog or a real, fertilizer-dosed plant in a garden center leads to hodge-podge landscaping.

Removing Elements to Improve Your Landscape

The annual landscape review, which was our recent focus, amounts to keeping, improving or removing elements of the landscape. We suggested an approach to review categories of the landscape elements: hardscape, larger plants, smaller plants, and special facilities. Review that column here.

Today’s column addresses the removal of larger plants. The reasons for a removal of a tree or large shrub include not healthy, badly located, or poorly maintained. A large tree growing close to the home could present a fire hazard, or its roots could be lifting nearby pavement.

Taking out an established tree or large shrub could require substantial effort and cost, sometimes including commercial services. On the other hand, removal of a significant plant could yield a great aesthetic change in the landscape’s appearance and an opportunity to introduce one or more new plants in pursuit of landscape objectives.

In other words, replace a loss with an opportunity.

Removing a large plant could include resistance to change in addition to avoidance of related energy and expense. It can be a big decision. Once the homeowner has prioritized a removal, dwelling on the landscape benefits can be helpful to “getting to the root of the matter.”

Speaking of roots, the task of removing a plant should always include removing the roots. Leaving a stump in place might reduce the cost or effort of the project, but leave new problems. The obvious downside is that the stump continues to occupy space in the landscape, precluding a direct replacement. I often see an old stump that is an eyesore in a home’s parking strip.

Also, the stump of a healthy tree or shrub could sprout, even after months of apparent inactivity. Plants strive to survive!

Smaller stumps can be dug out with a shovel, an ax or a Sawzall, and perhaps a pickaxe. The objective is to remove the crown of the plant, plus major nearby roots. It’s not necessary or practical to chase the outreaching roots unless they are lifting pavement. This is likely to be time consuming and dirty work that might inspire hiring assistance. One helpful hint: when cutting down the plant, leave a long stump to provide leverage for loosening the roots.

When the stump is out of the ground, it’s time for a pat on the back and planning for good use of the reclaimed space.

Larger stumps require professional services. Commercial trees services often will include stump removal or provide references to local specialized services. In either case, ask if equipment of the appropriate size will be provided. An overly large stump grinder can disrupt areas adjacent to the target. A smaller unit (some are even hand-held) can provide a precise removal, which could be important when working close to pavement or desirable plants.

Stumps also could be moved with chemicals (potassium nitrate). This process accelerates rotting of the wood in a few weeks, after which it could be chopped out or burned out. For more information on this approach, visit www.familyhandyman.com and search for “stump removal.”

The final thought on this subject is that some trees or stumps should be removed, and the landscape can be much better as a result.