My Overcrowded Garden

Something has changed about my garden this year. It’s reached a kind of critical mass, finally. It’s matured. Most of the perennials have been in the ground long enough to reach their full size, and some, like the two dozen lavender I planted when I moved in, are now old and woody and ready to be pulled out.

I stood in the garden this afternoon, thinking over the fates of those lavender plants, and I suddenly realized that in a few more months, this will officially be the garden I’ve had longer than any other. How did that happen? I still think of this as being my new garden, the one I filled with plants from my old garden. But it’s not so new anymore. It’s full grown—and it’s also full.

Gardens have a way of marking the passage of time in sudden, surprising ways (how did that tree we planted get to be taller than the house?) and mine is no exception. A sturdy, yellow-flowered phlomis I planted a few years ago has sprawled entirely out of bounds, burying a couple of interesting and unusual salvia in the process. The salvia in turn have buried some Oriental poppies. The Oriental poppies have squashed a—well, you get the idea. I’m out of room, but I can’t stand to throw anything away, and I can’t stop buying more plants. Last time I reached this point in a garden, I moved. But I’m not moving this time, so what do I do?

One thing I’m determined to do is get tough in the garden. I filled the front with Shasta daisies from my old garden because they were easy to dig up and bring with me, and also because they’re my mother’s favorite flower and a sentimental favorite. And when they’re in bloom during May, June, and July, they’re glorious. But by August, the flowers are gone and I’m left with the chore of chopping down a miniature forest of daisy stems, and then, from September until May, the dark green mounds of foliage do nothing but take up space and harbor snails. So I’ve resolved to scale back on daisies and find something that pull its weight the rest of the year.

Rose campion is another plant that needs to be reined in. The flowers are gorgeous and they self-sow like crazy, but they need more water than I’m willing to give them and they also bloom for an unacceptably short season. When I had an empty garden and nothing but a carload of plants to get me started, a prolific self-sower seemed like a good idea. But they’re turning into a weed Out they go. (Hey, on paper this is easy!)

Finally, any number of plants need to be dug up and moved—and some of them need to be moved to the compost pile. If it’s prone to disease, gets eaten by bugs, refuses to bloom, or demands too much water in the summer, it needs to be tossed. With any luck, those evictions will create enough space to let me relocate the plants that are getting crushed by their neighbors.

It occurs to me that as the garden matures, I take on the role of an editor. Move this, cut that, add a little over there, but not too much. That’s not such a bad gig, but what happens to the part of gardening I love most—the part where I go to the nursery and load up on new plants? I need that shopping fix, and I’m not sure I’ll be satisfied buying fertilizer and mulch and pruning shears. Buying plants is such a hopeful experience, and one that never feels like conspicuous, wasteful consumption. When I buy a dozen perennials in four-inch pots, I feel like I’m buying potential.

Promise. A better future—one with more flowers and fruit and branches and vines. In fact, it’s entirely possible that I got into gardening mostly for the shopping. Without that, what’s left?


9 thoughts on “My Overcrowded Garden”

  1. Hi Amy,
    It’s an interesting dilemma, isn’t it? The more successful your plants are, the sooner you’re crying, “Off with their heads!”
    I just passed the three-year mark and also used passalong Shasta daisies and some Salvia guaranitica to pump up the new garden. Mine had to be drastically scaled back by the end of year two – good luck with yours!
    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  2. This post resonated with me because I just did some major editing (replacing a tree) over the weekend. In the process, I realized that I’d let an easy filler, purple coneflower, take over more than its fair share of the garden. Easy to grow from seed and gorgeous in spring and most of summer, it gradually spread and took over.
    I guess that’ll be our incentive to get tough with old favorites: the promise of new plants to buy.

  3. Love your post. I often have the same problem. In the same way that people rearrange their furniture, my husband and I rearranged our perennials and shrubs (my neighbor’s think we’re crazy). We take pictures of the area before we rearrange it. This way we have a reminder of the plants and the design. The evolution of our garden through these pictures is interesting. Since we started this photographical history of our garden, I don’t feel guilty about removing some of the plants. Someone once told me – planting flowers is like painting a picture and a true artist is never finished with their most prized work. So paint on – excitement lies in the discovery of new plants.

  4. I’ve reached this stage with part of my garden too. I donate my extra plants to my church’s plant sale or share them with other gardeners via an online plant swap (pdxplantswap, a Yahoo group for Portland-area plant traders). It’s fun to watch new gardeners dig up and haul off my extras. They’re happy, and I have a blank space to fill.

  5. I always buy plants for my garden when I have a bad mood. (I don’t move) Whichever plant it could be, it raises my spirit.

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