Overhauling the garden

Phlox paniculata ‘John Fanick’. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

There comes a time when a particular aspect of the garden no longer works. The only solution is to decide how to rectify the offending problem. I’m not talking about a plant that suddenly affronts the gardener; rather, I’m referring to a feature of the garden that once was successful but no longer is pleasing to the eye. Recently, I was faced with this quandary.

I have three large patches of Phlox paniculata ‘John Fanick.’ Discovered at a service station in San Antonio, Texas, ‘John Fanick’ soon made a splash at garden centers – after all, if it could survive Texas summers unattended, it must be one tough plant. The fact that my ‘John Fanick’ acquired powdery mildew was met with disbelief. And large patches of powdery mildew do not enhance the garden.

Summer after summer, the three clumps grew in size while succumbing to powdery mildew by August. What looked handsome during the first half of the growing season looked abysmal during the second half. During the unattractive phase, we would chop the phlox down to the ground, causing the three patches to resemble a three-day growth of someone’s beard.

I was aiming for a different look. I liked the idea of three phlox patches, I just didn’t like their aftermath.

Fortunately, Mt. Cuba came to the rescue, issuing their three-year-long study of our native phlox with Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ coming out on top. This Tennessee native, named after Jeana Prewitt, who discovered it, has many redeeming qualities: (1) It’s virtually powdery mildew proof; (2) It theoretically deters deer; (3) It has handsome flowers; (4) It doesn’t require a great deal of water – a lovely attribute in August when it rarely seems to rain; and (5) It’s a magnet for butterflies. What more can you ask of a plant?

Filling in these three large patches will take several years. Here’s the thing about most perennials: the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap. Consequently, large patches of phlox are not for those who insist upon instant gratification.

One of the downsides of choosing a plant that heads the list at the Mt. Cuba Center is that those cultivars frequently are the first to sell out. So, it has happened with ‘Jeana’ – it is now on my list to purchase next March. Hopefully, because it was named as the Plant of the Year 2024, it will be plentiful in the garden centers in the spring (when it really is 2024).

How often do we look over the garden without seeing the blemishes in it? It’s a bit akin to sinking lovingly down in the den sofa without noticing the wear and tear it has sustained over the years. Suddenly, one day you see the worn-out sofa for what it is.

For years I noticed the powdery mildew on ‘John Fanick’ but I told myself that it only occurred after most of the blooms had subsided. Was I fooling myself or was the mildew arriving earlier and earlier?

It turns out that mentally, it was time to let go of ‘John Fanick’.

Change in the garden is not always easy. Determining another course always requires a good, hard and fresh look. If you are like me, you can look over your garden without seeing it until one day, an obvious problem faces you squarely.

What I have realized over the years is that not only do gardens change, we also change. Plants that enamored us once no longer do. We fall in love with new plants, forcing us to provide new room for them. And, then arrives the day when we no longer have any more new room.

When that occurs, we have to admit that we need an overhaul. I must admit that I sometimes get a guilty conscience when this happens as I’m taking out plants that are doing merely what I asked of them. I cannot give these phlox to unsuspecting friends in good faith as I’m removing them with good reason: They develop unsightly powdery mildew that few of us want in our gardens.

Now, I will add this: Get over your tender feelings. This is your garden. If you need to change an aspect of your garden, please do so. We all make mistakes. We all outgrow our original visions. And, some plants are like unwelcomed guests: They need to go.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at howyourgardengrows@icloud.com.
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