Taming that middle-age spread

Begonia grandis, a tactful seeder. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

Most of us at one time or another have had to deal with the vexing problem of middle-age spread. It’s not pretty and it’s not particularly nice. It just is. The garden has the same problem—and it’s a good idea to keep your eye out for it.

Typically, gardens start out with a touch of naivety on the part of the gardener. If you’re new to plants, you suddenly have a thirst to try every plant in the nursery. Will I like this plant? More importantly, will it my hospitality? Through trial and error, you slowly determine which plants work as the garden begins to take on your personality.

The garden fills up. Where once you could order plants in large numbers, you’re suddenly limited as to the amount you can now buy. The garden is now officially middle-age in character—and you suddenly are aware of middle-age spread.

Diligence, a worthy attitude we all agree, is now necessary to determine what goes into your garden and what should be shunned. Just because a plant is found in your local nursery or is listed as a native doesn’t mean that it’s a suitable addition to your garden.

Plants can multiply in various ways but the two most common ways must be noted by the gardener if preservation is a goal. Excess seediness and travel via rhizomes can be both welcomed—and deplored.

Begonia grandis, the hardy begonia, is one seedy plant that I treasure. It’s very seedy but it’s what I call a tactful seeder as it doesn’t seem to crowd other plants out. It just settles down in its own neighborly fashion. It also has another attribute that I appreciate: It’s very easy to pull out. I also value it because it happily blooms in late July when most plants are exhausted from the heat with some settling into semi-dormancy.

I first saw our native Oenothera speciosa in a nursery many years ago—and was hooked. The pink flowers so close to the ground were lovely and everyone has occasion to need a good ground cover, don’t they? To say that evening primrose is misnamed is quoting the obvious: This wildflower does not cast its bloom in the evening nor is it a primrose.

Do not invite this misnamed plant into your garden as it is oppressively invasive due to its rhizomes and its excessive number of seeds. If you must have it, treat it as though it were mint and plant it only in inhospitable areas where it might be tempted to halt in its tracks. And, should you be tempted to treat it as a well-brought up plant, remind yourself that weeding it is a pain in the neck. Please note: Other species in the Oenotheragenus are far more docile.

Chasmanthium latifolium growing among the daylilies. Photo by Kit Flynn.

River oats, Chasmanthium latifolium, tripped me up ten years ago—and I’m still paying the price. Now this is a lovely wild oat with enchanting seed heads. It’s a terrific filler plant as it doesn’t compete with the stars in the garden but holds its own with its graceful seed heads.

There are several good reasons to avoid this native wildflower: In the first place, it’s excessively seedy. In the second place, it’s extremely deep rooted, making pulling it out an arduous task. Who, I might ask, needs more demanding weeding jobs in the garden? When I couldn’t manage to pull out the specimens of river oats, I simply cut it back, hoping to defeat it through exhaustion.

Ten years later, I’m still cutting it back. This is a plant intent upon remaining in my garden.

Five years ago, a friend gave me a canna from her collection that I had long admired. My admiration lasted exactly one growing season as this lovely canna not only seeded throughout the garden, it also traveled, galloping over established plants. Canna rhizomes simply plowed on through, obviously making a crisis in plant relations. Fortunately, cannas are easy to pull out so it’s now been relegated to one section of the garden where I can easily keep my eye on it. It’s too lovely to have removed it entirely but I learned the hard lesson that this diva cannot be allowed to have her way.

Monarda is another plant that I’ve had to discard simply because it suffers from travel-lust. What cannas and monardas have in common is their inability to recognize perimeters. In desperation, I retreated to purchasing clumping monardas that (so far) have proved to be very disappointing.

Now a plant may be very seedy—and easy to live with. My Euscaphus japonica, the Korean Sweetheart Tree, that I’m bonkers about, produces hundreds of seedpods in the shape of red hearts that will gradually open to expose the black seeds. For the seeds to germinate, they must undergo rigid cold-heat-cold conditions that do not duplicate well here in the Triangle. I’ve had the tree for ten years and have had exactly one germination.

My advice concerning garden middle-age spread is this: Be careful what you put in your garden and don’t let the thugs dominate. Some toleration of those plants that are easy to pull out is fine. However, the alternative can turn into a gardening nightmare.

So again, I say this: Be sure to research the plants you are about to put in your garden.

Postscript: A generous reader sent me this delightful photo demonstrating how one talented gardener coped with overzealous plants.

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