Right about now is a good time to look over your landscape and evaluate how things are growing. Our long growing season, combined with adequate soil fertility and water, can produce abundant and even rampant growth in landscape plantings. As we approach late summer, it is likely that beds of annuals, perennials and tropicals may benefit from the controlling hand of the gardener.
A gardener often has to play the role of the referee. Plants grow larger than expected and start crowding other plants. Tall plants shade out or fall over onto smaller plants. Plants spread into areas where they were not intended to grow. Vines develop a mind of their own and take off in totally unexpected directions. Without the guiding hand of the gardener, the resulting chaos can lead to disaster.
Some of these problems can be avoided by becoming familiar with a plant before you plant it into the landscape. In particular, you should always know what the mature size of a plant will be. I find it amazing that people always ask how big the puppy they are thinking about taking home will grow, yet they often fail to ask about the mature size of the plants they buy for their gardens. This results in planting trees, shrubs, vines and perennials that eventually become too large for their location.
Another problem is planting beds with shrubs or bedding plants spaced too close together. Gardeners often want newly planted beds to look full and lush as soon as they are planted, without taking into consideration the growth the plants will make. Most of us tend to be guilty of this at one time or another. The bed looks good for a while, but it eventually becomes overcrowded to the detriment of the plants’ health. A newly planted bed with plants properly spaced should not look full.
Even in a well-planned landscape, though, the controlling influence of the gardener is critical. The most useful methods for dealing with especially enthusiastic plants are pruning, supporting and barriers or digging out to prevent unwanted spreading.
When it comes to pruning, it’s good to remember that it is better to prune lightly occasionally as needed, rather than allow a plant to get way overgrown and then have to cut it back severely. I almost always carry a pair of pruners with me when I walk through my garden. A few judicious snips here and there help keep more-enthusiastic plants from overwhelming their less-vigorous neighbors. Done properly and regularly, this type of pruning is not even noticeable.
Pruning can be used to control the size or shape of a plant or influence how it grows. Lightly trimming back a plant such as a coleus, hibiscus or impatiens every now and then will keep it more compact and bushy. Cutting wild shoots that occasionally occur on shrubs will keep them more shapely and attractive. And, of course, removing or shortening growth that is covering nearby plants will help those plants to stay healthy.
Staking or otherwise supporting plants is done to keep plants from leaning or falling over onto nearby plants. It helps the tall plant look better and obviously benefits the plants that would otherwise be covered. The stake should be tall enough to do the job but not be too obvious. If young children will be playing around the garden, however, the stakes should be taller than they are to reduce the possibility of injury. You should also be careful when bending over beds where plants have been staked.
Stakes may simply be placed in such a way that the plant is supported by leaning up against it. Or it may be necessary to tie the plant to the stake. Green, brown or black twine or plastic ties will be less obvious than other colors.
Another less-noticeable way to support plants involves using a brick or stone, which works remarkably well. Straighten the plant up into the desired position, and then wedge a brick or stone at the base. You will find that the support at the base will usually hold the plant more upright without being visible. If this doesn’t work, a stake might be necessary.
Other techniques for support include tying twine in a loop all the way around a plant, using a wire cage (best done early in the growing season allowing the plant to grow into it), tying a plant to a sturdier, nearby plant and using one of the commercially available support systems, of which there are many.
Many perennials and tropicals spread by rhizomes underground – some fast and some slow. If growth shows up outside the area you have allotted for that plant, promptly dig out the unwanted growth and replant it somewhere else, pot it up and give it to a friend, or throw it away. Barriers extending at least 1 foot into the ground around aggressive spreaders can help keep them under control. Sometimes a plant can be planted into the ground in a container to limit or slow spreading. Digging, dividing and replanting clumps of aggressive spreaders annually during their dormant season is another good way to make sure they stay put.
Use your imagination and deal with each case creatively. The important thing is to promptly and regularly deal with these situations where control is necessary. We gardeners most often think of ourselves as designers and cultivators, but don’t forget, we must also play the role of mediators and referees as well.
Dan Gill is a horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter. He can be reached at DGill@agcenter.lsu.edu