Friday, September 2, 2011

Garden bullies

I could have sworn that we don’t, but every garden has them: Plants that start out all nice and friendly but eventually flex their muscles and throw their weight around. My wife calls them “bullies,” and in a way they are because they try to dominate their environment by brute force.

Here are the bullies in our garden. All are plants I’m quite attached to, but I realize that something needs to be done to keep them in check.

We have three variegated maidenhair grass (miscanthus) in the planting strip outside the front yard fence. All of them started out as 4” plants, purchased at one of our favorite nurseries, Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville, about 25 minutes west of here. Every year they’ve gotten bigger, and even though I’ve done some preventive maintenance over the years, my efforts clearly weren’t enough.

This is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rigoletto,’ a dwarf version of variegated maidenhair grass. Up until now it’s been quite upright, but in the last few days it’s flopped over under the weight of its leaves, smothering the plants in front of it. Even though I hate the thought, I’ll have to do some rigorous trimming before these plants end of choking.

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Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rigoletto’
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Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rigoletto’, flopped over

The same thing is happening with Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’ (or Silver Arrow, as it’s sometimes called). This specimen is even bigger than ‘Rigoletto,’ and it’s completely draped itself over the lavender planted in front of it. In addition, it’s encroaching on the clumping bamboo next to it, Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis.’ Frankly, I’d rather give this space to the bamboo, so the miscanthus will be removed in the winter. Any takers?

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Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’ next to Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’

This is by far the best-behaved variegated miscanthus we have: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Dixieland.’ Its leaf blades are much wider than the other cultivars, and it’s strictly upright. The plan is to take some divisions and replace the ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Silberpfeil.’

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Miscanthus sinensis ‘Dixieland’

Now this is a well-behaved grass: Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal,’ a switchgrass native to the North American tallgrass prairie. I was given a small division by a local gardener a few years ago, and it’s filled in nicely. Its growth habit is very upright, with no tendency to flop over.

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Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’

But grasses aren’t the only bullies in our garden. This has been the year our red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) have come into their own, and they are definitely asserting their place in our garden. As much as I love the flowers, I’m not that fond of the foliage—and let’s face it, that’s what you see most of the year. I’m conflicted, but I may take out one clump to make room for a plant with a less coarse texture.

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Kniphofia uvaria
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A clump of Kniphofia uvaria near Bodega Bay

The last bully is also the one that’s nearest and dearest to me: Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha). There are few fall- and winter-blooming plants that have quite the same impact, but it’s a commanding presence and it takes no prisoners. Our specimen has completely overrun a smaller salvia as well as the ruby grass (Melinus nerviglumis 'Pink Crystals’) I planted earlier in the year. I’m not going to get rid of our Mexican sage, but I’ll trim it back some to keep it in check.

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Salvia leucantha

Who are the bullies in your garden? Please leave comments below.

4 comments:

  1. I think I grow *only* bullies. ;-)

    Before removing the Miscanthus bullies, have you thought about a support of some sort to keep them upright? Something like you see for Peonies, but possibly larger. Although it's tempting to replace all of the "bad" instances with the one you have that's behaving, it may not look great. There are many smaller Miscanthus cultivars that would work better for you possibly.

    I didn't realize ‘Silberpfeil’ would get so large. The division you gave me will probably need to be moved in a couple of years.

    Finally, the Mexican sage. Have you considered cutting it all the way back to just a couple of inches tall? The plant that I overwintered in my garage the other year had no remaining top growth but came back strong. If you do this, take several cuttings as insurance -- you'll get a large plant just from a rooted cutting by the end of the year.


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  2. Alan, I'd love some sort of support that isn't visible. We've tried rope before but it looked too ugly. Maybe I'll severely reduce the root ball so the plants are much smaller next year.

    The Silberpfeil is about 5 ft tall by 6 ft wide, I'd say. But yours will take a few years to get there. It would be stunning if it had enough room.

    The Mexican bush sage was mowed down by frost in the winter and I cut it down the ground but it always comes back strong. I do love it so I won't remove it entirely, just a bunch of stems where I don't want them.

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  3. We have several 'bullies' here but I'd say it is the massive tree down at the bottom of our garden that annoys me the most, Acer pseudoplatanus. It harbours so many aphids every spring, which drips sticky say anything under it, consequently attracting fungus which makes the sticky leaves go sooty in appearance (Sigh!). And it self seeds all over the place too (double sigh!). It needs a tree surgeon to sort it out though.

    For a clumping plant they do have a wide spread these grasses. Might be worth lifting and dividing these clumps more often than usual to keep them tidy. The divisions make lovely give aways though!

    I must say those do look attractive in your garden!

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  4. M&G, your sycamore sounds like a delightful tree. Just kidding. The Bradford pear we had in the spot now occupied by the Bambusa oldhamii had the same aphid problem. The mess it left on the flagstone walkway was horrible. But cutting down a mature tree is a hard decision because nothing will replace it overnight...

    Our miscanthus were upright until a few weeks ago. I don't know why they flopped over all of a sudden. Maybe the leaves finally got too heavy.

    I will drastically reduce the clumps this winter.

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