Are you a ruthless gardener? I never used to be one. In past gardens, I’d always somehow find a place for a bonus plant included with an order (regardless of color, size, or growing conditions preferred) because to simply chuck it out would be – in the words of The Princess Bride’s Vizzini – “inconceivable!” If I found a plant to be not what I’d envisioned, or if it persisted in languishing despite multiple attempts to make it happier, I’d doggedly carry on with it until it finally gave up and died, either on its own or as a result of some not-so-benign neglect on my part. My reaction at that point would be a combination of guilt and relief.
I’m not that way anymore. In recent years, I have become unapologetically ruthless.
I’ve kept a garden database for the past 15 years; it’s a Word document and there is a section for each planting bed. When a plant dies, I delete its descriptive entry. But about three years ago, I added a separate section at the end for Plants Lost, to remind me not only that I once tried that plant and failed, but also how long it lived, where, and why I think it died. Last year I added another section. It’s called Plants Eliminated, and it serves a similar purpose which is to remind me why I decided to evict that plant even though it was healthy. Here are a few that have gotten the boot during the past two years:
Perennials: Ajuga ‘Bikun/Frosted Jade’ (too wimpy), Campanula persicifolia ‘Alba’ (too rampant), Platycodon ‘Sentimental Blue’* (way too dwarf), Rudbeckia ‘Cherry Brandy’ (too muddy a color, too floppy), Silene asterias (too weedy looking), and daylilies ‘Fleur de Rocaille’, ‘Photon Torpedo’, and ‘Ruth Love’ (totally unworkable colors.)
Shrubs: Azalea ‘Gumpo White’ (too boring), Ceratostigma willmottianum (too disappointing on multiple counts), and three dwarf crape myrtles, ‘Cherry Mocha’, ‘Like a Latte’ and ‘Brew Ha Ha’ (totally covered with mildew every year, too disgusting.)
Bulbs: Chionodoxa luciliae alba (too tiny), Hyacinthoides ‘White City’ (too sloppy/too rampant), Leucojum ‘Gravetye Giant’ (too big), and Muscari aucheri ‘White Magic’ (too wimpy.)
*The platycodons haven’t actually gotten booted yet; they were temporarily stuck into the empty 2’x8′ Sunroom South bed which I haven’t decided what to do with and probably won’t for another couple of years. I still don’t like this cultivar and they will definitely get pulled out as soon as I decide what I do want in that spot…if not before then.
I’ve written at length elsewhere here about the plants, shrubs and trees that were here when I bought the house, but that I chose to get rid of within the first few years. The oaks, of course, had to go; it wasn’t only the mess but also the closeness to the house and the unexpected oak-pollen allergy that I cannot take medication for. And with the number of invasive perennials and shrubs that the former owners had either planted or allowed to establish, six island beds in the backyard had to get ripped out completely. (I am still finding zombies, though; just the other day I discovered a young buddleia from the plant that had been removed in 2017, and a dozen Rose of Sharon seedlings from two colonies that were supposedly wiped out in 2018.)
Other things got yanked because I really, really do not like that type of plant. I have a long-standing antipathy to junipers, for example. Ditto for the ubiquitous yellow threadleaf Chamaecyparis that every foundation planting in the northeast seems to include. Large ornamental grasses look fabulous, as long as they are in someone else’s yard that is not within windblown-seed distance of mine. If the huge (and I do mean huge: they are 12 feet tall at least) euonymus along my north fence were not providing the 100% year-round privacy that they do, I would definitely have them cut down – and have not entirely ruled that out, to be honest. Keeping them under any kind of control is like trying to tame the Amazon rainforest.
So, what caused my change in gardening philosophy, from Tolerant to Ruthless? Honestly, I think it is simply advancing age. When you accept the reality that you have far fewer gardening years ahead of you than behind, you begin to use a different yardstick for evaluating plants. You become a little less patient. A little less tolerant of shortcomings. A little more drawn to plants that don’t require as much attention, or any fussing with sprays or feedings or extra waterings. Something that doesn’t need to be cut back three times a year in order to keep it from taking over the bed. Perhaps you opt for a sterile cultivar that will not contribute to the weeding which is already almost more than you can handle, if not already at that point (but you refuse to admit it.)
In short, I expect much more of my plants now, than I used to – and if they don’t measure up, either in the way they look, or the way they grow, or the conditions they can tolerate or the effort they require, then I have no qualms about removing them and no guilt afterward. They have to earn their keep, as the old saying goes, and the more ways a plant can do that, the better the odds of it not ending up in the bucket along with the weeds one fine day.
Some plants that did beautifully in my previous gardens, less than 20 miles away, were a disaster here where the conditions are very different. Some plants behaved rather like the Borg, and adapted. The ones that didn’t, either aren’t here anymore or soon won’t be. When it comes down to it, life is too short to keep plants that you don’t love, or that don’t love you back. Perhaps that’s the bedrock philosophy of Ruthless Gardening?