Down to earth — late-summer spring cleaning

(Originally published on September 17, 2014 in East Bay RI/South Coast Life.)

I think I have it a bit backwards. Isn’t spring supposed to be the time for cleaning and clearing the clutter? I’m on a tear to create some space now. Within reason, of course. I have no intention of tidying up my desk, and I’m certainly not ready to put the garden “to bed.” There are miles of summer and fall left to go and I prefer to leave seedheads standing through the winter anyway. But right now my garden is at its fullest. It’s tall and it’s buzzingly busy with activity. It’s so full, in fact, that the wildlife and I can afford to let a few plants go here and there. This is a great time to think about changes to make next year and try them on for size.

Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose' about to eat a daphne
Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’ about to eat a daphne

Against my better judgment, last year I plunked a fountain grass, Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’ into one of my foundation beds alongside a tiny hydrangea cutting and a precious little daphne. This spring I threw a few dahlias and nicotiana into the mix. Even at her best, Karley Rose has a late-summer habit that Great Dixter’s Christopher Lloyd might describe as sleazy. She grew at a prodigious rate, especially considering the lousy soil I planted her in, and has lately taken to lounging around, plumes and foliage flopped all over her more interesting bedfellows. Before I evict this plant for good (anyone have just the spot?) I’m going to whack it back by at least half to give those other plants some breathing room again and make extra-sure I’ll prefer the bed without it.

Late entries -- brachyscome and orange zinnias
Late entries — brachyscome and orange zinnias

There are still swallowtail butterflies in the garden thanks to a healthy crop of fennel (plants in the parsley family are swallowtail caterpillar hosts) growing in the bed closest to my driveway, but I wanted to see what life might be like if we could actually walk down the path to the plantry door, and edited out a good two-thirds. It’s as if that bed’s edges have been sharpened. And the holes I created were just right for tucking in some last-minute color: bright orange zinnias and a companionable blue brachyscome daisy. I know without even looking that I want more of those colors in my garden next year.

I’m in love with the rice paper plant (Tetrapanax paperifer ‘Steroidal Giant’) planted in my backyard border. Its 18-inch wide matte-green pinwheel leaves change the scale of the garden and make me smile. But they also provide a little too much shade for all of the regular-sized plants tucked in nearby. This season, the rice paper plant’s third in my garden, it finally sent out a few suckers that filled some gaps along the back of the border and grew to shade out a bit more of the front. The other day I removed a couple of offshoots to let the daylight back into the bed (they’re shallow-rooted and easy to pull) and just like when my handsome husband finally shaved off his hilarious mustache, I wished them back again as soon as they were out. But I’m learning to enjoy the look of my garden’s upper lip without them.

I’ll start on container plants next. The more I consign to the compost now (such as the enormous angel’s trumpet that never bloomed), the fewer will crowd my plantry, living room and cellar this winter. She says.
I’m itching to move some shrubs around, if not out, and a few perennials too. But we’d all be wise to wait for a good soaking rain before rearranging the furniture. In the meantime we can do some spring cleaning to clear the clutter and create some space to play with ideas for next year’s garden.

What kinds of changes are you thinking of making? Are you trying them on for size now too?

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