Helen Chesnut’s Garden Notes: Reducing size of plants cuts maintenance time

Over the course of this spring, in meeting and speaking with gardening friends and acquaintances, a recurring theme has emerged: What to do with a garden that has become overgrown and crowded?

With this issue in mind, one pair of friends asked me to walk with them through their large back garden and give them ideas on how to render it more manageable.

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I noted several pathways nearly closed over by tangled vines, congested, overgrown trees and shrubs, and a number of small, narrow beds.

In situations like this, my immediate impulse is to attack the project like a verbal bulldozer, by suggesting fairly brutal measures for simplifying and rejuvenating the scene. This impulse needs restraining, in regard for peoples’ sensibilities when it comes to their plants and the planted areas they have created.

So … I gently suggested that some of the beds that were narrow strips could be eliminated, or planted with low-growing, low-maintenance ground covers. Narrow, or small, isolated planting areas can be tediously time and energy consuming to maintain in a neat and pleasing fashion.

An old, tangled honeysuckle vine growing on an arbour over a path by the garage had rendered the path nearly in accessible. The vine had not yet leafed out. I acknowledged that they might not wish to do this, but if it were my vine I’d remove all the far-side and overhead growth, and shorten the rest a little. Then, to relieve congestion, I’d remove the oldest (thickest) stems, making the cuts as close to the ground as possible, and follow the pruning with a light fertilizing and a nourishing mulch layer.

A process like this does sacrifice bloom for a season, but it gets the vine off to a fresh start.

Between the garage and house was a herb bed towered over by a gigantic, roof-high sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) tree. Some of the tree’s lower limbs had been removed to admit a bit of light and air. Still, I suggested that the area could be made more pleasing by taking out a few of the tree’s main limbs at their point of origin to relieve congestion in the tree, and by cutting back remaining growth enough to attain a manageable profile.

The herbs (thyme, sage, and similar sub-shrubs) had grown old and woody and would best be replaced, in replenished soil, by fresh, small transplants.

In my long-established garden, I have similarly overgrown and congested vines, trees and shrubs that I have begun thinning and reducing in size. As I said to my friends, when a garden begins to feel overwhelming, remember that reducing plants to a modest size means a reduction also in the work required to maintain them.


Orchid meeting. The Victoria Orchid Society will meet on Monday, May 27, at 7:30 p.m. in the Gordon Head United Church Hall, 4201 Tyndall Ave. Sasha Kubicek will speak about orchid conservation and how to preserve the many local species of orchids on Vancouver Island. In a pre-meeting workshop at 7, Joe Chow will discuss fertilizing orchids.

Rose meeting. The Mid Island Rose Society will meet on Monday, from 6 to 8 p.m. in the North Nanaimo Library, 6250 Hammond Bay Rd. in Nanaimo.

Comox meeting. The Comox Valley Horticultural Society will meet on Monday at 6:30 p.m. in the Conference Hall of Florence Filberg Centre, 411 Anderton Ave. in Courtenay. Dr. Royann Petrell will speak about Gardening For Birds. Bird populations are declining rapidly around the world. Small changes to gardening practices can help restore bird populations, reduce pest numbers, and bring added joy to gardening. Drop-in fee $5.

Crafting cards for a cause. Cards for a Cause on June 8, 1 to 4:30 p.m. in the Farmers’ Institute Hall in Cobble Hill is an event to raise funds to create a soothing garden around the new Cowichan Hospice House that will be completed in 2020. The garden will include tranquil spaces for individual and family use and wide paths to accommodate wheelchairs and beds. The event is a card-making workshop for 100 people. Participants will learn card making skills and take home four beautiful handmade cards. There will be helpers at each table and refreshments. School-age children are welcome with a parent or grandparent. Tickets at $25 are available by calling 250-743-3131 or 250-743-9465 or online at Eventbrite.com

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