Space to grow

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Hemerocallis August Flame needs space around it

One of the worst faults I have as a gardener is not allowing plants sufficient space. I am too greedy, wanting to cram as many different plants as I can into a garden bed. I do find it very difficult to visualise the final dimensions of plants, most particularly their widths. In fact, till recent times I have pretty much paid no heed to how wide plants are said to get! As a result, my plants often struggle to fulfil their true potential.

For example, last week in the garden of a friend, I saw a specimen of Salvia 'Wendy's Wish' that was easily a metre wide. It looked fantastic and had such a presence. In contrast, my own poor 'Wendy' is squeezed between a robust Cuphea ignea 'Starfire Pink' and some vigorous Canna plants, and is barely 40 cm across. This foolish pattern is repeated all through my overcrowded garden.

These plants were given more space last winter in my border

Last winter, I did try to renovate a large border and remove some plants altogether, in order to give others more space to grow. In doing so, I found that many of my perennials and shrubs had been so swamped and overshadowed by others that they were almost dead. They struggled for survival and at best had a few straggly stems, and flowered very poorly. I found it extremely difficult to take plants out, but forced myself to be hard-hearted, so that in a space where I would once have had three or four plants, I left only one. The reward this summer has been seeing the plants that remained - such as Dahlia, Echinacea and Salvia - truly flourish. I certainly don't like to see too much space between plants in the height of the growing season, and prefer the plants to merge into each other, but they need to have sufficient space around them to develop their full stature, otherwise they will require constant trimming through the warmer months to keep them in their allotted spaces.

Amaranthus caudatus (left) with Iresine herbstii in the garden of Anne Prescott in Sydney

The same logic should be applied to planting out annuals. Though they look so forlorn and pathetic when first put in, if given enough space, they will become much sturdier, healthy plants. Self-sown annuals in my garden, such as Orlaya grandiflora, Browallia americana, Amaranthus caudatus (pictured left), Viola tricolor etc, need to be ruthlessly thinned so that the few survivors can develop properly - otherwise they will remain a sad thicket of starved, stunted seedlings. It seems so harsh but the strategy pays off. I pull up about a thousand Amaranthus seedlings each spring, leaving about four or so in situ; given the space, these develop the stature of small shrubs and are an integral part of my summer and autumn borders.

Pennisetum setaceum Rubrum with low groundcovers, in the garden of Pamela and Harry Fowell in Sydney

Some plants more than others need more than their fair share of space around them - especially those with a distinctive shape. I love ornamental grasses (mainly Miscanthus species and cultivars and Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum', pictured left) but to look their best, I think they shouldn't be at all hemmed in by other planting. I prefer to site them where their full fountain-like shape can be shown, with only low plantings around them. Other strappy plants such Phormium and Cordyline cultivars also need to be given their own space - I grow my Phormium in squares set in paving, with very low groundcovers around them. Growing these plants in large pots is another way to show them off as well as possible. Daylilies are another challenge to place so that their arching leaves aren't obliterated by robust neighbours; the sculptural forms of Agave, Colocasia and Alocasia also need to have elbow room around them.

Alternanthera dentata Little Ruby

Giving plants more physical space to develop also means they are not competing as intensively with other plants for moisture, nutrients and sunlight. They also have the benefit of good air circulation around them - a factor that I think is important, especially in this very hot and humid weather we are experiencing at the moment, which is conducive to many fungal diseases that can affect plants. It is very challenging to not overplant a new garden bed, but the payoff is healthier plants that truly flourish. I am really trying to put this philosophy into practice! This week I acquired a new, compact form of Alternanthera dentata sold as 'Little Ruby' (pictured above), with stunning burgundy foliage. It has smaller leaves and a more dense habit than the species plant, and according to its label, is said to grow just 30 cm tall - BUT up to 90 cm wide! Normally, I wouldn't have paid attention the latter information, but I am going to try hard to plant it where its lovely WIDE rounded form won't be lost. Wish me luck!

Reader Comments

  • By Sue 2073 Monday, 26 January 2015

    I have the same problem, overcrowding in my cottage garden. I put in two Little Rubys in the spring and together they are nearly two metres wide. I put in one twelve months ago and gave it a haircut in the spring and it has kept its shape so I will trim my new ones to keep them compact. They make a great statement in the front of the garden. Thank you for all your information Sue Thanks for the positive feedback on "Little Ruby"! I am looking forward to growing it. Deirdre

  • By Ben 2065 Monday, 26 January 2015

    Hi. My name is Ben and I am a plant-crowding-aholic! :) Thank you for the article. Now I can tell my partner that I am not alone. There are people out there like me! Usually, I just get extra of the same plant as insurance policy that one will grow in that space. I know my own crowding is because I just love trying new plants to see how they go. I am trying to be tough and take out ones that do not do well in my climate, to make space for ones that might do better! It is a constant struggle. Deirdre

  • By Rebecka 2481 Monday, 26 January 2015

    Hmm. I am not ready to force myself to give up any plants yes (and yes, it"s clear to me who they"d be if I were - bc as you say: they don" t thrive in their snug & cosy spot). So to others solutions... guerilla gardening into my neighbours plot perhaps? Gradual widening of garden beds into the lawn is one way I have managed to squeeze more plants in! Deirdre

  • By Helen 7256 Monday, 26 January 2015

    I struggle with this too - especially when planting a new bed. Wanting the space to fill in quickly I tend to overplant. Currently removing some surplus plants from new borders only planted 12 months ago! I find I am totally unable to visualise how big plants will get through the growing season. And yes, we want the bed to look full from the start! A constant challenge with lots of tweaking needed. Deirdre

  • By Marie 4506 Monday, 26 January 2015

    Thank you for this timely advice. Now that the rain has finally arrived my garden is bursting with energy and new growth. It"s looking a bit " squeezy " in places. Am going to try Little Ruby as the colour is stunning. Happy gardening! The colour of the leaves on "Little Ruby" is certainly gorgeous. I have found a place for her now and look forward to watching her progress. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 26 January 2015

    Lots of we gardeners seem to have the same problem! There is a thin line between planting too many plants too close together, and filling the space. When I find this occurring, I either trim the offending plant, or try to find another spot for it. It is difficult to discard a plant, which has given you good service and pleasure. Enlarge the garden? Yes I do expand beds at times. It is very hard to part with a good plant - I agree! Sometimes I have planted temporary herbs or salad greens in the gaps between new plantings. Then I pulled them out once the other plants started to fill in; in the meanwhile I had a good crop of edible leaves for the kitchen! Deirdre

  • By Lynette 2114 Monday, 26 January 2015

    Just a hint Deidre: Little Ruby is very easy to propagate. Snip a stem, put it in water for a week or two. It"ll develop white roots which you can plant straight into the garden & it takes off like a rocket! It"s a great way to fill spots around the garden & it seems to grow in full sun to part shade & tolerates being dry. I have planted mine fairly close together but prune them into little mounds. Great colour too, I have some teamed with a lime green palm. Lynette Thanks for those great tips, Lynette! I am really looking forward to growing this plant. I love the idea of having it near something lime green - a nice contrast. Deirdre

  • By Carole 2230 Monday, 26 January 2015

    I too am guilty of overcrowding for various reasons, not the least is being on overload and needing to get the plant into the ground. Another reason is because one doesn"t know how a plant is going to relate to where it is being planted, it may like the spot, it may not, or it may absolutely love it! I really have my garden because I like plants and my garden is for me, if other people like my garden well that is nice but I am really not bothered if they don"t. Many thanks Deidre. I totally agree that we should just do what we want in our gardens - that is the joy of gardening! And I have seen some gorgeous gardens with plants grown close together like a beautiful tapestry. I think it was seeing some of my plants suffering from being overgrown that made me change tack a bit with the spacing in recent times and I am too lazy to keep trimming them to keep them from swamping their neighbours! Deirdre

  • By Janelle 2132 Monday, 26 January 2015

    Had the same overcrowding problem in my cottage garden, so made the most of today"s cool weather in Sydney to do a huge purge. Dug out several plants that had become too large or weren"t performing so well, divided others and spread them out...then couldn"t help myself and went to the nursery! Made sure I bought only a few compact plants though (read all the labels and didn"t succumb just to a pretty face) and left plenty of room for them to spread. Happy with the result so far - thanks Deirdre! Did have to chuckle about the trip to the nursery! But it is such fun and it sounds like you were pretty restrained! Deirdre

  • By Diane 3788 Monday, 26 January 2015

    Because of cool weather did a big deadhead and pruning session and discovered all sorts of things I"d planted and had lost sight of due to overplanting. I"m wondering if there is a co-relation between overplanting and over catering which I am also guilty of! I am also guilty of that too, Diane. I do like a profusion of things! Deirdre

  • By Maureen 2118 Tuesday, 27 January 2015

    Hi Deirdre - looks like we all are sinners one way or another!! Girlfriend of mine and I oft laugh about when she asked her non gardening husband but a carpenter by trade to plant out some agapanthus she had been given and low and behold out came the tape measure!!! Ended up being his win over time!!! Keep up the good work. Thanks, Maureen. Love the idea of the tape measure! Deirdre

  • By Helen 2154 Tuesday, 27 January 2015

    What a delightful blog, Deirdre. It is so good to know so many happy gardeners who, like me, end up with a veritable jungle because we just cannot resist that extra plant, without having the slightest idea of where we have space to put it! Love it. Helen. I very rarely have any idea of where a new plant is going to go! Deirdre

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