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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham

A great chef named Julia wrote, “Always remember: If you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to know?” Every mistake need not be reported.

That would seem to apply to one’s garden, but there I am never alone. You, my readers or students or gardening friends, are nearly always with me. When I’m gardening my brain conducts a running monologue in which I’m sharing and observing the garden’s past, present and future and – to my chagrin – the mistakes I have made. Typically the monologue becomes a column. Julia may keep her errors to herself; apparently I cannot.

Underestimating size, again and again

A few weeks ago I wrote about typical mistakes that new gardeners make. One is spacing plants too close together because you trust in the plant you see in the pot right now rather than the mature size described on the plant tag. In annuals and perennials that error may be annoying but is generally fixable. Not so easy with trees or vines.

• Vine mistake No. 1: About 15 years ago I purchased a sweet autumn clematis (Clematis paniculata), a wonderful vine that is loved for its prolific, fragrant white flowers from late July on. While not as dramatic as other large-flowering clematis, it is easy and completely dependable. I planted it on the west side of my house to ramble along the deck fence. Two years later at a family cookout on the deck, my mother said, “Dear, don’t you think that vine is getting overgrown?” Truly it needed a much larger support – a pergola or arbor. See them during Garden Walk Buffalo climbing walls and telephone poles. I began to cut it back and tried to twine it around the railing. I tried to mow the grass path outside it without entangling it in the mower blades. I’ve been at it ever since.

• Vine mistake No. 2: I loved the idea of hops – a yellow flower followed by those cute little dangling things that add the bitterness or bite to some beers and ales! It would have been fine along the outer fence ringing the naturalistic shrub and perennial bed behind the garage. Except: I did not remove (was too sentimental about) my grandpa’s moss rose planted in two places very near that fence, and I planted the hops too near a spreading, suckering yellow-twigged dogwood. All those plants are fine in the right place, but too close together ... they twine and tangle, and pruning is impossible.

• Tree mistakes: All you have to do is drive around to look at trees, and you’ll see hundreds of mistakes – typically planted too close to sidewalks, streets and houses. Even small trees (meaning up to 20 feet tall) should usually be planted 10 to 20 feet from a house, but you’ll see them with trunks placed 5 feet from the wall – soon to be a problem. I pass my own spacing error on the way to the pond every day: I planted a white oak sapling 15 years ago that is now on its way to being enormous, and it was well placed. But I put an unlabeled rescue shrub about 20 feet from it (would have been fine for most understory shrubs near the tree line) and it turned out to be a Japanese tree lilac! That small tree is already 12 feet tall, too close aesthetically and eventually so close it will be overshadowed. And I’m not set up to move trees around. Live with it.

Early season slip-ups

Do you ever find yourself grappling with a problem and only then remember you were in the exact situation last year? You should have fixed it. You did not. Here are my spring winners for “oops I did it again ...”

• Put away the cache-pots: Only houseplant savers will understand this. The time finally comes to carry outside the annuals and houseplants kept inside for the winter. Some are in outer, undrained, attractive bowls or pots we call “cache pots.” (I shop for them at yard sales and antiques shops.) They look great for decorating the deck. I am confident I will tip and drain the outer pots all season. Then a rain comes when I’m traveling or distracted, and the plants sit in inches of water for a couple of days. It’s quick death for some – after a whole winter of love. And, darn, I did it last year. Never again. Put them away or decorate with them upside down.

• Divide more and dig deeper: Some great plants spread generously and sometimes should have the edges of the patch dug out – for instance, turtle heads, black-eyed Susans, Solomon’s seal, hellebores, Filipendula. Most of us should do this more vigorously and be much harsher. It all looks better with a little space between large perennials. I also should have gone after all the alliums I wanted to dig out, sooner, and I should not be lazy about digging to get the whole bulbs. The longer you wait, the harder it is to move among the plants. Yes, big purple balls look great around the garden. But too much is too much.

• Prop sooner: After writing entire articles about the topic, you’d think I’d be ahead of the business of propping and supporting plants that get too tall or floppy (especially in my wind-blasted garden). With pea-brush, tee-pees, tuteurs, fences, stakes, ties or rings – do it sooner. Today I may get to the ‘Herbstonne’ Rudbeckia, but last week would have been better.

Forgiveness is good for the spirit. Forgiving oneself is mentally healthy. In more words of Julia Child (“My Life in France”): “I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. ... Of course I made many boo-boos. At first this broke my heart, but then I came to understand that learning how to fix one’s mistakes, or live with them, was an important part of becoming a cook.”

Or a gardener.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.