True confessions: A gardener’s tale

By Jim Janke | Oct 28, 2013

We’ve planted more than 500 trees, shrubs and vines since we moved into our home 9 years ago. But about 20 percent of these plants are no longer there. Some were deliberately located too close together to cover quickly and were thinned as they grew to make room for adjoining plants. But others just shouldn’t have been planted in the first place.

This column has always stressed that you should learn more from your failures than your successes. So in the hope that you can learn from my mistakes…

1. I should have paid more attention to how much sun or shade each plant wants. Examples:

Crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia x fauriei) bloom beautifully in the mountains, so a half dozen were planted on a slope. But the area is shaded by dogwoods, and all we get are a couple of weak blooms all summer.

Very few rhododendron varieties can take full sun, and the white variety we planted (Rhododendron hybrid ‘Chionoides’) wasn’t one of them. Scratch 17 rhodos.

Two mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia ‘Olympic Fire’) were located at the corners of our garage where they got only morning and noonday sun. But even this was too much. Sun-loving junipers are there now.

We planted doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana) on the north and west sides of the house, and they’ve done well as foundation plants because they are in shade most of the time. An additional row away from the house in full sun struggled with insect and fungus issues before we replaced them with cotoneasters.

2. Many deciduous shrubs are planted specifically to provide a few weeks of color. Although growing conditions were good, blooms on groups of Korean Spice Viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) and Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) just weren’t showy enough, even after several years. Turfgrass now covers these areas.

3. Up north, I had good luck with clematis (Clematis ‘Jackmanii’) on a west wall, with gorgeous blooms in spring and another flush of color in late summer. So when we moved here, we planted three different clematis varieties in front of trellises attached to deck posts. But then the work began. The varieties we chose didn’t climb by themselves, and individual stems had to be tied to the trellises. Each of the three varieties was in a different pruning group: one flowered on previous year’s growth, another bloomed on new shoots off of old stems and a third flowered on new growth from the bottom of the plant. Individual blooms were pretty, but there weren’t enough of them to justify the effort. Ciao, clematis.

4. Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) was recommended by a local landscape architect, and I installed several in various places in full sun. They had great blooms in spring, but by mid-summer the leaves would dry up and drop off, so the trees looked totally dead. But then they would re-bloom the following year and repeat the process. I’m not sure if this is normal for Red Buckeyes, but after a couple of years I couldn’t take it any longer. Now they’re in Red Buckeye Heaven.

An epiphany unrelated to ornamental plants: I dump all my containers into a wheelbarrow each spring, add more planting mix to keep the soil light and airy, and refill the containers. But when I direct seeded leaf lettuce in these containers, germination was atrocious. It took months for it to dawn on me that there was leftover germination preventer (Preen®) in these containers.

Many of the above mistakes were made before I went through Master Gardener training, so I have at least some sort of an excuse. But for some of the above situations I just should have known better. Don’t hold it against me, okay?

Jim Janke is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For more information call the Haywood County Extension Center at 456-3575. © 2013 NC State University.