Cure for the common flop

For whatever reason the oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, below) have decided to explode in growth this spring (in fact, all hydrangeas have grown remarkably). A few were munched by deer in early autumn when I mistakenly decided that it was late enough in the season not to have to spray a repellent, but now the damage has covered over completely. One oakleaf that overhangs the patio by the swimming pond was not bothered by deer, but now I’ve had to prune it so that it doesn’t overwhelm the marvelous variegated leaf caryopteris that pokes out from under it. This arrangement has worked out for years, but now the hydrangea is growing too quickly, and the branches are not as rigid as usual, so they flopped over the caryopteris.

I hate to cut off blooms, but the caryopteris (Caryopteris divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’, below) was endangered, and the hydrangea has many more. There is no science to pruning the oakleaf hydrangea except to prune individual branches just above another branch. Four or five branches had flopped onto the caryopteris, so I lifted each before pruning to see how much needed to be chopped to properly expose the variegated shrub beneath. Since the hydrangea branches had flopped over top, the soft wooded caryopteris was growing almost prostrate, but now that things have been opened up I expect it will pop up more upright.

I have considerable experience chopping back plants that flop over their neighbors, or over the garden’s stone paths. This is a consequence of planting too many plants too close, and occasionally a plant is lost in the shuffle as one overwhelms another. A few days ago I rescued a variegated brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, below) that had disappeared under a suddenly vigorous patch of sweetbox (Sarcococca humilis). I thought of the brunnera a time or two through the spring when I walked past the green leafed variety at the other end of the garden, but my attention span lasts no more than three or four steps, so I didn’t gave it a thought when I was in the vicinity of the missing brunnera. Except once, I pulled the sweetbox back, and there was the variegated brunnera, half the size it was a year ago, and not visible at all from beneath the sweetbox. But, my pruners and trowel were not handy, so three steps later …… gone and forgotten.

Fortunately, for whatever reason I thought again of the brunnera, and kept focused long enough to wander back up to the garage for a trowel. There was no sense in pruning the sweetbox. Though it starts slowly enough that the gardener is ready to give up and pluck it out after a few years, in another year or two it begins to grow more exuberantly, and now it regularly pushes up in joints between the large path stone slabs. If the sweetbox was pruned today it would be back by year’s end, and eventually I will not pay proper attention and the brunnera will be lost forever. So, the better plan is to move the brunnera to a less crowded spot, and there is a perfectly suited location ten feet away perched just above the shaded stream. There’s a large leafed hosta a few feet away that has recently been transplanted, but it will be several years before there’s trouble again, so the brunnera is scooped out from under the sweetbox, and in a few moments it’s in its new home. A handful or two of water is dipped from the stream, and the problem is solved.

My wife has become quite handy with her pruners, which were purchased through some outfit that makes kitchen knives, and were horribly overpriced. The pruners are small and woefully inadequate for all but the softest wood, but my wife has become quite proficient at chopping back hostas, ferns, and nandina branches that arch over the garden paths. Since she paid a pretty penny for the pruners my wife refuses to use any of the larger and sturdier pruners that I have, and after she has butchered a graceful Ostrich fern I often threaten to dispose of the pruners to forever end her meddlesome ways.

Usually, whatever has been chopped grows back quickly, so the best advice is to avoid the problem and plant with adequate spacing from the start. Of course, there is no set and consistent distance that plants be placed apart from each other or from paths. Plants grow to varying sizes, and conditions dictate that one might grow much larger or smaller than is typical in the right or wrong situation. If this sounds too complicated to bother with, you’re right on track. I agree, and it’s best not to bother with worrying about such things. Just plant. If there’s a problem you can move most any plant later, or prune the offending branches, and all is well.

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