"Less is more"

Growing fewer plants in a border can pay off.
Sunday, 10 March 2013     

Anemone x hybrida, the Japanese windflower starts to bloom in March

As I have written in a previous blog, March is my favourite month of the gardening year. It is the time when summer flowerers seem to get a second wind just as the early autumn blooms begin to open - so the garden seems fuller and more floriferous than at any other time of the year.

Highlights include numerous Salvia, Dahlia, Canna, Fuchsia, Begonia and many Acanthaceae family members that are carrying on from summer - plus Plectranthus species, Camellia sasanqua, perennial Aster cultivars, Japanese windflowers and Lycoris bulbs that are emerging for their annual autumn display.

This year I am reaping the benefits of a concerted effort last spring to move plants around where there were too many of them growing in various borders. I was finding that many plants were not performing at their best because they basically had no room to develop their full potential. It is such a temptation for plant-lovers to overplant, because they want to cram in as many plants as they can. Unfortunately, this can be counterproductive because the result is a plethora of specimens all competing for space, light, water and nutrients - with none of them looking that great. In some cases, plants can actually be smothered to death when stronger plants grow over them. During my border renovations, I actually had to compost plants that I had no space anywhere else for, which was quite a painful thing to do at the time. Luckily, with advancing age, one tends to forget all about them after a while once they are gone, so it is all good in the end! The results of the cull are now revealing themselves, and I like what I see.

One particular plant group that benefits from being given more space, is the Salvia. As I mentioned in my talk at the Cottage Garden Club recently, many Salvia require quite a large amount of space to grow to their proper size - and this means width as well as height. In some cases, I have had to turf out some of my specimens completely because I just don't have enough room for them. I am tending to favour more compact varieties that can be shoehorned into smaller spaces. Often, it takes a while to realise how much space they require! My Salvia 'Meigan's Magic', for example, was originally squashed into a border where it was allotted about a metre of space between a Pentas and another couple of Salvia plants. I fondly assumed it was a fairly small-growing cultivar. However, Meigan had other ideas and cheerfully took over about two metres of the bed, leaving the other plants cowering and half-dead, but her own shape was still constrained. I have since moved her to a corner bed of her own, where she developed a lovely rounded shape over summer, and is about to come into full bloom. A similar-looking plant that needs space around it is the cultivar 'Phyllis' Fancy', which I have given a better position in a bed elsewhere.

Another success has been a lovely perennial Aster nova-angliae I was given many years ago called 'Violetta'. This had been swamped by a lusty Iresine herbstii 'Brillantissima' and last year only had about one meagre flowering spike. With the Iresine summarily despatched to the compost heap last spring, the Aster has developed into a gorgeous mass of deep purple daisies, delighting me every time I walk past it at the moment.

Another victory has been with the pretty single-flowered Dahlia cultivar ' 'Moonfire', which has lovely tawny-yellow flowers with deep orange markings. It had been swamped by the embrace of a vigorous Manettia luteorubra vine, which I grow (probably foolishly) as a sort of rambling groundcover in my hot-coloured border, and was also overshadowed by a number of self-sown red Salvia coccinea plants - and flowered poorly last year. Freed from these neighbours, it has developed into a sturdy clump this year, with many flowers.

Some plants need to be placed completely on their own without any other large plants nearby, in order to be seen at their best. These are usually willowy, wispy sorts of plants that lose their shape unless they have plenty of space around them. Gaura lindheimeri in my garden grows from cracks in the paving with only low-growing groundcovers nearby, and is able to develop its diaphanous wands studded with dainty pink or white flowers to great effect. Nicotiana langsdorffii is another plant that needs to be on its own to look any good. Ornamental grasses such as Miscanthus sinensis cultivars - which are all coming into bloom now and looking sensational - also need lots of space left around them so they can develop their natural arching shape and form a good-sized clump.

It's very difficult to be hard-hearted when it comes to plants, but in gardening as in many other areas of life, sometimes less is more. And autumn is a great time of year to remodel your borders!

 Reader Comments

1/7  Peta - 2758 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 11 March 2013

Just about every one of the plants you"ve mentioned is a favourite of mine and yes, I agree March is a great month. The bees are busy on our Sedums and Easter daisies. I realise how lucky we are to have the bees after reading that they are in great danger of disappearing particularly in Europe due apparently to overuse of pesticides. Big wake up call. So hard to resist putting in yet another plant. Maybe dig up more lawn! Thanks, Peta. It is scary re the bees. I definitely seem to have fewer around these days. Deirdre

2/7  Anne - 2518 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 11 March 2013

I am definitely an advocate of digging up the lawn! I acquired nicotiana langsdorffii somewhere over the last twelve months and was very excited to see it flowering. I had it years ago and love its delicate flowers and colouring. I need to listen to what you are saying about overcrowding - thanks for another great blog. Thanks, Anne. Yes, I guess we can always widen our borders if necessary! I love that Nicotiana. Deirdre

3/7  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 11 March 2013

I agree with your observations, and admit I am guilty of over-planting. With your Salvia talk in mind, I "bit the bullet" and removed S."Phyllis" Fancy" and "Anthony Parker", both too big for their area, and I had nowhere to place them. Have also decided to remove most Abutilons, although I love them, but they are too prone to "special" care, which I am no longer prepared to give. Currently, the perennial Asters are magnificant. Thanks for the many ideas you have given, re plants and planting. Hope you find you have more space without those two big salvias, Margaret. The abutilons can be a bit of a handful, especially that awful leaf-roller caterpillar. I find Yates Success good to control it, however. Deirdre

4/7  Maree - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 11 March 2013

You are so right Deirdre, the Grasses are huge and so is Megan"s Magic and I bought Magesteplasma...... So I am having to remove and remodel my much smaller garden than yours! Thanks for the reminder for the open garden, I can"t wait to see all her Acantheacea species. Maree Thanks, Maree. Good luck with your replanting. I am looking forward to seeing the open garden too. Deirdre

5/7  Barbara - 6025 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 12 March 2018

Oh, you are so right about culling plants. I have always strived to be like Dame Murdoch a ruthless gardener but there is still place for improvement. Deirdre I have a huge favour to ask of you, I will be in Sydney, Cremorne area in June, could you possibly collect some of your moonfire seeds that you could share with me? We could meet for a coffee somewhere. It is my first visit to Sydney, I am not familiar with the city. Barbara, your best bet re the moonflower seeds is to put a request in on our Plant Share page. Hope you enjoy your trip to Sydney! Deirdre

6/7  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 12 March 2018

Any unwanted plants i have i offer to friends & neighbours & those still remaining i pop into trugs of water & put outside my front gate with secured plastic bags & a sign saying what they are & what they need & "Free to good home". I never have to throw away good plants. There are a couple of Facebook garedn marketplaces where you can sell & buy plants too That is great, Kerrie. Good to know your spare plants are going to good homes. Deirdre

7/7  Linda - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 13 March 2018

I LOVE digging up the lawn! It was my first project when downsizing to Epping, having become very confident in over-riding any qualms about replacing lawn in my previous much bigger place. I find garden much easier to maintain, and much more forgiving if left to grow a month or so longer than ideal, whereas lawn screams CUT ME, EDGE ME after just a week or so of neglect in the height of growing season!! Great to hear the new garden is going so well. Deirdre

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