Space, The Final Frontier

Gardeners know that the best planting time for water-wise plants is in late October to early November, just as our rainy season starts (we hope). Of course, that is from the plant’s point of view. The new little plant has a long winter and spring of moist soil ahead so it can grow deep roots before it is challenged by our normal dry summer.

However, there is a problem. People are not usually on the same schedule. Most of us don’t think much about our gardens in the fall. The long dry summer has left garden plants scrubby and shabby, and a flowery spring seems a long way off. Then there is school starting, early dark, and the holidays. So many reasons not to venture out into the yard.

So it is good to know that now is the second best time to plant water-wise plants. The deeper soil layers are still moist from our December rains, and the soil is also beginning to warm up. As the sun feels stronger, plants shake off winter and start to grow and bloom. By the time you read this, the plum trees will be lighting up the streetscape with showers of pink and white blossoms.

Getting ready to plant.

Getting ready to plant.

But wait! Before you run off to the nursery to buy new plants, take the time to make some space in the garden. Grab your pruners and saw, your gloves and your green bin, and head outside. A lot of what’s hanging around in your garden belongs in the green bin.

First of all, do some winter pruning. Most woody plants benefit from occasional pruning. Start by removing any diseased, damaged, or crossing branches or canes. Next prune for an overall shape you prefer, using a combination of thinning and heading cuts. (Look this up if you’ve never taken a pruning class, it’s worth learning about.) Try not to remove more than one third of the plant in any pruning session.

Detail work on a lavender.

Detail work on a lavender.

Secondly, remove any underperforming plants. You know who they are! Even very experienced gardeners don’t choose the right plant every time. Maybe your plant isn’t a good fit for your site, or maybe it’s just an unhealthy individual. Maybe it needs more water, soil fertility, or protection than you can provide consistently. In any case, don’t let a weak or unhealthy plant struggle on in your garden. Into the green bin with them, and make space for success.

Thirdly, we have the opposite problem: plants that grow too vigorously and crowd out everybody else. Or sometimes the problem is two successful plants that were simply planted too close together when they were small. Even a wonderfully performing plant can simply be out of scale with your garden space, or has to be cut back too often for you to keep up with. Off with their heads! We recently removed the most gorgeous, established, colorful New Zealand flax by the south gate of GFE because it kept blocking the sidewalk and menacing pedestrians.

Heavily pruning an overgrown shrub.

Heavily pruning an overgrown shrub.

You can make a choice between two plants that are too close, and transplant or discard the one you don’t want to keep. Or you can dig up an overgrown clump and just replant a small part of it. Either way, the green bin gets full, and your garden gets spacious.

Space, the final frontier. It’s amazing how much better a garden can look even without any new plants, just by establishing a clear space for each existing plant, and weeding and mulching the soil in between them.