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Low-maintenance doesn't mean a no-maintenance garden


Thursday, September 26, 2013

I have spent the last several days working on my low maintenance garden. Somehow, at some point in time, I had formulated the idea that low maintenance meant no maintenance. Silly me.
Many years ago the north side of the house was a slight slope down from our neighborís yard to our riprap foundation, which explains why there is often an inch or so of water in parts of the basement. That and the fact that the floor drain is at the high point of the floor. Donít get me started. Fixing the problem would cost thousands. Keeping a pair of boots on the stairs is pretty cheap.
The north side of a house is the perfect spot for shade plants. It gets early morning and late afternoon sun during the summer, then none at all when the sun goes south for the winter. Many plants just love this, especially rhododendrons and azaleas, but also many less cliched plants and shrubs.
I leveled out a flat path next to the house, slightly terraced up the hillside, and started planting. Over time it turned into a classic hedgerow. And like rural hedgerows, it became grossly overgrown.
As I fought my way into the tangle, making an incursion every few feet, the first task was clearing out a small forest of three foot maple trees. Itís hard work, because if you just cut them off they will re-sprout. They need to be pulled out, and they fight back.
In one section I found a long forgotten peony, obviously planted long ago when the surrounding shrubs were too small to block the light. Now they tried to grow in the dark. Peonies are tough, but this one was on its last legs, with just three straggly leaves in a line. As it happens, this is just the time to move or divide peonies, so I dug it up, found three roots with pink buds, and potted them up. Maybe in a year or two Iíll find out what it is.
The shrub that was smothering it was a fothergilla. It belongs in every garden, but it is too seldom seen. Not fussy about sun or soil, this native plant produces honey scented white flowers in spring. In summer it is not much, just an unremarkable green thing like forsythia. But in late fall it explodes into the brightest colors in the fall garden with leaves in bright orange, red, and yellow.
The books say it grows to three feet, but mine canít read and has grown to 10. Not only that, but it has begun to spread, throwing up an occasional sucker, like lilacs. And like lilacs, I dug up a couple and potted them up. With lilacs, that is a good way, and this is a good time, to make a long lilac hedge. I donít know what Iím going to do with the fothergilla. If they make it.
The same is true with the Carolina sweetshrub, Calycanthus, but in spades. More ďinterestingĒ than ďgorgeousĒ it does have lots of dark, dark red flowers in early summer, though from a distance you might not notice them. If you go up to look at them, sniff them too.
Finally comfortable after several years, the sweetshrub has reached out and tried to take over the yard. I needed to get rid of four feet of its expansion, and not just the sprouts. It was pick ax work to sweat the roots out. I kept saying over and over, Low maintenance, low maintenance, low maintenance.
Vigorous beyond all the others is a fasciated willow. The budding branches contort themselves into intricate shapes, striking in a vase of spring flowers. I love that bush/tree, but given its head it would take over the neighborhood and provide Stygian darkness for anything trying to grow nearby. So I found the bow saw and removed two thirds of it.
Iím not done yet, neither with the work nor the story.
Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. He can be reached at 12 Burgess Drive, Towanda, PA 18848 or e-mail dcamp911@gmail.com.