Give your garden new life with a plant haircut

I feel bad about my hair the day before I go to my stylist. A trim, little or big, does wonders for my looks as well as my spirit.

This is also true of the garden in midsummer. Cutting out faded leaves, dead flowers and leggy greenery, sometimes even removing unwanted plants, gives your garden new life.

Deadheading is a tried and true gardening practise, and while it’s primarily used to promote more flowering, especially with annuals (and sometimes to encourage a second flush of smaller flowers on perennials) snipping off dead and dying flowers improves the looks of most plants. But when plants are really over, it’s time for sterner measures.

By mid-August my daylilies, which have done yeoman service for many weeks, look like roadside weeds, with stiff stalks where the flowers one bloomed and sadly yellowing foliage. As you can see by the before and after shots below, I cut them back heavily. I snip the stiff stalks into short lengths and toss them on the compost along with the yellowing leaves, which usually pull out fairly easily.

daylily before
daylily after pruning
Below you can see the pile of cuttings from two small plants, just like the mess on the hairstylist’s floor after she/he is through with you. This is a serious haircut.

daylily trimmings

Other plants deserve to have their flowering stalks cut back from the get-go because their blooms are insignificant to the point of ugliness. Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina), below, is an example. Its woolly grey-green leaves are the reason for growing it, not the spikes of equally woolly but insipid lavender flowers. I let them develop and them mercilessly cut them down. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind, y’know?

lamb's ears before
lamb's ears after pruning
Don’t you think the trimmed plant looks far more pulled-together? I like the contrast in textures and shades of green between it and the succulent donkey-tail euphorbia (E. myrsinites) in front of it– another plant I prune back heavily once it’s lovely chartreuse leaf bracts turn plain green in early summer. It also tends to flop in all directions and take over if you don’t watch it. Now both plants look well behaved.

The path through my front garden looks lovely for weeks in early summer–the violet-blue catmint (Nepeta racemosa ‘Six Hills Giant’) spills daintily over the edge of the gravel and the chrome-yellow cushion spurge (Euphoriba polychroma) offers colour and textural contrast. Then along comes the lady’s mantle to add it’s chartreuse brushstrokes, as you can see on my opening page. All looks good till late July, when the catmint stops blooming and begins to sprawl over the path, and the blooms of the lady’s mantle turn a dead beige. Then the postman stops using the path because he can’t get one foot in front of the other. That’s when I get out the pruning shears.

path before

My front path, looking a little unruly in midsummer..even the postman doesn’t want to walk through it.

front path after

After a haircut…much better!

In my lime green garden basket are the cuttings from this short stretch of pathway. Who’d have thought?
path cuttings

I also take out plants that don’t belong where they’ve self-seeded. Don’t get me wrong–I love volunteer plants, but you can’t let them take over no matter how beautiful they are. The secret is in editing them–let them stay where they fill in a space or add a note of colour, but pull them out when they get too bossy.

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) seeds itself all over my garden and is often a conversation piece. I don’t know where it came from, but it grows where it wants to, and sometimes it must go. It was crowding and choking the pretty yellow sedum beside a back pathway, so out it came. A pity, but there was plenty more in other parts of the garden. These poppies, by the way, look spectacular for a couple of weeks in early July and then the foliage goes brown and straggly and they die, leaving three million seeds in the attractive seedpods. Leave them all at your peril.
opium poppy taking over
poppy is gone
The sedum below, a stranger who arrived in my garden unannounced a few years ago, is another pretty little volunteer I welcome for its colour and texture when the garden needs it, but after a few weeks it turns reddish, sprawls badly and starts to choke out the plants, like the yellow coreopsis and its sister sedum, a lovely yellow/chartruese cultivar named ‘Angelina’, which keeps its colour for the growing season. So out it comes. It comes back every year, so it obviously doesn’t mind my drastic measures.
Tough love is sometimes necessary even in a garden.
sedum before
sedum is gone

3 thoughts on “Give your garden new life with a plant haircut

  1. Whew! Just finished my garden tidy up. I think I might have too much garden. You are so right about the difference it makes. Now just the odd little tweak here and there should see me through until the major clean up in October/ November.

    Do hope you are planning a post on the writers’ conference in Quebec. I have read a couple and have found some great vertical structural ideas for our veggie garden.
    Donna in Halifax

    • Yes, I do plan some posts inspired by Quebec City. But I’ve been so busy weeding since I got home I haven’t had time! Funny how a few days away gives you a new perspective of your (messy) garden. Liz

  2. Pingback: The easy black magic of making compost |

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