How to balance garden desires

There comes a time in every gardener’s life when she realizes she can’t grow it all. Gardeners by their very nature fall in love with most plants, especially new ones, and cottage gardeners like me? We have no self-control.

Acer palmatum 'Shindeshojo' and a peak at the garage border.
Acer palmatum ‘Shindeshojo’ and a peak at the garage border.

That’s probably how cottage gardening started. The lady of the manor had more than enough plants, and her gardener took home some cuttings to grow in his own vegetable patch. I like to think so anyway.

Phlox divaricata and Chinese fringe flower in the shade garden.
Phlox divaricata and Chinese fringe flower in a shady bed.

With all the bountiful goodness out there, how does one balance their love of all things green and growing with the physical limitations of time and space? Further, how does the gardener make editing decisions in a garden that’s matured into middle age? These questions buzzed about my mind yesterday as I cut back ornamental grasses and perennials for the first time this year. Oklahoma’s weather is unseasonably warm this week–in the 60s and 70s–so I thought I’d start early on some chores instead of killing myself in March, April and May.

Purple chairs and Berberis thunbergii 'Orange Rocket'
Purple chairs, Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers’ and Berberis thunbergii ‘Orange Rocket’ barberry help balance this view. So does the American coral honeysuckle on the arbor.

Who am I kidding? I will still kill myself in March, April and May. As I played under the gentle January sun though, I mused about what I want from the garden now. I’ve finally realized growing one of everything just creates a jumble. Repetition of form, color and texture unify a garden space.

Rosa 'South Africa' is one of the best new plants I've bought in recent years.
Rosa ‘South Africa’ is one of the best new plants I’ve bought in recent years.

I still want one of everything though.

Balancing the desire to grow it all with the realization about space, climate and time is one of the great challenges for any gardener. Even with room to expand on a rural acreage, my aching left shoulder, knees and back let me know I can’t make the garden ever larger. I need to work smarter, not harder.

Panicum 'Northwind' Garden Bloggers Bloom Day
Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ with sunlight showing through. It grew too large for its space, but now it’s divided and moved.

As I stood in the garden with my clippers at hand, it came back to me how unprepared I am physically for garden work each spring. Running and walking on the treadmill keeps me from gaining weight, but it isn’t strength training. I should add in weights next winter because gardening is the very definition of strength training.

I have several ornamental grasses that need dividing starting with Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ because it fell into the path. It took me thirty minutes, but I dug it up and used my DEWALT Cordless reciprocating saw to divide it into four pieces. I then replanted these at the end of each long garden bed. ‘Northwind’s’ height and color should entice visitors to look down the length of the garden. There’s that repetition factor again. It also rustles when the wind blows. There’s hardly any other plant that charms our ears as much as ornamental grasses. As I struggled with the beast, I began thinking about swathes of plantings to simplify my garden. I also thought about how much I was going to hurt last night, and hurt I did.

The back garden in June. Not as much blooming because we had a lot of rain and no sun. Now, things are dry.
The back garden at the beginning of June 2015. Very green because of the rain. Daylilies are just starting to bloom.

You see, the gardener is not only limited by physical space. She is also limited by time, and what time does to her body. I am fifty-three, and I work very hard outside. I find aching muscles a pleasure, but I am careful with my joints. Surgery is difficult to recover from, and I’m postponing it as long as possible. Digging up large ornamental grasses is hard work.

'Becky' shasta daisy with Rainbow Knockout rose and Black Lace sambucus.
‘Becky’ shasta daisy with Rainbow Knockout rose and Black Lace sambucus.

Something else that’s hard? Pruning roses in spring if you have a lot of them. As I walked around yesterday, I spied two Rainbow Knockouts® in the lowest tier of the borders next to the deck. I will dig and replace them this spring. Digging up roses is hard work, but I’m getting good at it. I haven’t decided on their replacements yet because my attitude toward roses has changed. Where they once were the shrubby backbone of the garden, they are now its spring stars here and there. I once thought the answer to our changeable weather and climate was to own more disease resistant shrub roses. While that wasn’t a bad idea, Rose Rosette Virus plays no favorites, and disease resistance doesn’t matter. I and the garden grew older, and now I’m not so willing to scratch my skin from head to toe pruning over 100 bushes. I find that pruning the few roses I have left is much more pleasurable. Once again, it’s all about balance.

Rosa 'Abraham Darby' in the border on the East side of the house. --Dee Nash--Red Dirt Ramblings
Rosa ‘Abraham Darby’ in the border on the East side of the house.

Not trying to grow every new rose cultivar freed me to think about where I wanted to take the garden now and in the future. One conclusion is that if I buy a new rose, I’m still going to look for disease resistance, but blooms and scent are also paramount. The Rainbow Knockouts® bore me to tears. I’d much rather have an heirloom like ‘Madame Hardy’ with her green button eye, or newer David Austin English rosesThe Lady Gardener‘ or ‘Olivia Rose Austin.’ That’s if I go the rose route again. I’m just as likely to pick a smaller native shrub to replace the Rainbow Knockouts®. It’s all about deciding what works with the space, sun exposure and soil moisture I have. When I remove these roses, I’ll only have the White Meidiland® left in the lowest tier and ‘Heritage’ in the middle tier. The top tier of the border still has my mystery climber, ‘Abraham Darby’ and one other heirloom rose.

I remember hearing older friends at garden clubs discuss putting in more shrubs to reduce work. My thirty-something self thought that was sad. I now see the wisdom of replacing some high maintenance plants with shrubs and small trees, especially evergreen ones. Faced with two vegetable gardens and twenty-seven herbaceous borders I am doing the same. Although it’s not a shrub or tree, one of the best choices from last year was planting Nassella tenuissima, Mexican feather grass, along the edge of the concrete borders in the lower garden. This perennial grass softens the concrete edge, and by using so many plants I got the feathery look I wanted. Mexican feather grass is a great dwarf grass for Oklahoma gardens. It’s not invasive here, and is so pretty. Mine is even still green after a mostly mild winter.

Nassella tenuissima, Mexican feather grass, planted along the edge of a border softens the concrete blocks.
Nassella tenuissima, Mexican feather grass, planted along the edge of a border softens the concrete blocks in last summer’s garden.

Another plant group we should grow more often are the hypericums, St. John’s worts. There are several varieties available from shrubby St. John’s wort, H. prolificum, to prostrate forms. I have mostly the shrub type. What wonderful natives these are. They don’t attack you like roses, and the bees gorge themselves in summer. In a mild winter they sometimes stay evergreen, and Oklahoma has sore need of evergreen plants other than the Eastern redcedar menace. Because they’re native wildflowers, I’m linking to Gail at Clay and Limestone for Wildflower Wednesday this month. You should hop over to her blog to see more native plants people grow.

Hypericum prolificum, shrubby St. John's wort.
Hypericum prolificum, shrubby St. John’s wort.

I think the best way to balance our craving for new plants and bigger gardens is to realize our limitations and work within them. I’m speaking in Seattle at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show next month, and I’ll probably bring home a couple of hellebores to add to my collection. However, I’ll also likely dig up a few non-performers. Instead of being diverted by a pretty face, I now plant more of the same plant. For example, I dug up my ‘Alaska’ shasta daisies this morning, and I’ll replace them with the cultivar Chrysanthemum x superbum ‘Becky.’ ‘Alaska’ has always flopped, and I’m tired of this weakness.

I’ll listen to other gardeners about plant performance before I shell out more money on something new. I’ll be brave and rip out plants that die, or don’t perform as expected tossing them on the compost pile unless they are diseased.

I’ll also work diligently, but not try to do everything in one day. I’ll spread good performers like Phlox divaricata and P. paniculata about the garden like fairy dust. This will make the garden ever more simple and beautiful. I promise to work with what works and limit my plant purchases. Really! I am out of room.

The beginning of the tiered borders that lead into the back garden.
Back garden late spring. ‘Little Zebra’ miscanthus is on the right side. It was young and small then.

That reminds me. I have another grass to dig and divide. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Little Zebra’ is falling into a path. After dividing it, I’m going to place each half at each end of the tiered border like bookends.

Those are my ideas about finding balance with my garden desires. What are yours?


  1. OH This is so speaking my language! My husband has stepped in and helped a lot because mostly somehow he too has gotten bit with the gardening bug! Thank goodness because I don’t think I could do it all anymore. Great post Dee!

  2. annamadeit says:

    Such a relevant post, Dee! Personally, I am in a constant grip of raging plantoholism. My little city lot has long been out of space, but it makes no real difference when I’m faced with something I want. I tend to garden in vignettes, and my garden is more of a testing lab than an actual garden. It is always in the middle of a transition, testing all kinds of boundaries. It drives my family bonkers, but I can’t help it – it is how I learn and develop. Yes it is overly chaotic, but it all makes for better choices for other people’s gardens later.

    As for the time aspect, I always seem to underestimate how much (or little) I actually have. That said, I’m heading out there now. Just returned from two days in Seattle last night, and brought many more vignette enhancers home. Sorry to have missed your talk – we spent one busy day at NWFGS, and the second day nursery hopping.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Anna, I understand just how you feel. It’s so hard to say no to a plant. I’m sorry we missed each other too, but I’m glad you got to nursery hop.~~Dee

  3. I eat away at my lawn every year but going lawnless isn’t an option with 4 dogs and an HOA so once I’m out of room, that’s it. How do you battle disease such as blackspot with your roses?

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Oh blackspot, the rose gardener’s nemesis. I quit spraying years ago, but we don’t usually have wet spring. Sometimes, in summer, they don’t look so good, but they sprout new leaves and blooms after summer. I guess I just don’t care about perfection, and I choose very disease resistant varieties. When you run out of space, you’ll just switch stuff out. That’s what I do. 😉

  4. It’s funny how similar my thoughts are to yours on my garden wishes. I’m 57, and still learning to use my new knee, so I have those challenges to add to my gardening. But hey, that same new knee should also allow me to get back to what I love best. But my biggest challenge right now is not knowing where I’ll actually be doing my gardening this year. Hubby might be getting a new job in Charleston SC, which will completely change everything I know from living in Michigan and Ohio. I’ll surely miss my garden here if that’s what it comes to.

  5. Dee, I am in the same place as you even though my garden is much smaller, only half an acre. But I am about to turn 69 so you are still a “kid” to me. I am starting to work more consciously on keeping strong and healthy as I would like to be able to stay in my house and garden until I am 80 at the very least. I can’t imaging life without a garden. I am in the midst of writing some posts about re-designing the high maintenance area of my garden. I am giving myself permission to use tried and true plants and not the newest — though I am still ordering a few of those, too. Terrific post.

  6. sweetbay103 says:

    Ugh I know what you mean about RRD – the most disease resistant rose has no defense against, although I will say that I do wonder if some of the species roses do, like R. setigera and straight rugosa species. I have been lucky so far but have watched what RRD has done to your roses. And they can be painful to work with! Like being in the middle of a cat fight.

    And I know what you mean about always wanting to try new plants! LOL And the desire to add more woody plants for less work.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Sweetbay, so nice to see you. Yes, well, I bought two new David Austin roses for the garden to replace the Knockouts. We’ll see what happens. Maybe I can still grow a few roses here and there. I sure hope so. I would miss their fragrance and prickly ways. Ha!

  7. Aaron Dalton says:

    My garden is nearly 5 years old, although I had no clue what I was doing the first couple of years, so I really think the parts of the garden I like are only about three years old.

    I’m big into natives these days for lots of reasons – creating a sense of place and creating a functional mini ecosystem (as Douglas Tallamy describes in his book ‘Bringing Nature Home’).

    I know you slam Juniperus virginiana in an older blog post, and I can understand why it might be a poor choice in Oklahoma, but I think it’s a fantastic plant here in Tennessee. In fact, it’s our state evergreen!

    The berries (actually cones) of female eastern red cedars provide winter food for birds and the tree itself not only has outstanding ornamental value, but offers good screening and has proved practically bulletproof in my garden on awful clay soil. (I say ‘practically’ bulletproof, because eastern red cedar is vulnerable to bagworms, but then so are many other non-native conifers. I generally don’t spray any pesticides, but I plan to try spraying my eastern red cedars with Bt this year to keep the bagworms in check.)

    By the way, you helped inspire me to add my first two rose bushes to the garden this past autumn! Here’s a link to ‘Carefree Beauty’ giving you credit –

    Although I love the yellow flowers of Hypericum frondosum ‘Sunburst’, the plants have not thrived in my garden. In fact, I tried a mass planting and a number of them have declined or even died out. I tried H. densiflorum, which grew fairly well – and even self-sowed – but the flowers did not seem nearly as attractive to pollinators. I’m hoping to try adding H. prolificum to the garden this coming spring!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Aaron, I’m so glad I found your thoughtful comment in my spam folder. I guess Akismet put it there because of the links. No system is perfect. I completely agree with you about Eastern redcedars in your state. They don’t seem to take over there like they do here. The Juniperus virginiana have become such a huge problem in Oklahoma that we are starting to look less like the prairie and instead, like an evergreen state. Unfortunately, they drink too much water in our very dry landscape and are crowding out native oaks and other native species of trees. When we were mostly prairie, enough of them burned up in fires that they weren’t such a nuisance. Oklahoma State University has harvested acres and acres of the trees on their land. I wish the state would pay farmers to harvest them too. I don’t begrudge any plant in its native habitat, but like so many other things, climate makes all the difference. Thank you so much for commenting and for linking to me about the roses. I hope you love ‘Carefree Beauty’ as much as I do. ~~Dee

  8. Dee, your post came at the perfect time. I’m constantly adding to my wish list, as our garden grows and evolves–but right now, I’m having a tough time keeping up with my desires physically. I’m trying to be a bit more sensible in plant selection, which is tough for those of us who love it all! Your garden is lovely and inspiring, and here’s hoping we both can forgo surgery as long as possible. Looking forward to hearing you speak in Seattle!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you sweet Julie. Yes, it’s always hard to balance. I wish I were better at it. See you in two weeks!

  9. Time and physical body are what limit me so I have to balance these in my garden…reasonable projects worked in early spring….maintenance in sumer and a few more projects in fall until my body says stop. I listen to her now.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Donna, you’re a smart woman. I’m trying to listen better to my body now too. Happy almost spring.

  10. Les says:

    My garden is very small, and I have always tried to choose plants that either had a long bloom time, or at least had some other feature, like foliage, to extend its season of interest. Then again, I can’t always predict which plant I am going to fall in love with, and all good intentions evaporate. I nibble at the city property that surrounds by garden, but planting there comes with a risk. At any point they could come in and do what they want without regard.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Les, until I counted how many beds and borders are here I don’t think I realized how much everything had expanded over the years. I’m glad you nibble at the city property. So much better than what they would choose.

  11. Pam/Digging says:

    My garden, at 7 years old, is already full. I too am using shrubs and grasses to reduce my workload. And like Carol, I will hire help for bigger chores, like spreading compost or mulch.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Pam, I should’ve mentioned that I hired help last year. I’ve talked about it before, but yes, help is essential. There are just some jobs I don’t want or need to do anymore.

  12. The wanting never seems to wane! Thank you for your candid thoughts. All true. We adapt. We changed. But, sometimes we still listen to our hearts and it rules. Enjoy your time in Seattle. Take a good look at those roses… they may be speaking to your heart. I know the pics of Olivia Rose Austin sure is speaking to mine! (Confession: Ordered 2) ??

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Teresa, I did order those two roses. I decided I want to give them a try. I ordered two of each because it seems like their shrubs are rather small at first. That will be my rose purchases this year. I can’t wait to garden.

  13. indygardener says:

    I find balance by occasionally hiring a bit of help to do the heavy lifting. If you can afford it every once in a while and you know of someone you can trust in your garden, it can be money well spent.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Good point Carol. Since we’re close friends, you know I hired help last summer too. It made all the difference on those hard jobs. Four hands are better than two. That’s for sure. ~~Dee

  14. I agree: We need to grow more Hypericums. I’ve been meaning to add them to my garden, and they would be so much better environmentally than the Burning Bushes and the Barberries. Your roses are stunning. Sorry you’ve had to deal with the Rose Rosette disease. The roses you still have sure are stunning.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hey Beth, yes, hypericums are such wonderful plants. The bees love them. Happy almost spring!

  15. I have 10 years on you and I still find it difficult to pull out a plant that doesn’t perform as I think it should. I don’t know why it is so difficult even though I verbally abuse it and in my mind rip and tear. I think this year is the year I am going to say it doesn’t matter how much I spent in dollars, sweat and emotion I am going to remove a few things and do some areas over. How is that for a proclamation?!

    And what a rabbit hole you sent me down by telling us about the Monty Don youtube videos of gardens. Oh my gosh. I have killed a lot of time watching them. So much fun on such long winter days. These made me realize that I don’t like all that formal geometric cut outs of the so called great gardens. It makes me appreciate the more natural/quirky gardens of the world.

    1. David Hamlin says:

      It can be really difficult to let go of that hope that a plant will “catch up” to where you think it should be, especially if it’s one of your favorites, or when it was a really expensive one. I’m right there with you too because I’m definitely not one to give up on things like that, but it’s something I need to work on.

      1. Dee Nash says:

        Hi David, it is really hard to give up on plants. I do have an example where I hung in there, and it turned out to be a good thing. I had to move Black Lace elderberry three times before I found a spot where it thrives. It’s a testament to how tough that plant really is. Of course, it is an elderberry.

    2. Dee Nash says:

      Oh Lisa, I so identify with your thoughts. The idea of getting rid of a plant that cost me a fortune is so hard, but I had to give up on Chamaecyparis. After killing several, I realized they just don’t want to live here. It did make me sad though. They were expensive. Trees and shrubs are the hardest thing I think. I love your proclamation as much as I love those Monty Don videos.

  16. I know what your telling me about adding more plants is true, but my heart is refusing to listen, saying just one more won’t hurt. I have to admit that I to am getting to the point where I need to balance my physical stamina with the love of beautiful things.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      I’m with you Charlie. It’s a tough balancing act. I ordered those two roses for example so I’m sure not perfect. I just keep trying to pare down the work level so I can do what I enjoy. Try is the operative word. Haha.

  17. My garden hasn’t entered into maturity, even though I have. Like you, I am trying to find a way to have beauty without slaving over it. No, I don’t want a no-maintenance garden, because I enjoy working in it. I just don’t want to be overwhelmed by it. Still trying to find the balance myself.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      I don’t know if there is such a thing as a no maintenance garden, but Kathy I’m with you on making things easier. That way, I have the energy to do what I want in the garden instead of always what I must do.

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