True blue, rare in flowers, is easily obtainable in bog sage

Jimmy Williams

You read it right. Cruelty is one of the salient assets of a No. 1 ornamental gardener. 

Say you have a stinking sycamore tree you planted 20 years ago.

It outdoes anything on your property in sullying up the grounds with leaves the size of grocery bags, dead branches that fall incessantly the year through and those seed balls that burst open in the spring, sending thousands of fuzzy seeds into every nook and cranny of your place, spawning yet thousands more potential problems. Like father (mother), like son. 

What to do? Cut   the wretched thing down before another day passes, and send the useless wood to the chipper  


Only one caveat with this rule: If you’re older than, say, 65, you might as well painfully live with it for the rest of your years.

You don’t have time to see a replacement grow to any degree of usefulness. If you don’t believe me, consult the actuarial tables. 

This is just one example, perhaps extreme, of a general rule of ornamental gardening: rid yourself of any plant – perennial, shrub or tree – that is not paying adequate rent for the position it holds.

Harden your heart, pick up your spade, or a stick of dynamite, and get to work. Don’t waste any more time thinking every day that perhaps, just maybe, the thing will improve enough that you can take it off life support.

It won’t. Go ahead, be cruel and pull the plug. Elvis sang “Don’t Be Cruel,” but it is OK for the rest of us. 

It has taken me the better part of my gardening life to absorb this principle. I would try every elixir the snake oil peddlers advertised to try to nurse some health into a plant on its death bed. It seldom, no never, worked. 

I am well qualified to take this cruel position. I probably hold the record for plant-killing in this area.

Thousands of potential bright spots have gone the way of the chipper truck and exist only in my nebulous memory.

I am always finding plant labels here and there that hearken to the surface of one of my two or three living brain cells. Then I recall what could have been. 

People often ask me what my percentage of loss has been in our 44 years at Tennessee Dixter.

When I say, with a straight face, perhaps 70 percent, they laugh into that straight face and think I am certainly lying. I am not. It is probably more than 70 percent. 

There are several reasons for that. No. 1 is my obvious ineptitude in planting. I am not feeling sorry for myself.

I am constantly seeing plants in friends’ gardens that are lustily thriving and reminding me of that same plant I have killed, perhaps several times. 

Just one quick example. There is a pair of ‘Blue Star’ junipers enhancing a front walk on Walnut Street.

They are on single stem standards perhaps four feet high, and their bright steel blue needles have shone like sentinels for quite a number of years.

This past spring, methinks, I will put one in our front rock garden, which has high drainage soil that is ideal for such plants.

It was carefully planted in April. By August it had some brown patches and by September was dead as the proverbial doornail. You tell me.  

Another reason for a high loss rate is my propensity toward trying things that are marginal here, either because of cold winters or our red clay hardpan that holds undue moisture in winter near the surface, where many plants respond by promptly drowning.

But, nothing ventured, nothing gained, is my philosophy. Sometimes – seldom – one of these things survives and joins a meager host of other specialties that have managed now for some years to hold a place of esteem in our garden. 

For years, our annual azalea pull was one of our spring rituals. Dead azaleas, some less than a year old, were piled in a funeral pyre and we at least enjoyed a weinie roast over their coals. 

The older a plant gets, the more painful the cruelty process becomes. If something has to die on me, I want it to happen soon and do it apace, before much time is wasted. 

This past spring, I set a personal record in that regard. A red ‘Encore’ azalea was carefully ensconced into our red border, in an adequate hole enhanced with plenty of luscious peat.

I envisioned it adding to that area in spring and fall. Instead, it died within a week — one week.

Well, anyway, Happy All Hallows Eve.


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at 642-1162.

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