Capital Crime


Some plants deserve mercy, and some represent risks that society simply cannot bear.

The question is, how does an advanced civilization separate one from the other, admitting the possibility of redemption for the former while protecting an attractive yard from the antisocial behavior of the latter?

For example, I have a number of perennials that after years of wasted youth are really turning their lives around this spring. This group includes all of my hellebores, plus a ridiculous species peony that cost $30 four years ago and since has done nothing but send up a beaten-looking stem or two.


This year, it suddenly seems ready to tread the straight and narrow. True, it produced just one flower after four long years. But I challenge anyone to look into the innocent purple eye of that flower and not see potential there. If there had been any hasty prying out of the ground and composting, what a shame that would have been.

Other plants, however, are dangerous recidivists, for whom winning any kind of gentle treatment is just a con. 

They manage to offend over and over, and will keep on offending if allowed their freedom.

I include the hardened old rhododendron above in this group.

I don't like rhododendrons because of unpleasant memories of the inert, all-evergreen-all-the-time yards of my suburban youth.

When I first bought my house, I thought guilt by association might be enough to consign this bush to the brush pile.

But it demonstrated a twinkling purple charm when it bloomed and was granted a suspended sentence.

The next spring, it began covering the windows of my already dark Victorian house. This time, my husband acted the part of hanging judge. "Cut it down," he said with chilling dispassion, "and plant something nice there."

But I was merciful, and instead merely lopped it off at the height of the window ledges after it bloomed.

The next year, I noticed some stunting and twisting where I'd cut.  It looked slightly diseased.  The following year, it again began climbing the windows, but the docket was crowded and its case was never addressed.

And this year, in a spring with just the right amount of rain after a very rainy summer and a very snowy winter, in the kind of climactic conditions that ought to be heaven for such an understory bush, it is a complete eyesore, a mangy mixture of shriveled brown leaves and half brown and half green ones.

It's one thing to show forbearance to a young plant that may not have found its way.  But when a mature plant keeps acting out so perversely, Swedish bow-saw may be the only answer.

There are those who argue that resorting to bow-saw coarsens any society that permits it.  Others say that the sentence of bow-saw is inevitably applied in a biased and corrupt fashion and is often prompted by an attractive viburnum waiting in the wings.

I say the deterrent factor overrides all these concerns. Because if you happen to be an unhappy broad-leafed evergreen reminiscent of New Jersey, well, chances are good you won't be venturing into my yard anytime soon.


  1. Much better the saw, if the deed must be done, than glycosol. I would trim, trying for a pleasing shape and this may come on first try, before I cut all the way to the ground.

    I have regretted cutting some things (specifically a rose from the fence, not for the rose so much, as for the wren family that nested there) and advise against rashness, especially in spring.

  2. Here in Maryland, most rhodos perform miserably and I’m forever suggesting their owners give up on them. My own rhodos will have a good year now and then, but most years they’re crap, after lots of winter kill, no matter how protected a spot I give them. Mountain laurels? Same thing, only worse.

  3. Alas, I have the naked frame of an expired burning bush — killed by drought two years ago — still standing as the main focal point in my front garden.

    I’ve pruned it into a ‘pleasing shape’ with the idea of painting it to look like I did it on purpose. Perhaps black to match my wrought iron railings? Or perhaps that striking shade of cobalt blue. It is still awaiting judgment.

  4. The offender is not the plant, but whoever planted it. Each of us makes regretable mistakes, and inevitably must “cut out” some of our errors, but the plant is blameless.

  5. Dave Reed, that’s a very liberal point of view. Maybe I should focus my righteous anger on the previous owners and their collection of ill-chosen Wal-Mart bushes.

    But they have moved to the country, beyond the reach of my bow-saw.

    Helen, I’d like to visit your garden. I’m voting cobalt blue.

    Susan, where DO rhododendrons want to be and what conditions DO they like? I remember seeing some spectacular 30-foot tall ones at the White House. And I think they did well in New Jersey.

  6. My recollection of rhododendrons past (in New Jersey as well), is that they looked best at the edges of woodlands.

    But I agree with your husband. That gnarly thing must go!

  7. Rhodies like shade, and woods. I could never figure out why people use them as foundation plantings. They usually look bad in that kind of setting, especially with lots of sun. I am speaking about MA and NH where they are often native varieties.

  8. Since I am not a Rode fan anyway, my vote is to *voice drops to dramatic whisper* lop it off!

  9. I have a bougainvillea much like your rode – only it blooms magnificently. but it’s in the wrong spot and I only have myself to blame. Wish I could blame prior owners. Rip off the bandage and cut it to the ground. (but me, I’ll remain displeased with mine for at least one more year before I take drastic measures)

  10. Funny how our growing memories will often be tied to what was growing in the gardens around us.

    Sort of like a framework of vines, leaves and flowers for the images of our lives.


  11. Sigh. Your rhododendron wants to be in Oregon. Never have I seen a more beautiful sight than a whole hillside of wild rhodies in bloom. Well, or England. They’re a pest but a 20-foot tall pink and purple roadside pest is not so bad in my book.

    Saddest rhodies ever though? Some idiot thought it would be a good idea to plant them in Nevada. The desert, you know? These are barely recognizable as plants, let alone rhododendrons. Someone should be prosecuted for torture just for planting them here.

  12. sure, rhodies do well here in oregon, a bit TOO well.

    every year thousands of oregonians plant them about 2 feet from their houses. 10 years later, the next homeowner cant figure out why someone would plant a 20 foot evergreen tree so close to all their windows.

    a common solution is to trim up all the branches a full story. looks weird.

  13. A topic after my own heart – I posted on this last week. Despite being treated with love and affection, my own Ms Lewinsky Rhodie hadn’t bloomed in 8 years, and so I scheduled her for a long overdue trip to the compost bin. Almost overnight, out pops a stunning bloom. (but only one, mind you.) It had been so long, I didn’t even remember what color the flowers were.

    So my question is, did Ms. L somehow know her days were numbered, and so finally decided to get busy?

  14. “Maybe I should focus my righteous anger on the previous owners and their collection of ill-chosen Wal-Mart bushes.”

    I have a whole border of rhodies in the front yard, and someone, somewhere, managed to plant long and short leaf varieties that bloom in succession (fuchsia, then hot pink, then pink buds opening white, then a Kalmia latifolia) that actually looks quite nice. It’s not just one rhodie plunked out there to bloom once and then sulk all summer.

    Then the Wal-Mart people (who ‘flipped’ the house for a tidy profit from us) came along. Pieris japonica, variegated euonymous (I feel like Edward Scissorhands cutting these damned things back every spring), Korean lilac, shrubby cinquefoil, and sedum. Needless to say, I edited heavily.

    Rhodies like shade and acid soil. If you decide to have mercy on yours, Michele, Holly-tone applied in autumn should help it perk up next spring.

  15. I love this post. 🙂

    I recently had a similar experience with a plum tree that I affectionately named “twig-a-thor”. Poor Twigathor. For several years it wimpered along looking more like a stick than a tree. Some years it would only put out 10 leaves all season, and it was coming on six years old.

    This year, I gave it one final chance. I pruned it back hard, gave it a “last meal” of fertilizer, and declared that it had one final chance. If it did not leaf out by June, it would be discarded.

    I am happy to say that Twigathor has turned the corner and seems to have given up it’s shameful past and joined productive ecology. Nothing makes me happier.

    We are gardeners. We discriminate. We pick and choose. We judge. Not all plants are equal.

    We create artificial structures out of natural components. It is a wonderful contradiction; it is a wonderful world.

  16. Kill the monster and then plant a Rhodie yedoense puokhanense ‘Alba.’ Mine is 6 years old, planted in a so-so location and has almost 50 flowers after doing nothing for almost 4 years. Best of all: it’s wider than tall and tops out at 3′.

    As for those peonies: I wrote about them on Tuesday. I have one that only has one flower but the others have developed quickly into good sized bushes with lots of flowers. Well worth the wait and the money. And wait until you see what the seedhead does!

  17. I keep forgetting to cut down my peonys and every year, for exactly 15 minutes, I get to enjoy the blooms. Along with the ants. I use them to torture my ant-hating hubby!

    The rodie on the south side does better than the rodies on the east side. Go figure. I almost cut one of them to the ground completely last weekend. But I do like the green in the winter. So what to do?

  18. The rhodies in my suburban MD neighborhood are taller than the houses and spectacular in bloom, but yours doesn’t look so good. Do YOU have any blue paint?

  19. If you ever get to the Seattle area, come see the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden. It will change your mind about rhodies. We everything from rhododendron trees to inch tall rhododendron groundcovers. We have rhodies with such beautiful foliage, you would grow them even if they never bloomed. We have rhodies you would never guess were rhodies if we didn’t tell you.

  20. I used to go hiking in the NC mountains, and when the rhododendrons were blooming they were gorgeous. I have thought about planting one in a shaded area in the back of my yard in SC, but they just get so big.

  21. Here I am thistle and thorn. When we prune rhododendrons here in the cool mountain forests of NC it is because they have gotten to big and swallowed up a path in the wild cultivated garden. Great concern is expressed over losing even one branch of the prolific blooming rhododendrons. Maybe the path can be shifted.

    Another dozen so far, the resident gardeners want more, were purchased this spring and planted ten feet apart. It may take ten years for them to merge into a solid mass, but merge into a wall of bloom they will in the cool mountain forests of NC.

  22. What I am gathering from all these comments is that rhododendrons don’t particularly want to live in my climate, where one week there is snow on the ground five feet deep and the next, it is 95 degrees. They want more moderate conditions, a communitarian or eco-conscious lifestyle and universal health care, if possible.

    We do better with the more schizophrenic personalities here.

  23. The spouse helps the elderly lady across the street with her yard. Last year he lolly-popped every shrub she had. She loved it. I was appalled (it is why he is not allowed to do any pruning in our yard). I was lamenting over the rhodie, how it would never bloom for years and look like a deformed stunted monster. Dam’ thing is polluted with flowers this spring, and looks waaay better than mine. I hate it when that happens.

  24. I pass along what I heard Clair Martin of the Huntington Gardens here in So Cal said once in a lecture… “prune with a shovel” If a plant is always sickly, diseased, bug-ridden & I’ve given it what it needs & still nada, then I prune with a shovel. I do not treat my garden as a giant storage space for any old plant unless it pleases my eye.

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