Garden Redesign: Evaluate Everything and Have No Mercy


    Guest Post by Wendy Kiang-Spray

    Usually, when I look out my kitchen window this time of year, I look forward to the delicate, pale purple-topped baptisia that will delight me for a few short weeks, or peony stems poking through whose stunning flowers I’ll stop daily to admire upon walking to my door, and I know I will wonder at those awesome, gigantic, alien-looking shubertii  alliums coming up.

    My flower garden is about 10 years old, but in the past few years, though the anticipation of seeing old perennials returning is still exciting, new thoughts have crept into my head. I wonder if the coreopsis is finally going to be the color it was supposed to be (no, for years it has been redder than the catalog showed!), or if those blueberry shrubs are going to produce blueberries (no, I stink at growing blueberries), or if I’ll find a stake tall enough to support the martagon lily in time (no, and why is that darned thing 10 feet tall anyway!), or whether I’ll ever get to see ‘Bela Lugosi’ daylily (no, the deer one-ups me every year). Also, the sinocalycanthus is too big, the Russian sage is too floppy, the lamb’s ear is too much, and the liriope is too worthless.

    I remember reading an article about pruning called “The Kindest Cut.” I connected with the message, which started by acknowledging that it’s hard to cut into or cut back a plant, but it’s necessary for the health of the plant. Well, I’m applying that concept to my new project. While I’ve been hesitant to remove any of my precious plants, which, even if I hate them, are still maintaining a life in my garden, it’s JUST GOT TO GO. My new plan is called “No Mercy.” For this project, I will remove, give away or compost all the plants that are just not doing it for me anymore. I shared this plan with my always cooperative husband and he said, “It’s time.” Yes it’s time. It’s been a decade. In that time, I’ve learned what works, what doesn’t, what has winter interest, what birds like, what butterflies like, and what I like. My tastes have changed, not only with color, but with form, design, and spacing. My life has changed in 10 years and what I’m able to put into my perennial garden has changed.

    This is why I’m ready for “No Mercy.” My plan is to take out about 70% of the garden and start near tabula rasa. I’m so invigorated by this change, and like 10 years ago, I’m full of creative energy, hope, and can’t wait to see how this year will go. It’s time!

    Wendy Kiang-Spray is a freelance writer, speaker, and author of The Chinese Kitchen Garden. She gardens in Rockville, MD and blogs at and GreenishThumb.


    1. Sound like an exciting but a very EXPENSIVE proposition. How will you go about your new design and come up with replacements?

      I’m interested because I’m in the same place but just don’t have funds to rebuild.

      • Well, I’m a bit embarrassed to say aloud because it will take a lot of luck (to make up for lack of skill!) to accomplish, but I’d like to do more of a Piet Oudolf kind of sesign. Swaths of color, lower maintenance perennials with winter interest, lots of grasses, etc. I think it will look awesome over time. Price wise, I may already be failing at this…I believe one of the concepts is close planting, and I already think I’m cheaping out on the quantity of plants I should be buying. But I guess I’ll start with the overall concept and fill it in in subsequent years of it’s too sparse. Wish me luck though!

    2. I have struggling houseplants at my office. They are the ugliest plants ever. But, because they’re alive, I keep them. I feel obligated to them. Your point that cutting into a plant (pruning) is for its health, even though it’s a wound, is a good point. Like you, I too need to cut into my plant collection and let go of those sickly houseplants. Thanks for inspiring me with your bravery. Now, where do I sign up to receive some of those plants you will be pulling and giving away? : )

    3. Empathy to you, Wendy, on your garden’s evolution. This winter, with leaves off and no birds nesting, it has been relatively painless to ‘edit’ our original woody landscape members – lilacs, ninebarks, rugosas. This has been needed for years,
      but waiting until best practices would advise means disturbing the avian residents. So, winter … when the lovely snow makes old growth obvious and
      provides a sliding surface for hauling it all away. BTW, I hope this ends soon – the snow I mean! Have fun and remember, a gardener can divide stuff – patience is often more plentiful than $.

    4. I’m at this point too, though more because some of what I planted 10 years ago has died or has grown bigger than I’d expected. My cowardly plan had been to just keep dividing the reliable daylillies, with pachysandra to fill in the spaces. But you’re inspiring me to do better.

    5. I am so happy to read this as I am going through a similar period in my life, except I am dealing with a “new-to-me” garden as we just purchased our home this winter.

      The front garden showcased old roses, which acted as a dividing line between neighbors. After many atttempts at removing borers and trying to like them, I adopted the ‘hell hath no furry’ approach to removing the row of roses and giving them to someone who would love their difficult beauty.

      What I was surprised to find were the positive reports from my neighbors upon the removal. I wonder if our bold moves to shake it up and breathe new life into designs has a positive impact on those around us as well as us?


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