A Tale of Two Shrubs


Here is my neighbor Patrick's Viburnum sargentii 'Onondaga.' Nice shrub, with flowers like a lacecap hydrangea's…only in spring.


And below is my Viburnum sargentii 'Onondaga':

Viburnum leaf beetle

Sad, no? 

Patrick and I bought our shrubs on sale at exactly the same moment in the fall of 2008, from the same excellent nursery, Mettowee Mill Nursery in Dorset, VT. I always try to save my shrub purchases for Mettowee Mill, where they raise some of their shrubs themselves, have a really good selection, and offer huge specimens if you have more cash than time. I tend to shop in the $45 range, which usually gets me something impressive that has to be muscled into my car.

My viburnum, however, is the first plant I've bought from Mettowee Mill that was never happy. I put it in a half-shaded spot on the south side of my house. Then my neighbor had a tree taken down last spring and it wound up in full sun, where it proceeded to wilt on every warm day.

I also noticed that it had a sprinkling of viburnum leaf beetles on it. First seen in New York State fifteen years ago, this is a pest so devastating that Cornell University has devoted loads of web attention to it.  Not every viburnum species tastes equally good to this beetle.  Cornell says that Viburnum sargentii falls into the "susceptible" category.

So when I dug the shrub up last fall and tipped it into my wheelbarrow–heavy work!–on its way to a shadier spot, I sprayed it carefully with insecticidal soap. This is completely against my religion. But I did it because I was moving it near my beloved Viburnum juddii, which has pink and white snowball-shaped flower clusters in early spring with a perfume that fills the neighborhood, and did not want anything pestilential in the vicinity of that glorious shrub.

Ten days ago, my Viburnum sargentii 'Onondaga' was about to bloom and looked great. Today…it was pulled out of the ground and thrown onto the brush pile.

Patrick's still looks gorgeous.  His is in a more exposed spot, where bugs would be easier to spot, and he picked off the larvae by hand. His viburnum also probably gets supplemental water. Whereas in my yard, it's sink or swim. 

In fact, I think if I was a nice new shrub that cost $45, I'd want to be in Patrick's yard, too.

He might not give me a mulch of fall leaves, it's true, and I'd like that. On the other hand, he's a relative beginner as a gardener and not yet a hardened killer of innocent bushes. He doesn't yet have 10,000 plants in his yard, though he is on his way. The advantage to going home with Patrick is that he'd be paying attention. He'd hear cries for help before it was too late.

In that other yard, well, it's very Darwinian.


  1. Plant Killer!! You are just the kind of customer nurseries love.

    Now a semi-cure for your neglect is the concept of the evening stroll to enjoy the garden when problems can be noticed and maybe possibly added to the list of things that need attending to.

  2. My collection of plants has gotten way out of control and I need a few things to die each year in order to make room.

    I’ve advanced to the point that my murders are pre-meditated. I deliberately plant fast growing cheap trees and shrubs to cast a bit of shade in areas where I need it while tender slow growers are getting their footing.

    If that viburnum had been in my yard it would have been sacrificed to the compost gods before it completely died. I don’t need to do anything heroic to save anyone in trouble – there are too many babies in pots awaiting a space in the ground.

  3. I moved away from my 10,000 plants last fall, so my new collection is suffering from performance anxiety. I look closely at every baby every single day, ask them if they are happy, see if I spaced them correctly. There was nothing in my space after I had all the overgrown junipers ripped out and regraded the lot, so every little gem was hand selected. In another year or so I may get enough plants that a few get ignored, but right now I even inspect the neighbour’s garden.

  4. On a completely different topic…sorry. I visited Longwoods and Chanticleer last weekend, and I want to thank you Pennsylvania (and Du Pont) for having such a treasure. I informed my honey that if he continues to find gardens like those he never needs to take me to Europe for a garden tour, I’m sure that they can’t be any more beautiful.

  5. I read this post and breathed a sigh of relief. I am NOT the only one who kills plants. Thank you.
    By the way, I have been reading GardenRant and decided that this year the great outdoors (my backyard)was not going to get the best out of me. I fed my husband his Wheaties this February and put him to work. We re-designed our backyard to make it more efficient. See my starting pics. I think I’m on to something. And I’m keeping the stinkin’ fire ants away by throwing white sugar on them. I wish I knew that last year cause they killed off my oregano.

  6. Thanks for the link to our Cornell info on viburnum leaf beetles. Check out the ‘manage vlbs’ page. In a nutshell, plant resistant species. I’m not sure your insecticidal soap in fall did much good as at that point, the little buggers are overwintering in pretty secure egg-laying sites that are likely little affected by such treatment. Better to clip out infested twigs overwinter when they are easy to spot. The site has lots of pix to help you identify them.

  7. I never buy Viburnum for that very reason. The VLB is voracious and can de-foliate a shrub overnight. I don’t need something with that kind of attraction. But thanks for the link; I’ll see what Cornell advises.

    On the other hand, I do ensure that everything is well watered when I transplant and pay attention to the plant’s condition as it continues to put down roots in its new location.

    In terms of insecticidal soap, I find that a thorough spraying on a sunny day, without rinsing off very soon afterwards, can fatally harm a plant by burning the leaves.

  8. Speaking of pests, I’ve had to really watch a few things. I realized I had some rhododendron loopers AFTER my wee azaela was de-nuded….as it has been almost every spring. Now I know why and can keep an eye out.

    An unknown tiny, shiny blue-black beetle’s been decimating my spiderwort buds. Howevr, they are slow, easily caught, and make a satisfying snap when squished between two rocks.

    Aphids on my lupines! It’s been much warmer than usual, so they got to suck the life out of many flower stalks despite spraying with soapy water with obsessvie frequency. I was squeezing some foxglove in beside them, and noted a huge area I’d somehow missed.

    Valuable lessons for next year.

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