Learning to say goodbye—with pleasure

These hydrangeas, lilies, phlox, and so on used to be raspberry bushes.
These hydrangeas, lilies, phlox, and so on used to be raspberry bushes.

Death is  part of life, but this  fact is accepted with difficulty and nowhere more so than among gardeners. Perennials should be just that. Shrubs need to be so well chosen and expertly tended that they stand guard in foundation plantings for decades. Bulbs suck unless they come back year after year reliably. And the demise of a houseplant is reason enough to never buy another indoor plant again. It’s only among the serious rosarians that “shovel pruning” is a regular occurrence. They’re tough—if a rose isn’t working out, they have no problems getting rid of it quickly.

I’ve never felt this way—in fact, I probably go too far in the other direction. I embrace failure because it gives me a chance to try something else. For our front garden shrubs, I immediately got rid of the old yews that were there when we moved in. They say to wait a year on newly acquired gardens, but I doubt the yews would have improved in that time. (Of course, the idea of not waiting becomes more attractive when the snow melts and you discover you’ve inherited 4 beds of pachysandra.) The yews were replaced with some late-blooming rhododrendron and now I’m trying leucothoe. The rest of the garden has changed completely many times. A perennial bed became a pond; a rose garden a perennial bed, and various shade perennials and come and gone in my difficult front space. I’m still killing at least 2 a year.

As for bulbs. The hundred or so that are currently being forced indoors (many just coming into bloom) will eventually find their way into the compost bucket, as will the ones in large containers that I bring out in April. These are all hyacinths and hybrid tulips. The tulips rarely come back and I’ve nowhere to put the hyacinths. Anyway, I’m always happy to start over with new bulbs in the fall. Even the species tulips in the ground aren’t completely reliable—I have to add more each year.

Houseplants are where people really lose it. Houseplant owners need to face the fact that the American home is generally inhospitable to plant life. You must choose carefully and accept failure. The easiest houseplants are also the ones that clean the air most effectively, so don’t scorn sansevaria, pothos, dracaena, philodendron, spider plant, and the others most commonly found in offices. There’s a reason you see them there—even the lack of natural light and harsh dry atmosphere of the average office will not kill these. Chances are you won’t either. You might also get rid of formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene in your domestic atmosphere—brought in from carpets, cleaning products, scented candles, and so on. (Google this and you will find dozens of studies.) In the realm of houseplants, accepting death and soldiering on is actually a health issue.

It’s not that I don’t treasure my most venerable plants—a climbing rose that’s been here at least three decades, a very old sugar maple, the unknown hostas that have been raising their tall deep purple flowers since before we moved in, my thirty-year-old schlumbergera, and many more. But I wouldn’t love them as much if I couldn’t change and refresh so much else.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. I hear you on this one, Elizabeth! I used to feel like a murderous parent whenever something needed to go. Then I started feeling bolder, and decided to get rid of stuff for my own good (and the garden’s, of course). Much to my surprise, I started liking it and eventually developed a ruthless streak, realizing how liberating it was to jettison something that had outlived its welcome, purpose or whatever. The garden and I are much the better for it.

  2. Another good one, but I beg to disagree about houseplants. While I have most that you mention, I overwinter several rooms worth of different varieties. There is generally some die off, but just like with the outside, that allows me the option of reducing or trying something different!

    • Rhea, I also overwinter a lot of tropicals and semitropicals. But I am speaking to those who insist they cannot keep a houseplant alive, so I only mentioned the ones we have in our office.

  3. Dear Elizabeth, I love the color theory in your photo of hydrangea and lilies. All diverent values and intensities of redviolet with yellow– one I love!

  4. I can see myself in this post. I struggle when I want to get rid of a plant, and feel so guilty when I do. I guess I feel a little better knowing that I am not alone. You are lucky that you don’t feel such guilt and so easily “shovel prune.”

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