Fall: the season of destruction

Some candidates for fall planting

Never mind clean-up. Winter will take care of most of that. This is when I like to tear the garden apart.

First comes the time of judgement. I walk through the garden and figure out a. Which areas suck and b. Which ones, of all the areas that suck, can be fixed? Certain substandard plantings must be accepted—like the Viburnum rhytidophyllum that’s tall, but not nearly as full as it could be. Not much else will thrive in its spot, so shouldn’t rip it out. Maybe pruning would help. The Jeana phlox are also too tall for their spot, but I love them. The hydrangea petiolaris is hiding the pond; I’ll fix it next August.

For the most part, though, nothing is forever in my garden. This is when I love to pull it to pieces; nobody will see (especially in 2020). This is when I create new borders and get rid of plantings I have tolerated for too long. A huge clump of Joe Pye, towering over nearly every other plant in its bed, is on the chopping block this year. It’s not easy to pull and I am sure I’ll see plenty of survivors next year, but that’s OK. We’re lucky to have a few nurseries here that keep a good perennial section going into fall, with some decent markdowns. Planting them now in that spot will help keep the persistent Joe at bay. The replacements will be mostly well-behaved and colorful: dark purple and light yellow daylilies, perennial salvia, purple Stoke’s aster, and perennial geranium (shown above).

What’s more fun? Cleaning stuff up or making a huge mess with something new to look forward to (or bitterly regret) in the following season? I know which one I’d pick every time.

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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. My problem is I am so thrilled when anything grows, my beds are oh so close to a huge black walnut, that to yank them up because they are not visually working is almost impossible. But reading your rant strengthens my resolve.

    • You sound like me. I’m thrilled when anything will grow, and I usually give my plants 2-3 years to survive and thrive before I make a change. They’re just too expensive to yank out and throw away, plus they are living things. Sometimes, I move a plant to see if a different location makes a difference, and sometimes I find that plants that won’t grow in the ground, do exceedingly well in a pot.

      I suppose I’m the same way with furniture. It takes a flood or a tornado to get me to move my furniture around.

  2. Thinking that this must be very common with everyone who gardens! By late August I had had it with heat, the groundhog, and hauling hoses around. So ripped out the veggie garden, or at least most of it. Redid much of the perennial beds in mid September (as soon as it cooled a bit). Now have my eye on almost anything that offends my eye. Sad. But it will be over next soon, and by February I’m dreaming of what’s going to be different THIS year. .

  3. One gardeners substandard plant is a thrill to others. I hope you share your throw away plants. After digging/dividing/ and moving around a hundred perennials this year, I potted up the extras and placed them street side with a sign “Free”. I have met some awesome gardeners and made a few new friends.

  4. I am so in league with you, Elizabeth. After Isaias hit us, the garden was a mess and all I wanted to do was burn it all down. Instead, now I am ripping things out and replacing with better (I hope) replacements. Some of the replacements are trial hydrangeas, both paniculatas and macrophyllas. Welcome, fall! All former residents have gone to gardens who want and need them. Win-win (except for my aching back)!!

  5. My motto is “When in doubt, rip it out.” I may try the offenders in new places to see if they can be reformed, but I have long since outgrown any sentimental tenderness toward miscreant plants. Gardening is perhaps the only area in life where I am OCD, always plotting and planning for the next season, the next year. For some folks this obsession might be a problem, but my gardening addiction motivates me to get up at a decent hour and helps me cope with the crazy world that greets us with every new day.

  6. I am a fan of Joe Pye, have you tried cutting it back in June. Usually helps to keep.it shorter. It does spread, so I understand wanting it OUT.
    My purge is always houseplants when I bring them in for the winter, I’m sad to see them go after several to many years but it gives me room to try something new.

  7. I have a love-hate relationship with my Verbena bonariensis….I love it when the plant blooms and attracts pollinators, it is the perfect plant for visiting monarchs and swallowtails. Now that the seeding process is starting again, I can’t get to all of them before they disperse their seed. I live North of Denver in Westminster, Colorado – last year, many of these plants made it through the winter under a warm layer of mulched leaves. I ask myself, “How can that happen in my climate”? I have a small, suburbun, bowling-alley shaped back yard but it’s everywhere, sounds manageable, right? I’m over 60 with a questionable lower back and I’m working towards a more manageable garden. All my garden magazines feature photos of this “Wonderful Plant’, I think it’s soon going to be on noxious weed list in many states……even with all these issues, I will probably continue to grow this plant.

  8. I agree with Rebecca. I am also thrilled when anything grows but I am dealing with heavy soil, poor drainage and deer. Add to that the fact that I have become enamored of “natives” this year! Thanks for giving me some resolve and motivation. Never really rip stuff out. Mostly wait for it to not show up again!


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