Finding and Fixing Our Gardens’ Many Flaws. Now Is the Time!


Right now, here in fall, this is when all the many flaws in my garden are on glorious, full on, full frontal display. Proudly, they flaunt themselves, mocking me to every carload of judgmental suburbanites that drives by, the pilots and passengers who fly over my house, and the hordes of bike path walkers across the street who glance my way, make remarks to one another, and snicker. So the other day, it hit me like a brick. Yes, it’s been a long season. Sure, I’m tired. Indeed, I’m pretty darned burned out. But the constructive response to all this humiliation is not to run across the street and chase around four middle-aged sisters who had, in fact, snickered, but who also counted among their number a county judge, but rather to put on my boots, pick up my spade, and make needed changes.   

Having written that above paragraph, and then having reread it, and then having re-written it, re-read, and then repeated that cycle 2-3 more times, a couple thoughts occur to me. One, writing and gardening are very similar. There is never a final product with gardening. And there wouldn’t be for writing if it weren’t for deadlines. The other thought, and one that worries me, is that not everyone will find the above revelation as earth-shatteringly insightful as I did. 

Agastache ‘Blue Fortune,’ I tried. I really tried. But the soil here is not spare enough to keep you from keeling over. You’re getting moved to the kind of inhospitable site that keeps you trying.

It’s very possible some people are smarter than I. You might fall in that category. And, possibly, even as a small child you knew that poor plant choices and bad design ideas majestically rear their ugly heads in the fall garden, thereby making it easier to lop them off. I, myself, am finding it somewhat appalling that it has taken me almost 40 years of gardening and 60 years of living to discover this pithy truth. So if you are annoyed by how obvious the whole premise of this blog has been so far, I will ask that you read on anyway. I think you’ll be amused by the schadenfreude that comes from observing how much harder life is for some of us. 

Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen,’ like many of us, had a bad 2020. And it wasn’t so hot in 2019 either. It’s on the short list.

I’ll say this one additional thing too before I stop all this paralyzing self consciousness. I might have thought this idea up before, and then simply forgot it. I forget everything. On several occasions when a number of weeks had passed since my wife and I had had marital relations, it was like I was a virgin all over again. I was like, “Wow! That was so incredible! Tell me again what you called it?” 

A memory this bad is why it’s not good enough to just walk around and be accosted by my garden’s many flaws with the intention of fixing them in the spring. Maybe your memory is bad too. If so, fix all you can now. For the remainder, take photos and make notes that you print and bind into a book which you’ll keep in an inconvenient place where it might drop on your foot several times over winter. That way, it won’t be out of mind come spring.  

Have I inspired you to act yet? Because I suspect a lot of you are smiling and nodding your heads sagely, and yet will not get outside and defeat all those unsightly elements in your garden. And, I reckon I know the ironic reason why. It’s because it’s depressing to wander the garden this time of year. And why is that? Hell’s bells, it’s because of all those flaws! The time to strike is now.   

Loved my Crocosmia back in June when it looked like the picture on top, but it has looked like the picture on the bottom ever since. Not quite ready to live without it, I dug it up and relocated the bulbs yesterday. It now lines my neighbor’s side of a rock wall. Maybe the wall will keep it from flopping like a Premier League soccer player. If not, it’ll flop where I can’t so easily see it. My neighbor will, but he’s a lawn guy. Most importantly, I know the blooms will be held above the wall enough that I’ll still get to enjoy them. Moreover, I think my Crocosmia needed dividing anyway, and will look better as a long, narrow clump than it did as an amorphous one. Whether it stands upright or not.

So don’t talk yourself out of doing this important work. Don’t tell yourself that you’re tired and you want to watch football on TV. Don’t fall for your own lie that your garden is already good enough. Don’t remember that the garden center will be a depressing and disappointing ghost town with a shell shocked staff all wandering around like zombies. Don’t be so stupid as to expect you’ll remember all the changes you need to make next spring. Just go outside and start working. 

When I cut down the tree that was shading my Brunnera, I wondered how much sun it could take. Turns out, not this much. It will get moved to a shadier neighborhood, but, lower on the list, that might not happen until spring because I already have a lot of it and know it is quick and easy to transplant them in spring.

Oh, and one other thing. When you go out to judge the good, the bad, and the ugly, make damned sure you’re in a terrible mood. The worst mood you can make happen. Critically important. Your tolerance for tolerance should be way below the norm. If you’re a mean drunk, do it drunk. If you’re a happy drunk, do it sober. If you’re not a drunk at all, watch four hours of the other side’s 24-hour cable news channel before you go outside. With that kind of fire in your eyes, sentiment will not override ugly, and with a sharp spade and some napalm, you can get real. Get really real!  You might be surprised how much less you hate your garden next year!  

So the Aster tataricus, despite being cut back by half in July, is devouring the ‘Stewartstonian’ Azalea. The azalea is also being devoured by lace bugs, which is exactly what typically happens here in calcareous SW Ohio. Something here has got to change, but I haven’t quite decided what. But it’s not looking good for the azalea. Best case scenario for it is that I find a shadier place for it and drench it with sulfur and iron from time to time.




  1. hahahah that was great! I relate, because I have spent the last three weeks ripping things out, movin’ them around, doing stuff I could not do in the heat of summer. You’re right, you will not remember what you meant to move when spring comes! Everything looks so different! My big incentive has been a planned garden club Garden Walk next summer. I’ve got to get as much done as I can now! Those weedy spots and troublesome areas have been eliminated. All I will need to do next year is plug bare spots. That makes me smile. I am sleeping better too.

  2. Ha ha, so timely. I just gave a webinar of this very topic the other night. So easy to make changes when plants are looking their worst. The very best thing about being a gardener is we are all eternal optimists always thinking changes now will create perfect gardens next Spring.

  3. My croccasima bloom and I don’t mind how they look. But after heleanthis bloom most of the summer, boy do they look lame. Can I just prune them low? I do hope I’ll understand better in the spring.

  4. My sentiments exactly as I make notes for the spring. I am removing,relocating many perennials and replacing with more shrubs,small trees etc. many of the perennials will be potted and sold in the spring at our neighborhood tag sale.Making notes, just about done cutting back, cleaning up. Thanks for the timely note Scott!

  5. Love this! I came to this same realization this year – only, this is the Buffalo area, and we can’t make all of our corrections in late October. This was my first year of retirement, and retirement with a pandemic on – so I had time I never dreamed I’d have. I kept a piece of paper and a sharpie jammed into the front pocket of my jeans, and took notes all season long. Some of the corrections I’ve made already (digging out or switching out daylilies for impact or size) when they finished blooming. The rest is transcribed into a spiral notebook so that I’ll make the corrections in the spring. Very appealing to my secretarial brain.

  6. Thank you Scott. Not for the nudge/push to take the ‘tinted colored spectacles’ off. ( I was listening to BBC 4 radio) but plant identification. I have been trying to identify my Aster tataricus for weeks with no luck.
    I read it is edible too, in case we really have to dig in for the next four years.

  7. I would do this if my entire garden was not already covered in snow. Even the peonies have not been cut back! Not happy that October set the record for snowiest October EVER. But loved your post.

  8. What a great article! My body is aching from power gardening all week as it intends to snow sometime this coming week. I missed the window last year and had to look at stalks of everything poking through the snow last year – a mind bender for someone who likes some semblance of order. And though many things did get done there are still many things yet to do, hence those to-do lists for spring. Glad I am not the only one. Thanks.

  9. It’s fall. Of course, the plants are going to look saggy and weak. You should remember that all gardens are beautiful. Some are just better than others. We love the rainy season here and plants do grow very rapidly. After the rainfall, the plants just mess up the place with their extra large presence in the garden. I think it’s okay as long as they’re doing well 😉


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