Garden Blitz

Patrice Peltier

We don’t always immediately appreciate what a plant has to offer. Sometimes we have to get to know them first. Ornamental grasses can be uninteresting to some, until their fall color adds a brilliant accent to the landscape. Who gave hostas a second look until hybridizers dazzled us with a seemingly limitless combination of foliage colors and textures? Embarrassingly, I needed reminding this same consideration should be given to people.
It happened when my mother accompanied me to a national garden writers meeting in San Diego. We spent several glorious days rubbing elbows with other knowledgeable gardeners, touring fabulous gardens, seeing the latest plants and gardening products and attending lectures. One attendee stuck out like a sore thumb. She had big, blonde hair, wore very short shorts and midriff-baring tops to show off her tanned and buff physique. She didn’t look like the rest of us dowdy, serious gardeners. “Obviously a trophy wife,” Mom and I haruumphed.

Imagine our surprise when we walked into a lecture hall to find the blonde bombshell standing at the podium. For the next hour, we were spellbound as she presented the findings of research she’d done as a graduate student at Ohio State University.
Tracy DiSabato-Aust answered questions we’d been thinking about for years, and she had the data to back it up. What happens if you prune perennials — either before or after they’ve bloomed? Can you shape them to avoid legginess? Stagger bloom times? Encourage new growth? Discourage pests? Maintain vigorously healthy plants?
Tracy conducted experiments to demonstrate what happens. Take phlox: Does yours tend to get too tall, often looming over other plants and then flopping on top of them? Mine do. Tracy explained you can cut phlox back by half in early to mid-June to produce shorter plants. This will delay flowering by two to four weeks. If you want shorter plants without the delay in bloom time, cut them back by half in mid-May. She says you can even cut the plants back when tight flower buds first appear, but I’ve never been brave enough to do that. My own spirit of scientific inquiry only goes so far.
If you want to get fancy, you can cut some stems back and leave others standing. The cut stems will produce flowers later, extending the bloom time. Cool, huh? You can do the same thing with other perennials such as monarda, Russian sage, coneflowers and many more. The timing varies with the plant. It’s all in her book, “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: The Essential Guide to Planting and Pruning Techniques.” The book, now in its third edition, is available through the South Central Library System.
I learned a lot that day about taking care of plants and about judging people. In the 25 years since, I’ve tried to remember and apply all the lessons from that trip. Hopefully, I’ve been growing right along with my garden. The process has been full of both discovery and disappointment, elation and frustration. In other words, it’s been blitz.

Patrice Peltier lives in Spring Green and writes regularly for Wisconsin Gardening, Chicagoland Gardening and The Landscape Contractor magazines. Her work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens and Midwest Living magazines.