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Bloom or Get Out!

June 10, 2011

Hemerocallis flava blooming in the blue and yellow border (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) I like to think of myself as a kinder, gentler type of gardener. So it’s a bit embarrassing to admit that I sometimes threaten my plants. But there it is; I do. And I know I’m not the only gardener to do so. Some plants just seem to respond better to a stern talking to than to sweet talk.

I first discovered the power of threats after I added the very early species daylily Hemerocallis flava to the blue and yellow border. The idea was to have this yellow flower blooming as a vibrant accent in June, when blue dominates in this flower bed.  But for several years after I added it to the garden, H. flava put up foliage but never bloomed. One year, I decided I’d had enough. “If you don’t bloom next year,” I threatened, “you’re getting replaced.” The following spring, H. flava put up 5 flower scapes and bloomed luxuriantly! It has bloomed reliably every year since – although never quite as profusely as it did that first year when it was under threat of eviction.

Bloom on Rhododendron catawbiense album (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) The most recent plant to push me to the point of threats was Rhododendron catawbiense album. This shrub was added to the garden in 2003, the year the deck border was completed. It was intended to fill the corner by the deck with it’s huge pink-tinged white blossoms each June and to provide a strong architectural presence throughout the year. It has performed the latter role fairly well, growing larger each year. But for 7 years, the sum total of blooms produced by this plant was one!  When it didn’t bloom at all last year, I resorted to threats. I didn’t threaten this plant with eviction – at least not yet; shrubs are too big an investment to be discarded easily. But I did threaten it with a severe pruning. You can see the result below; this year, finally, this rhododendron is loaded with blooms.

Blooming Rhododendron catawbiense album (photo credit: Jean otuchek)I’m hoping that this is not a one-time response to threat, but a breakthrough, and that this plant will continue to bloom more and more each year. Oh, and I do intend to prune it after it finishes blooming – but a gentle pruning to improve its shape rather than the threatened severe pruning.

Most of the time I really am a kinder, gentler type of gardener. But sometimes, plants just need tough love.

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38 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2011 10:24 pm

    I love the title of this post! I think sometimes plants need a good threatening 🙂 I have a variegated rhodie that is being threatened this year. It’s a good thing it has really pretty foliage. I’m glad your daylily and rhododendron finally listened to you, they are both very pretty!

  2. June 11, 2011 6:55 am

    Hi Jean, I smiled to myself as I read your account of threatening your plants. You can count me in as another gardener who threatens plants. I have a geranium that was being a “baby” and wilting every day. I said I was going to pull it out of it’s pot if it didn’t stop wilting (it has perfect growing conditions) and now it is perky and has new flower buds. A threat sometimes works or so it seems.

    • June 12, 2011 11:06 am

      Catherine and Karen, Thank you for confirming that I’m not the only gardener who threatens my plants.

      Karen, This is exactly the kind of plant prima donna behavior that I think warrants tough love.

      Catherine, I hope your rhodie shapes up.

  3. June 11, 2011 8:26 am

    I’ve been known to threaten the cat (claw my oriental carpet and you’re going back to the SPCA!) but haven’t tried it on the plants. Maybe my baked iris’ just need a good talking to?

    • June 14, 2011 2:40 pm

      Marguerite, I’m not sure this is the right psychology for your baked irises. I think of threats as most appropriate for plants that are being prima donnas — whining about every little thing and refusing to perform unless everything is perfect (like Karen’s geraniums). Your irises, on the other hand, have been traumatized. I would be more inclined to coddle them (but maybe they would respond to being told to buck up and get over it).

  4. June 11, 2011 8:44 am

    Hi Jean, I have never tried this particular method! It gave me quite the giggle. But they do say talking to your houseplants work, and obviously this does as well.

    I’m glad the Choral Bells song gave you a pleasant (I hope) memory. I wasn’t actually sure how to spell ‘Choral’ so I did it both ways in my tags. I googled it and found most people were spelling the word as ‘Coral’ (it seems to be always sourced as a traditional/composes unknown). I’d always assumed it was ‘Choral’ bells, since the lyric refers to hearing them, but most people on the net refer to them as ‘Coral’ bells – which is just confusing, as that’s a totally other kind of flower!

    There were many references on the ‘net to it being a song sung at Brownies or Guides!

    Have a great weekend, Jean.

  5. June 11, 2011 8:51 am

    I like this … perform or move aside for a plant that will!

    • June 14, 2011 2:41 pm

      Diane and Joene, Really, you should try it. As you can see from others’ comments, I’m not the only one who has experienced success with this method.

  6. June 11, 2011 12:00 pm

    I admit to taking a similarly unsentimental line with roses. They are far less of an investment than other shrubs, and I have no problem issuing what I like to call “Gardener’s Edicts”. It often works. And when it doesn’t: oh, well.

    • June 14, 2011 2:43 pm

      Patricia, I really like your terminology. “Gardener’s Edicts” sounds so much more professional and reasoned than “threats.” From now on, I’m going to stop threatening and start issuing Gardener’s Edicts!

  7. June 11, 2011 12:42 pm

    Very funny – I’m glad your threats worked. I’ll have to try the technique . . .

    • June 11, 2011 3:16 pm

      Right No mercy for the weak. You tell ’em–this is my garden, not yours, and since I planted you, you either suck it up and bloom, or get ready for the compost heap. Plants can talk–I read that on the internet, so it’s a very good thing to warn them.

  8. June 11, 2011 5:44 pm

    Jean, I can certainly understand why you would resort to threats with some plants. I take a different tact – benign neglect. I find that with some of my plants that aren’t performing as expected, I give them a shot of compost tea or a side dressing of compost and then ‘try’ to forget about them until next season. For some reason, it usually works.

  9. June 12, 2011 12:02 am

    I think we need a scientific study on this one!

    • June 14, 2011 9:19 pm

      VW, Really, I think it works. Although, as Deb says, we may need a scientific study to demonstrate that. (It’s possible I just remember the times when my threats seemed to yield results and forget the times they didn’t.)

      Deb, Maybe I can make this an assignment for my sociology research methods students — designing a study to test the threat hypothesis.

      Jim, I guess you’re going to have trouble with the “since I planted you” part of the threat. Is Barbara nearby? Maybe you can get her to come back and issue threats as needed. Or are all Barbara’s plants so well behaved that the need to threaten is unimaginable?

      Debbie, “Benign neglect” sounds like a pretty good description of my usual gardening practices. I only resort to threats when benign neglect doesn’t seem to work.

  10. June 12, 2011 8:54 am

    Jean, I too use this method and have even written about it on my blog. For example, I planted a nice-sized yellowwood tree (Cladastris kentukea) is 1995. By 2009 (you see I am quite patient), it was a huge tree but had never flowered. I told it out loud, several times that it was flower next spring or be cut down. Spring 2010 it was covered with flowers. But what do I do now: 2011 and no blooms? Carolyn

    • June 14, 2011 9:25 pm

      Carolyn, This is the outcome I fear — one year of great blooms and then back to foliage only. How do you decide how long to be patient? I think I’m relatively short-tempered with herbaceous perennials; I expect them to bloom by year 3 at the latest. With shrubs, I’m willing to wait quite a bit longer (as witness my not threatening this plant until year 9). I’ve never planted any trees (instead, I spend a lot of time trying to keep them from planting themselves in my flower beds), but I imagine I would give them even more time before I got really impatient. I hope your yellowwood tree is just catching its breath and will be back to great form next year.

  11. June 12, 2011 9:48 am

    Well, Jean, this is evidence that plants DO listen. I think they really do want to please us. They just need a little “encouragement” now and then. 🙂 Great post!

  12. June 12, 2011 12:49 pm

    I’ve been known to threaten and cajole my plants too. With more space to garden in now I just can’t babysit the stragglers, so firmly subscribe to the ‘thrive or die’ (or bloom or get out) philosophies of gardening. I’m glad you gave the rhodie a chance to prove its worth though, it’s lovely in bloom!

    • June 14, 2011 9:30 pm

      Grace, Usually when people say they talk to their plants we assume they are talking sweetly. I wonder how many of them are actually threatening them?!?

      Clare, It was great to finally see the rhododendron in bloom. It is as lovely as I had imagined.

  13. June 12, 2011 6:28 pm

    Your rhododendron is stunning! Enjoyed your post…I threaten a lot. I usally move them and threaten some more.

  14. June 12, 2011 8:21 pm

    A funny post. I’ve never threatened my plants, but there’s a Korean dogwood that doesn’t bloom. Perhaps I should give it a try. Re: the rhododendron. We have a rhody planted by previous owners that didn’t bloom for the first six years we lived here. When it did, it was AMAZING. Huge hot pink blooms almos the size of my head. It’s bloomed more and more each year since. Hope that’s the case with yours …

  15. June 12, 2011 11:24 pm

    I also love the post title!! I too threaten plants, my ginormous 2 flowering plums were threatened with removal last year, in fact we hired a landscape company to take them out. Then they bloomed profusely. We decided to keep them and work around them. Guess what? This spring they bloomed sparsely. SIGH. Usually my first step is banishment ‘I will move you to a shady corner of the yard where you will not be seen and may not survive’. Unless it’s a plant that I love, then I might pot it for a while, put it in full sun to see if I can get it going and replant in a better spot. The only problem (if you can call it that) with a yard full of full trees is all of the shade, so sometimes plants don’t bloom for reasons other than stubbornness.

    Love your Rhodo, what gorgeous blooms!

    • June 14, 2011 9:36 pm

      Amy and Rebecca, Ah, more self-confessed plant threateners. It’s interesting to think about moving and banishing plants as part of the encouragement-cajoling-threatening cycle. When is moving a plant to a new location a conciliatory move — an attempt to better meets its needs — and when is it a form of banishment? Sometimes I move plants to places where I think they’ll do better, but sometimes I just move them to a bare-bones holding area because I’ve decided that they’re not worth valuable garden real estate.

      Sheila, Your rhododendron story gives me hope. This is the outcome that I’d like to see. I got very excited when this plant had one blossom one year, but then I got discouraged when it failed to flower the following year. I pray that this year’s profuse flowering is a sign of even better things to come.

  16. June 14, 2011 7:01 am

    Jean – Hope you’re well. I’ve been awol from both gardening and blogging for a while because of a problem with some sort of arthritis which has virtually lost me the use of my right arm 😦 have some treatment lined up and hope to me back soon…
    But I wanted to pick your brains not as a gardener but as a sociology lecturer. I’m sorry to do this through the blog but I couldn’t find an e-mail for you. I know you see mine on the message – would you mind getting in touch? I’d be very grateful.
    Sue

    • June 14, 2011 9:38 pm

      Sue, I’m sorry to hear about your arthritis problem. Losing use of one arm seems like a pretty serious handicap for both gardening and blogging (especially if you’re right handed). I hope we’ll see you back on the balcony garden and back in the blogosphere soon.

  17. June 14, 2011 10:44 am

    I’m totally with you on the threats! I’ve bullied my orchids into flowering and they are so scared they haven’t stopped! I may have to have another stern chat with my as yet non-fruiting lemon tree – it’s being a little stubborn!

    • June 14, 2011 9:39 pm

      Byddi, I’ve never grown orchids, but I can imagine them having serious prima donna potential!

  18. June 14, 2011 2:52 pm

    Ha! Get nasty! Gardeners don’t really “commune” with their plants–we’re more like prison guards. This was a fun post.l

  19. June 14, 2011 8:14 pm

    I guess sometimes you just have to show them who’s the alpha plant. So far I’ve only threatened my plants in the privacy of my own head, but sheesh–what kind of communication tactic is that? I’ll let the prima donnas have it from here on out!

    What a fun post, Jean.

    • June 14, 2011 9:45 pm

      I love all these metaphors

      Thomas, If I analyze my behavior in your prison terms, I’d have to say that I don’t have the stomach for capital punishment. I can’t bear to throw plants in the compost; banishing them to a really bare-bones holding area is my worst punishment.

      Stacy, The idea of threats as alpha plant behavior makes me squirm much less than the idea of being a prison guard. (Threatening in the privacy of your head might work if your plants are mind-readers!)

  20. June 14, 2011 11:27 pm

    I’m sorry Jean – but I just can’t envision you having a stern ‘talking to’ any plant in the garden?! On the other hand – the results are compelling! You go, Girl!!

    Me on the other hand, you would expect it! As a matter of fact, I was weeding this weekend & found a few stray strands of growing variegated Ribbon Grass. As soon as I saw them – I said, out loud, “Don’t even think about it!” and promptly yanked them out. (The original plants were placed in the “Relocation Program” – and now reside in the “Shade Garden”, hopefully with better manners to not be so invasive.)

  21. June 15, 2011 3:42 pm

    Hm-m-m…I will have to try that sometime…seems like it works!

  22. June 15, 2011 10:44 pm

    I think we all respond to tough love when needed….I have to give stern talks to my barking frog and the mean swallows or the birds who fight and I have been known to threaten a plant or 2…glad I am not the only one and I don’t feel too guilty anymore…

    • June 18, 2011 4:05 pm

      Shyrlene, I see that you’ve been fooled by my kinder, gentler gardening persona. I am quite capable of being stern and pushing those who don’t seem to be doing what they are capable of, but that mostly manifests itself in my teacher persona. (If you doubt this, you can take a look at what some of my students have to say on ratemyprofessors.com!)

      Donna, I agree that tough love is useful. That’s why I think those who put threats on a continuum with encouragement and cajoling were on the right wavelength. Those threats are really saying “I know you can do this, and I’m not going to let you get away with slacking off.”

      Michelle, Try it!

  23. June 19, 2011 8:28 pm

    I have felt that way about peonies! Maybe try not pruning the rhodie at all, one year, just to see if it doesnt like the haircut youre giving!

  24. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com) permalink
    July 8, 2011 1:32 pm

    So funny! I know what you mean, between you and me,, I do that also, sometimes is necessary, nevertheless in the photos they look beautiful.

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