The Cranky Gardener

Hack Job

How clueless weekend gardeners mistreat their plants.

A poor forsythia with a gumdrop 'do
A poor forsythia with a gumdrop ‘do

Spring is a dangerous time for plants. Your typical weekend gardeners, intoxicated by the bright sky and fresh air, grab their pruners, shears, and saws and start cutting back their shrubs and trees, as gardening columns recommend. People tend to interpret this advice broadly, guessing that every plant deserves the same pruning treatment. Such a tragedy, because just as plants are getting ready to burst out in flowers and tender new growth, somebody, armed with a Smith & Hawken implement and good intentions, sabotages their natural growing patterns and turns the garden into a foliage freak show.

When the plants fail to do what they promised (as in, This plant hasn’t bloomed in three years!), the problem is less horticultural than cultural—for instance, some hydrangeas, otherwise properly planted, won’t bloom if you keep cutting back the old branches, on which the blooms sprout, just to keep the plant from blocking your front porch. Casual gardeners want convenience and conformity, of all things. Rather than find the right plant to produce the right effect, they insist that every plant do everything and do it well, like the new bakeware that handily survives the trip from freezer to oven to table. Most plants do need to be pruned at some point—if you want carefree, start a rock collection—but each species has a certain time and way it should be cut. Nevertheless, gardeners tend to force everything they lug home from the nursery either into the same perfectly sheared silhouettes popular in corporate landscapes, or they make the opposite mistake, neglecting to cut back plants that thrive on the discipline of a good, hard pruning.

Among the most common casualties are forsythias. In March and April, you can’t escape the sight of a forsythia in full bloom. The plant’s reliable yellow flowers make them popular for what garden catalogs call “early spring interest.” And for the rest of the year, they provide leafy ballast in the garden. Loads of it: The forsythia, a member of the olive family, can reach 10 feet high and 12 feet wide, making for brash borders along property lines or fluffy yellow filler in an empty corner. But in cultivation—they’re not truly wild in North America—people are afraid to let them reach that size. Overaggressive gardeners hack their forsythias into all kinds of terrible, truncated shapes.

But even the plight of the forsythia can’t distract us from the many other depredations people commit around the garden. Some of the images you are about to see are graphic in nature.

Click here to see a slide show.