Whack-O-Matic by Tammy Clayton
Copyright © 2005 Tammy Clayton
Morning coffee with the internet has become a tradition of mine in recent years. The internet holds a much greater variety of information than the newspaper, as well as less depressing things to read at the beginning of the day. No one should have to wake up with murder and mayhem in their face. A more pleasant mindset is found in waking to check the weather, respond to a note from a friend, or reading about an exciting new plant. This morning I went to look for further information on a particularly nifty new plant on one of my vendor’s sites. Not finding that I clicked on another link that caught my attention in their Garden Writers section.
"Meatballs, Soapboxes and Tuna Cans", to be precise.
To a person who has never been employed within the landscape industry, that phrase would bring to mind food. To insiders it would have a far different meaning. Of course where I worked it was baseballs and cubes. So this morning’s coffee was sipped between chuckles.
The author (head of sales) I would venture to say is younger than 50. Those over 50 feel that these balls, cubes, footballs or tuna cans are a staple that is required in the landscape. For the life of me I have never understood why we must have them.
What is so necessary about using a shrub far to large for its placement and whacking off it’s limbs to shape it into an unnatural form? Off with its head! It should wear a size 42 long jacket, but we will force it to fit comfortably into a 10 short.
It is interesting to note that also helpless poodles have also fallen victim to this manner of unnatural shaping and they are not plants. A month ago I witnessed a house cat shorn in this manner.
Mr. Woods, who wrote the afore mentioned article, has developed the opinion that it is an inherent human instinct. That we humans have so little that we actually have complete control over that our psyche has tuned in to the helpless shrubs in our yard. While I giggled often while reading his words, it struck me that he has a good point. Why else would we so cruelly inhibit the wild beauty of a shrub? In my early years I had no reason to argue with my father, the professional landscaper as to why we must do this. Quite the contrary, originally I assisted him in his whacking while trying to mimic his methods.
It wasn’t until I started to design plantings and began to see plants for their own individual beauty that I began to question this barbaric practice. It has come to be a long standing argument between us over the years. He refuses to budge from his Pro Juniper stance, insisting we simply MUST have the prickly old things. Yews and Burning Bushes have their place and are quite lovely if not placed where they can be gently shaped not beaten in submission twice a season.
During my contracting days, I would arrive at a clients home for a meeting about a landscape facelift to find the sad remains of Burning Bushes, Yews and Junipers that had resided along the walk or foundation for decades. All of them left much to be desired in the looks department after the last harsh whacking.
Common sense told me that following decades of cruel treatment, the poor things have given up growing hair. Why should they continue to grow it if for the past 25 years every attempt was quickly lopped off? How much squelching of creativity can a being endure before throwing in the towel? In voicing this thought to successful lawyers and surgeons , I must admit I was rewarded with raised eyebrows. Why do we insist on planting a shrub that will grow eight foot tall and 12 foot wide in a 30 inch wide space and insist it does not exceed those confines? I am in agreement with Mr. Woods, it is one area to have complete control over in our lives.
So there I stand with this super successful professional, a man of high learning, who wants to know how we can coax this spent row of 5 foot tall trunks and stems along his walk into growing more hair in the bottoms. He thinks that fertilizer cures all of man’s cruelty. (Remember that you must see things through the eye of the plant?) How am I to explain this to this person! My professional self developed a cunning approach. “A landscape has a life expectancy of about 20 years. Yours seems to be about 5 years overdue for replanting.” If this was not enough to convince the customer, I would go on to ask how long the wallpaper in their kitchen had hung there. Explaining that redecorating outdoors was just as necessary to variety in life than it was to keep up to date with their interior décor. But they wanted back what they had before it turned into bare branches! The issue of certain control may very well be the answer.
Now I am not against hedges. I am not anti-evergreen. Pruning, thinning and shaping is of definite necessity to full and lovely shrubs and even some trees. Even every other aspect of life we look for the right thing to accomplish the task, but when it comes to the plants we place in our yards we seem to fall short in the search for the proper element. Proper planning should be the first consideration and whacking could become almost obsolete. It is good to know that plant breeders are busily developing new Arborvitaes and Yews that will stay in a nice little meatball shape without whacking. News that will lessen the maintenance you must forfeit your weekend to perform, alleviate the need to butcher the bushes and make all the hedge trimmer companies hold their breath over next year’s third quarter earnings.
As for the aspect of proper planning vs. constant replacement, if the space is 30 inches wide, then it would be best to consider installing only those shrubs that will never exceed 4 foot in width. Remember, a little shaping is good and a harsh whacking is lowering the life expectancy of the elements in your landscape. Proper planning is one of the best tools in creating a low maintenance planting.
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About the author:
Raised by a highly respected & successful landscape contractor in the metro Detroit area, Clayton wanted a career in anything but landscaping! Now an award-winning landscape designer, Clayton runs Flowerville Farms, a mail-order nursery in Michigan. Read more at LostInTheFlowers.com.
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