Big, Unruly Plants: The Gardener’s Deepest Fear?

I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “Oh, I’d love to grow that, but it gets too big for my garden!” What exactly do people mean when they say a certain plant gets “too big?” Well, having talked to many gardeners and carefully considered the possibilities, I believe there are numerous possible answers to that question. Let us name as many as we can and consider whether they have merit, followed by some analysis of how this phenomenon has come about, whether some form of action is warranted, and what our response might be. In this post I am thinking mostly of woody plants (shrubs and trees), but the same principles could be applied to plants of all types.

Here are a few legitimate reasons to call a plant “too big.” “It gets too big because I don’t want a giant tree two feet away from my house.” “It gets too big because it’s going to block a view.” (Well, people don’t always stop to consider that plants can all be used to frame views, but that’s another story.) “It gets too big because I don’t want its roots to invade my septic system.” “It gets too big because it will grow into the power lines.” OK, I don’t have a problem with any of those. All well thought out; right plant, right place, and all that. We wouldn’t want to have to butcher something later and/or create a constant maintenance headache. Then we have “it gets too big because I want to fit as many different plants into my garden as possible.” For some reason (I can’t imagine why!) this reason is a personal favorite of mine, but I don’t hear it very much because the few people who think that way usually don’t want to admit it.

Then we have some rather ambiguous reasons which depend on the situation and warrant individual discussion.

“It gets too big because it’s out of proportion with the rest of my design.” Truly, this has the potential to be a good reason in many cases, but let’s consider what determines this sense of proportion. Is it based on what everyone else’s yard looks like? Or the one we saw in Sunset Magazine? Let’s hope not. Something good designers remember, but homeowners often forget, is that a garden should not be in proportion just with itself, but also with its surroundings. More about this below.

Related to that is “It gets too big because it will crowd the plants around it.” That may be true but it depends on the case. Perhaps the plants around it are, in fact, too small for the overall scale. Perhaps the combination is fine but they just need to be spaced farther apart. Perhaps the other plants “deserve” to be crowded out by something that is cooler anyways.

Then we have “It gets too big because I don’t want to deal with the constant maintenance hassle of pruning it or have to remove it at some point.” This sounds like a great reason on the surface – we’ve all seen plants that grew too large for their space and had to be severely pruned into ugliness or just removed – but again we must stop to consider the how’s and why’s. If you’re choosing a plant for a confined space, it is indeed important not to plant something that will grow too broad. As for plant height in confined spaces, I notice it is often considered as a practical concern when it ought to be only an aesthetic concern. (And, I might add, even then, aesthetic concerns may be influenced by a subconscious appeal to perceived practical concerns with no factual basis. Is a tall tree in a tight spot considered to “look bad” because it’s going to make people uncomfortable who think a tall tree, just because it’s tall, is more likely to fall on them than a short tree?) So confined spaces are one thing. But when you’re working with a relatively open space, who decides whether something is too big? And what is there to be afraid of when you plant something big in an open space? It has all the room it needs. It can be free to be spectacular. And how many times have you seen a tree growing in an open space severely butchered for no reason other than someone thought it was getting “too big?” Now that’s an atrocity.

“It gets too big because it will be difficult to remove if it dies.” Whatever. I hear this one a lot because people sometimes expect the plants we sell to freeze and die in a cold winter. We recognize that this happens sometimes, but we believe that gardener’s concerns or fears about our plants freezing are frequently based on a lack of familiarity, both in the personal sense and from reading references written by people who are also unfamiliar with them and carry a suspicious bias against them. Put another way, the same person who liberally uses dubiously hardy Hebe, Cistus, Ceanothus*, Escallonia and Cotoneaster species all over his garden will shy away from equally dubiously hardy Grevillea, Callistemon, Pittosporum and Olearia. Why the inconsistent standards? No one wants to lose a big Grevillea in a freeze, but then does anyone want to lose a big Escallonia? It happens. We won’t fault you for giving up on Grevillea if you lose one in a freeze, so long as you give up all your Ceanothus* too. In this case, an appropriate sense of proportion is needed concerning plant hardiness, but this is another subject for another post.

So there are some good, and some potentially good, reasons for shying away from plants that grow “too large.” Yet those reasons don’t seem to cover all the bases. I still get the feeling something else is at work here. Is it fear? Is it unfounded distaste? Prejucide? I don’t know; you tell me. I’ll give you my theory, though: it is about control. There’s still a subconscious thing about people wanting to control nature, that infringes upon gardening style. Of course we all want to have an adequate measure of control over our garden, as we choose what goes into it and how it is arranged. But I think many gardeners then make the logical jump that using plants that grow large, or fail to stop at a certain size prescribed by the tag (now there’s yet another fun subject for another day), are “out of control” and therefore should be avoided in general. Gardeners want to know just how big it will get and when it will stop, and to be confident that something will not outgrow its allotted space. This leads to strong feelings against large plants which could be lumped into the “unfounded distaste” category. All of a sudden large plants are inherently “messy,” “out of proportion,” “overpowering,” “unruly” and worse! When did people start thinking this way about large plants? Maybe, just maybe, those plants are cool, and useful, and they’re just doing their thing.

Coming at this from another angle entirely, it doesn’t help that is trend largely an economic one driven by large growers and horticultural big-wigs. Two things are going on. First, growers think that for potted plants to sell, they need to be as small, compact, and cute as possible and bloom in a pot. In other words, plants for sale need to appeal to impulsive people who want to see in front of them everything the plant is going to do, rather than researching it or experimenting. Along a similar vein, Annie’s Annuals blog – and this is a great read I highly recommend – discusses what we might call “boink-ism” to describe sorry, overbred dwarf versions of plants that were historically thought of as vigorous and beautiful (referring mainly to annuals and perennials) and the manner in which they are used. The other factor is that growers wish to encourage small plants, because if they sell plants that take up less space, they can sell more of them and turn more profit, plain and simple. Don’t believe me? Look at all the new introductions among woody plants in the last 20 years. How many of them are deliberately bred to be smaller than their predecessors? And how many are bred to be larger? You could probably count those in the latter category on one hand, if indeed there are any at all. True, certain perennials have been bred to be larger, but hey, not being woody they’re considered more expendable, often appealing to a different market, and many of these remain specialty items anyhow.

Consider Rhododendrons as a familiar example. Fifty years ago small-tree-sized (15-25′) Rhododendron cultivars (‘David’ is one of my favorites) were standard fare in the trade. Today if you go to a nursery to shop for Rhododendrons you’re lucky to find any cultivar that grows taller than 6′ (or at least that’s what the tag says – and heaven forbid a plant exceed the dimensions on the tag!). True, it might be considered disingenuous to market these as shrubs, but they’re still fabulous plants and not worthy of going nearly extinct in cultivation, as seems to be happening now. Has someone missed out on a major marketing opportunity for showy, compact broad-leaf evergreen trees?

A parallel trend is that sales to gardeners of large ornamental and shade trees is way down in the past ten years. This is partly the result of increasingly small lot sizes, and the tendency for landscapers to install these trees rather than homeowners/gardeners. But the subconscious “I don’t want a big messy tree in my yard” mentality that I hear so much may also be a factor. Trees are great. They make shade and mulch, and provide housing for birds and other wildlife. Many have flowers or spectacular fall color. What more could you ask for?

You might think it would be in my personal interest to promote smaller plants since I have a nursery and I want to you buy more plants. However I also believe the larger horticulture industry should seek to meet existing demand rather than to indirectly control the way gardeners think, or play off their “fears” of large plants. I am led to conclude that we have been “pulled a fast one” by the industry which has flooded the market with certain types of plants they have an interest in selling. Don’t get me wrong; most of these are great plants. But then so are many other great plants we no longer use because they have mysteriously fallen out of popularity.

So, to take a shot at bringing things back home here: the end result of this avoidance of large plants is that in attempting to find our sense of proportion and control in the garden we actually lose it. If everything in your garden is small and compact, the result is an inward-focused garden with little visual impact or appeal. If everything in your garden is small to medium-sized, the medium stuff seems big. This can work in smaller gardens on small lots but to me is still inappropriate for larger lots and those with a backdrop of established trees or other plantings, because then proportion goes out the window. Broadly speaking, a successful and visually appealing garden both fits into the setting that surrounds it, and combines plants of all shapes, sizes and textures, except in certain special situations where a dramatic effect of some sort is desired. We feel that plants should be free to grow as big and awesome as they want to, free from the inhibitions of reckless pruning, improper siting, overcrowding, and financially motivated, genetically imposed dwarfism; and that gardeners can appreciate large growing plants for what they are rather than constantly viewing them as cases for improvement by making them smaller.

In conclusion, all we ask is that before you write off a certain plant as growing “too big,” take time to consider the reasons why you feel this way. What does “too big” mean for you? Who told you it was too big? (It sure wasn’t us!) Is there really a legitimate reason, or is it ultimately about control or fear? And if you’re feeling really brave, go ahead and plant something with a tag that doesn’t tell you exactly how big it gets!

I’d better stop since I’m starting to be afraid of how long and out of control this post is getting.

*I refer specifically to the popular hybrids originating from California Ceanothus species, such as ‘Point Reyes’, ‘Dark Star’ and ‘Skylark’ (Victoria). The much hardier native Ceanothus are still quite rare in gardens.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Desert Dweller / David C.
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 12:43:09

    You bring up so many valid points on the topic, that I will have to re-read!

    To me, this boils down to prejudice and unfamiliarity, mostly. Some thriving plants, but unfamiliar, next to popular, but struggling plants, get such unfair critique. I recall a large home on a large lot in the valley here – a prized Austrian Pine in a lawn planted a few years before a not-so-prized Italian Stone Pine (obtained as a living Christmas tree)…the former was being overgrown and crowded out (and shaded) by the latter. She asked if she should remove the latter…

    And the issues of appropriate scale for site, etc. and reasons to do certain plantings, all are so important.

    Great, thoughtful post!

    Reply

  2. Ian
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 21:29:03

    David, thanks – I’m glad it made sense to someone! Italian Stone Pine is great; it should be used more here as well.

    Reply

  3. Paige
    May 18, 2012 @ 14:41:26

    I have mostly worked with small city lots and I have to say that I deeply appreciate those smaller shrubs the breeders have been coming up with, particularly evergreen ones. How many tam junipers must one pass that have either engulfed a sidewalk or been hacked back from the same to say enough? An unpruned tam in the right spot is actually quite gorgeous, so to me it really is finding the right plant for the spot. I think part of the problem for many people is those same tam junipers (and 40 year old rhodies planted in front of a window) makes them fearful of large plants, even when they have space for them and they would look great.

    Now the senseless cutting back of a tree because it is simply “too tall” I find unfathomable. Clearly there are many unreported cases of the fear of tall trees.

    Reply

  4. Ian
    May 23, 2012 @ 10:04:07

    Hey now, no disagreeing around here! I’m just kidding. I don’t really think that. It may be that I ought to qualify my statements by noting that they are generalizations or else avoid them altogether. In truth, I think many smaller shrubs and cultivars are good plants, yet some of them are not. I am just trying to get people to think about it. You could probably say the same for large plants. A lot of time when a planting gets out of control it is because people are just not into taking care of it. I suppose one also has to bear in mind that plants don’t always have a fixed ultimate size where they just stop growing, which is why a garden is a dynamic place and never really “done” unless you’re into shearing things into blob shapes every year.

    Reply

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