How to grow your garden
By Kate Flynn
There comes a time when a certain aspect of the garden is not working. The only solution is to decide how to correct the offending problem. I’m not talking about the plant that suddenly insults the gardener; Rather, I am referring to a feature of the garden that was once successful but is no longer pleasing to the eye. Recently, I ran into this dilemma.
I have three large pieces of Phlox paniculata “John Vanek.” ‘John Vanek’ was discovered at a service station in San Antonio, Texas, and quickly became a hit in garden centers—after all, if it can survive a Texas summer unattended, it must be a tough plant. The fact that John Vanek had acquired powdery mildew was met with disbelief. Large patches of powdery mildew do not enhance the garden.
Summer after summer, all three clumps increased in size while succumbing to powdery mildew by August. What looked handsome during the first half of the growing season looked bad during the second half. During the unattractive phase, we would cut the phlox back to the ground, making the three spots resemble the growth of someone’s three-day beard.
I was aiming for a different look. I liked the idea of three Phlox patches, but I didn’t like the effects.
Fortunately, Cuba Mountain came to the rescue, releasing its three-year study of native phlox with Phlox paniculata Jenna comes out at the top. This Tennessee native, named after Gina Prewitt, who discovered it, has several beneficial qualities: (1) It is nearly resistant to powdery mildew; (2) In theory it deters deer. (3) It has beautiful flowers. (4) It does not require a great deal of water—a nice feature in August when it rarely rains; and (5) it is a magnet for butterflies. What more could you ask for from a plant?
It will take several years to fill these three large spots. This is what characterizes most perennials: in the first year they sleep, in the second year they crawl, and in the third year they jump. Therefore, large patches of phlox are not suitable for those who insist on instant gratification.
One downside to choosing a plant that tops the list at Cuba Mountain Center is that these varieties are often the first to sell out. That happened with ‘Jeana’, and it is now on my list to buy next March. Hopefully, since it has been chosen as Plant of the Year for 2024, it will be widely available in garden centers in the spring (when it is actually 2024).
How many times do we look at the garden without seeing the flaws in it? It’s a bit like sinking lovingly into a sofa without noticing the wear and tear it has undergone over the years. Suddenly, one day you see the worn-out sofa for what it really is.
For years I noticed powdery mildew on ‘John Vanek’ but told myself it didn’t happen until after most of the flowers had gone dormant. Was I fooling myself or was the mildew arriving earlier and earlier?
It turns out it’s time to mentally let go of John Vanek.
Changing the garden is not always easy. Setting another course always requires a good, challenging and fresh look. If you’re like me, you can look at your garden without seeing it until one day you’re faced with an obvious problem.
What I’ve realized over the years is that not only do gardens change, we change too. Plants that once fascinated us no longer do so. We fall in love with new plants, which forces us to make new space for them. Then the day comes when we no longer have any new room.
When that happens, we have to admit that we need comprehensive reform. I have to admit that I sometimes feel guilty when this happens when I remove plants that are only doing what I asked them to do. I can’t give these phloxes to unsuspecting friends in good faith because I remove them for good reason: They develop the unsightly powdery mildew that few of us want in our gardens.
Now, I’ll add this: Overcome your tender feelings. This is your garden. If you need to change an aspect of your garden, please do so. We all make mistakes. We all transcend our original visions. Some plants are like unwelcome guests: they have to go.