In my 43 years, I have lived in a number of different homes—fifteen, in fact. As an adult it’s always been a thrill, that first spring in a new house, because I have no idea what is going to come out of the ground. Especially the two homes I have owned rather than rented. All those plants are mine! Landscape and garden plants are the icing on the new-house cake.
My friend, Annie, and her husband, Aaron, bought a house in February, so for the last two months the treasure trove in their yard has been revealing itself. The catch—neither of them is a gardener, and they don’t know what they’re looking at. What is a plant and what is a weed? They want to learn, though, so one Saturday in April I stopped by.
As Annie pointed out the different corners of the yard, she thrilled and panicked with the growth that had occurred. “The sun came out, and everything grew a foot!” she said.
A previous owner had transformed what had been a regular American grass lawn into front-and-backyard oases featuring rounded, organically shaped beds lined with paths made of glass bottles that she pounded upside-down into the ground. The aesthetic was clearly one of blending the plantings as much as possible—while there are three boxy raised beds in the front yard, the blueberry bushes, rhubarb, kiwi and raspberries are all intermixed with the rest of the landscape. A spindly, 10-foot-tall fig tree was up against the fence, wedged between a stand of bamboo and a rhododendron.
“The good news is that this is a fig tree,” I said, pointing to it. “The bad news is you will never see a fruit on that thing; it’s way too stressed out.”
I pointed out how relocating some of the pine needles would benefit the acid-loving rhododendrons and blueberries. I suggested she dig out most of the compost that had seasoned in a barrel but save a few shovels full to get the new batch going. I confirmed her suspicion that the kiwi vine was supposed to be following the trellis and not shooting 20 feet into the air.
The main reason Annie wanted my advice was for the raspberries. They had been planted next to the garage, and everything Annie had read about raspberries suggested they needed some kind of support.
When I looked at them, I wasn’t sure what to think. They were certainly berry plants. They even looked like raspberry plants, but the canes were only 6 inches tall. Most had new growth, but because the canes were so short the plants were only a foot high. There were only a few new shoots coming out of the ground.
Raspberries usually grow in a two-year cycle. The canes that grow in Year One do not flower; they should end up 5 to 6 feet tall, or more, leaning over from their weight. Once winter ends, you trim them back to about 3 to 4 feet tall and thin them if necessary. Year Two plants grow from the ground. The new growth on Year One canes ends in berry blossoms, and then berries. Once the berries are picked the canes die out, and you cut them out of there before winter.
What I was looking at was, upon close inspection, definitely second-year canes. But they were so short! And then there was the matter of not having any support in place for them.
Investigating someone else’s garden made me feel a little like a forensics specialist. I had to observe the evidence and then consider motives—were these “everbearing” raspberries? Were they some other kind of berry altogether? I voiced my ideas aloud to Annie, my Watson.
After floating a few hypotheses, I presented my final answer: The previous owner trimmed the canes back severely in order to stunt their height, so that she didn’t have to put in supports.
I have never seen anyone do this before; time will tell whether that works or whether they’ll just be stunted plants. I instructed Annie to leave them alone, and look forward to hearing how they behave as summer rolls along. There’s always next year!