April 4, 2011

Future Dilemma

I posted last month about being offended when plant marketers want us to buy plants because they are "easy".  The whole point of gardening is to be out there tending growing things.

But I have a dilemma.  I'm waffling on putting in a plant because it will require annual pruning to keep it controlled.  I'm conflicted because it might require too much care.  It might not be easy at all.

Cotinus 'Grace' is a plant I want in my garden.  I really, really want this shrub for its beautiful foliage. 
from Milesnursery.com
from greatplantpicks.org
Left to its own devices Cotinus hybrids like this one will get 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide, and will be covered in the plumy feathery haze of flowers that give this tree its name: smokebush.  Our native smoketree, Cotinus obovatus, becomes a tall tree; the coggygria hybrids are not native, and not as tree-sized, but still get as big as a small building.

I don't have space for that, and I don't like the unkempt look of the huge plumes all over it.  But I love the purple translucent foliage, and it is easily kept to a small, more vertical shrub size by completely coppicing it each winter.  Nancy Ondra shows us how in a wonderfully detailed post on cut-back shrubs.  Her pictures of the cut-back Cotinus 'Grace' are beautiful, and she grows it mixed with other plants in a complex border.

flower plumes from Learn2Grow.com
variable translucent foliage from bbc.co.uk's plantfinder

If you cut it right to the ground it regrows each season with stunning variable, purple tinged, clean looking leaves, and the shrub stays smallish.  The flowers are sacrificed when it is cut back (they grow on last year's wood), but I don't want the flowers.  The pruning, if done each year, is simple and can be done by me with loppers and a hand pruner.

Unpruned smokebush in bloom (UConn's plant database).
It would be too big and rangy under my paperbark maple if
left unpruned.  What to do?

But there's a dilemma in cutting back each year: what if it doesn't get done? 

I think about my garden without me all the time.  I am not young.  When I go, or get too frail, or just stop gardening, the place has to be able to survive untended. 

Trees and shrubs will keep growing where they are and, free from my fussy interventions, will reach whatever size they want to be.

And that's a problem for the future.  A small, annually pruned smokebush gracefully growing among other plants under my paperbark maple will be lovely.  A 20 foot billowy unpruned monster with smoky fuzz all over it in that spot will be alarming.

  1. Do I plant one in that perfect spot by the paperbark maple, integrated in the border, and prune it each year and enjoy it until my demise?  
  2. Or should I find some spot where it can grow naturally if someone after me does not prune it each year? (I don't have room and don't want the look of a freestanding shrub stranded out in the lawn.)  
  3. Or should I not put one in at all, knowing I'm really planting the wrong plant in the wrong spot?
Would you do it?  Would you plant the wrong plant in the wrong place and then keep it controlled until you leave this gardening world?


  1. Hi Laurrie, I say plant away! Really, no plant will be perfect forever without some intervention, and that includes trees that eventually need pruning and cabling as they get older.I just sited a catalpa in the sunny front bed, planning to coppice every year for the chartreuse foliage. I figure if I can't do that little once-a-year chore, I won't be gardening at all...

  2. Laurrie, I was able to read today's post on the reader, but not when I go directly to your website - hope nothing's wrong with Blogger and it's just me...

  3. Plant it!!!!
    I had a cotinus in my last garden, and I coppiced it every spring. It only took about 10 minutes, and it is a easy job, much easier than a lot of other gardening jobs. Also a non gardener could easily do it under your supervision. Do It!!!

  4. Put the syrup away and plant the shrub you want. When you can't take care of it, it will take care of itself.

  5. I liked your statement about thinking about the plants when you are older and unable to care for them. I like to place plants in client's yards so not to have the constant pruning and the plant can just be itself and assume natural form. But in my own yard with no extra square footage, yews and boxwood are those that get the haircuts. They frame those that grow naturally. So, if you want a Smoke Bush, go for it. Balance it out with those you don't have the extra work.

  6. Hmmm, I'll be the lone dissenter and say plant something else for foliage effect. Maybe that's because I have to do so much cutting back outside of the garden, but cutting back a tree each year?

    I have the native Cotinus on a dry hillside and while it is tree-shaped I don't know if it will ever get big.

  7. I've planted the wrong thing in the wrong place more times than I can count. You'll get tired of fooling with it. Smoke tree was the hot new thing here down here a few years ago. Now they are ubiquitous and tiresome, and I'm glad I passed on it. That said, if you want it, go for it and know that you can always dig it up if you get tired of it. That's what gardening is all about ... right?

  8. Thanks, everyone for weighing in with some pros, some cons ... I have to decide. I'm not normally so indecisive. I buy, plant, move, and change stuff all the time, but this Cotinus has me waffling for some reason!

  9. Laurie, having just spent more than 10 hours doing spring cleanup in my own yard and cutting back lots that needed to be cut back, I guess for me personally that I'd rather not have to go through this every year as I'm getting older. And then there's the trouble of cutting the woody stuff up and bagging it or however you get rid of yours (I don't compost my woody stuff ~ the township picks it up for me at a small cost). I agree with sweetbay that I'd try to find something with similar foliage if you are having serious doubts. Let us know what you decide to do!

  10. Laurrie, you must have read my mind! I've been wanting a smokebush for a long time, too, and was planning to plant one in my new flowerbed. But when I look at this area, I realize it's not as big as I thought--I'm afraid the smokebush might be too big and overwhelm the rest of the planting. Decisions, decisions...Maybe you could plant it somewhere where it won't matter if it eventually gets too tall and choose a smaller shrub with similar colored foliage for this area. I still don't know what I'm going to do...

  11. It's funny, my first thought was plant something else, maybe a ninebark for the foliage. But then I realized I'm waffling over something very similar. I've gotten it into my head to plant honey locust, which I know will sucker and have to be cut back all the time. Lots of work and I shouldn't do it, but I can't seem to pull away from the idea. So it seems my advice is pretty much useless!

  12. Wow, this is s tough one. I can see why you are hesitating. I feel the same way about smoke bushes- love the leaves, hate the flowers.
    I have been watching the cursor blink for a few minutes while I decide on my advice. Okay, here it is what I would do if I was you. I'd look at all the other options first. Marguerite's suggestion of a Ninebark is a good one. Then if you have looked at all the other possibilities and still prefer the smoke bush, go for it and forget worrying about the future. There are no crystal balls, so don't let the future hold you back.

  13. Thanks for more thoughtful comments. It seems opinions are all over the place on this!


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