Start Plants Small: Size isn’t everything

Large Tree: Started Out as 3 Leaves

Started Out as 3 Leaves

Fight the tendency to buy big plants. We’re all impatient to have a garden look “finished” rather than skimpy and empty. I mean who’s going to be around to see a tree that has 3 leaves get big? Actually in most cases, you are. And, we certainly have been. A couple years after moving into our house, I found a seedling of a tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) that was 12 inches high. I yanked it out bare root and was about to compost it when I saw our neighbor’s son playing around in his yard. I gave him this little sprout and suggested that it would grow into “his tree”. But only if he protected it from his family’s grass-mowing corporation that descends on their acre of grass every weekend, shattering the quiet and stinking up the air with exhaust. He dutifully put a little fence and an American Flag around the baby, and ran interference for it – along with some initial watering. Ten years later, you see the result (Figure Image 0370 in Kill Your Lawn Pics). Now tulip tree is a fast grower and you had better really want such a guy where you plant it, since we have two of them, 100 feet tall and 250 years old on our property.

Had we bought for the neighbor a 5 year old nursery grown tree, the root ball would have been too big for 3 Dallas Cowboy linemen to lift and the hole would have required a backhoe. And, many experts will tell you that such “big plantings” take years to grow out of their confined root systems and at 5 years in the ground are no bigger than a much smaller tree or other shrub that started out much smaller.  Furthermore, we didn’t have room for the tree in our garden, but now we see this tree in their yard as a beautiful green backdrop. We have added it to the view from our house in a way that is called shakkei or “borrowed landscape” in Japanese garden tradition. When there is a limited space for gardening, adding the view of things outside your property makes it larger.

Baby plants

Baby plants for free

The lesson is not only that it’s better to start small and let plants grow naturally in place, but that it’s OK to have an empty look to a new planting area. We’ve seen over and over people who put Leyland Cyprus evergreen shrubs 3 feet apart from each other as 3 foot high plants, only to find that within 5 years these fast-growers are smashed together and competing with each other.  Our approach has been to put 3 or 5 of a perennial in an area and let them either thrive and multiply (or croak as they will sometimes). Cristina likes odd numbers of plants, and claims it is a matter of taste, not Hungarian superstition. She’s rarely wrong. By spacing them apart enough, they can reseed new ones of themselves—if there’s enough room. And few plants stay small for long, unless you purposefully bought a dwarf species or cultivar.

The more you allow plants, not lawn, to occupy your yard, the more you will recognize every year that new baby plants will pop up, either near the parent, or at other sites. Pot them up–they’re free, trees, shrubs, perennials, groundcovers (see picture above– that’s a Redbud tree in a pot on the ground). Give them away as party favors and encouragements to friends to try new things. Show them the parent plant so they can see what it will become.

So, when you’re planning for a tree or shrub that has a “purpose”, like blocking the view of a noxious telephone pole, or the neighbor’s garage, don’t plan to have the view instantly improved. Your kids took a while to toilet train and plants need time to be what you wish. In addition, by letting them start small you can prune and train them to be a more ideal size or shape than they would be if you bought them much bigger. And, many experts say the ultimate shrub or tree is much healthier for having grown from a smaller size in the same location.

Nerd Food for Further Reading

Growing and Propagating Showy Native Woody Plants
Richard E. Bir. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1992.
Very practical advice on having the plants you want from someone who really knows.

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