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Live and let live: Overgrown plants can bring unexpected beauty

January 29, 2007
Jennifer Kinion
by Jennifer Kinion
I have a cluster of three grevillea shrubs growing near my back patio; they were likely planted decades ago. Judging from the looks of them, they weren’t properly pruned in their early life, as all three plants are leggy, with bare trunks and green growth primarily limited to the last four inches of each branch. It is difficult to determine where one plant starts and the next begins, as the three of them have twisted together inextricably over the years. The three leggy grevillea plants in my yard are the first thing I see outside the window of my office each time I take a seat at my desk, so their overgrown appearance had bothered me for a while. Despite these plants’ regular displays of lovely curled deep salmon pink blossoms, I considered ripping them out and starting over with new plants. Luckily, before I took measures I might later regret, I noticed a previously undetected quality about this trio of scraggly shrubs. They are magnets for birds and bumblebees. Hummingbirds show up daily during bloom periods to feed off the blossoms. Just the last weekend, a small flock of unidentifiable (they were quick!) birds appeared out of nowhere, spent a few minutes eating the flowers, and flew away.
Despite my grevillea grove’s reputation as a food source among the neighborhood birds, the quality that seems to attract most avian visitors to it is exactly what turned me off aesthetically. The open branch structure and thin canopy of green foliage covering them provide shelter and cover, a place to roost momentarily each day as the birds travel through my neighborhood looking for food. On any given morning, a motley mix of towhees, chickadees and finches visit the plant, and many do so just to rest momentarily or groom. One day I looked up from writing at my desk to notice a bird landing on one of the protected inner branches. It had a fat beetle in its beak. After pausing for a moment to make sure it had privacy, the bird gulped down its lunch. Ten minutes later, the scenario repeated itself.
This rangy trio of plants meets several requirements for good garden habitat plants. It provides cover and protection, and a food source. My tendency to let fallen needles mulch in place provides debris for birds to forage through. Rather than give it the axe, I have decided that I will do what I can to improve the looks of my bird rest stop. Even though I will never undo the years of bad or insufficient pruning, with occasional thinning and regular heading cuts, I’ll encourage leafiness where growth is thin.
I found myself at a similar crossroads with a mature rosemary shrub. Based on its sprawling appearance and twisted, woody branches, one might assume that it was the first thing to take root in the backyard when my house was built in the mid 1950s. Peeking past the leaves and down into the stems reveals a glimpse of untamed growth that has gone largely unchecked over decades. A year ago, I noticed a portion of dead wood on part of the plant, whose six by six foot spread often encroaches on nearby roses. I made a note to myself that I’d work on removing the large plant, but I would wait until after it finished blooming, because it was swarming with bees. Each time I would approach this rosemary plant over the next few months with the intention of pruning it, I’d have to back away and reschedule. The rosemary was constantly in bloom, and I could never find a free hour during daylight when the bees weren’t present. At some point during this cat and mouse game with my local bee population, I realized what a misguided idea it was to even consider removing this plant. Just like its rangy neighbors the “Grevillea Triplets,” this plant is doing an important job to support my local wildlife. Any measure I can take to maintain this reliable food source for bees will probably earn me extra karma points for promoting the survival of pollinators. I’m still keeping that appointment to visit this plant with a pruning implement, but I’ll be visiting it at dusk, only to prune out the dead growth, reign in the sprawl and keep it healthy for years to come.

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