Books, Guest Rants

My Dirty Little Secret

Dear Penthouse Letters:

I never thought it could happen to me. I mean, me? S&M? NO WAY. Then I realized… Gardening, for me, was masochism.

It’s true. For years, I was a virtual slave to plants I lusted after but couldn’t grow. How voluptuous were lilacs and peonies when I was but a lad gardening in the South? How I pined for palms after I grew up and moved to the Northeast! And haven’t we all tried roses?

I’d buy these problem plants however I could get my dirty little hands on them, and plant them anyway, knowing full well how painful the day would be when I’d have to put shovel to soil and dig them out of the garden again. Hardiness wasn’t my only problem—I loved the high-maintenance plants, the ones that needed constant attention. Pinching, pruning, spraying, staking… I did it all. I adored invasive plants, plants I was never surprised to catch brazenly growing in my neighbor’s yard, and my other neighbor’s yard, and the woods, and on the side of the road. I grew them still, insisting one day they’d change. Speaking of the neighbors, I tried to hide my proclivities from them by planting a lot of the same boring plants they grew too, but it didn’t work. Everyone knew. I did it anyway, and I didn’t care. Planting all these plants felt wrong—and I liked it.

Left, I love hardy ‘Red Dragon’ fleece flower more than all those tender cannas I forgot to dig up. Right, ‘Robin Hill’ shadblow blooms pink like your flowering crabapple, with a lot less mess.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve known gardeners who spend a lifetime insisting burning bush is well behaved, watering lawn in the rain with seeming glee, trying not to breathe in when they spray roses with chemicals, adhering to all manner of wasteful, painful, joyless regimen and denial to keep themselves and those sadistic plants happy. I wised up around the time my last “hardy palm” bit the dust. I realized these plants did not bring me joy, and I admitted to myself that my attachment to problem plants ran deeper than I’d realized. I set out to find plants that had all the good qualities of those problem plants and then some, plants with which I could build healthy relationships—for me, the plants, and the planet. I even wrote a book about it. It’s called Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?: 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants.

Blueberry beats the pants off burning bush.

I know some of these plants may come as a shock to your readers, but you know what? It turns out most problem plants aren’t sadistic. It’s us, the people who grow them, into codependent nightmares, in situations they aren’t meant for—we’re the real problem.

A tiny confession: there are a handful of “problem plants” in the book I haven’t kicked. I still grow yucca, even if it hangs out at the gas station up the road too, collecting cigarette butts. I swear it’s pretty in my garden. Hey, we all have our vices, right?

Sincerely,
Andrew Keys

Author / Podcaster / Troublemaker

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Posted by Andrew Keys on November 15, 2012 at 6:54 am, in the category Books, Guest Rants.
76 Comments

76 Responses to “My Dirty Little Secret”

  1. There is a very simple cure for those masochistic tendencies; become a maintenance gardener for a living.

  2. Chris N says:

    Just finished another round of the masochism tango with my cannas and elephant ears.

  3. Alice says:

    OMG, I could have written this myself. I consider myself a recovering hortiholic having gone 7 months without buying any inappropriate (or any at all) plants. In the meantime I have been busy potting up and passing on the needy guys to friends in better – for the plants – locations. I refuse to pass on any thugs and find composting them is therapeutic.

  4. Greg says:

    I have begun to give up on certain plants simply because I am getting older and I get tired more easily. I’m not going to fight with clay soil and argue with maple tree roots anymore – I’m finding plants that can do that!

  5. Sandie Anne says:

    I’ve been having a problem with tomatoes lately–early blight and now I think late blight! I want to garden organically so I don’t want to use chemical sprays. This year I did better with early blight, I think, because I used lots of compost but now it appears that the tomatoes had late blight. I think I am going ot pass on growing tomatoes for a few years and buy them at the farmer’s market. I’m going to be kind to myself!

  6. Lizabeth says:

    I’m having garden withdrawal since moving to a condo with only a balcony to grow stuff. I tried using the planters downstairs by the door (with the unspoken rule of you put it in, you take care of it) and got busted for growing basil. Flowers not veggies apparently. Would love to read this book and see what would work for the balcony and planters. The local library doesn’t have it :(

    • Andrew Keys says:

      Hi Lizabeth – The book just came out yesterday, so it may not hit your library for a little while longer! In the meantime, Fern Richardson’s book is a good source for balcony inspiration.

  7. Sally in SC says:

    I too grow everything I can get my hands on and they all like it here. Voles and deer keep the populations in check but now that I have taken the Master Naturalist course, I can’t invite any of my new friends over…

  8. Only my close family has known about this until now… I confess that I once let a whole field of Canada thistle grow up in my yard. It smelled SO heavenly! And when it went to seed, it was like a walking through a slow-motion cotton candy machine.

    The pollinators adored my thistle field, and even better, it made a moist, dense miniature forest that filled with tree frogs from my neighbor’s woods. They crossed into my own smaller woods, from which they had been cut off by the mown field.

    Then, alas, my neighbors turned me in to the city, which sent a letter threatening to fine me if I didn’t mow down all those thistles. My mom and husband and I took our snow shovels and beat them down in just a couple of heartbreaking hours; their hollow stems snapped easily.

    I have built an enormous berm — a hill, really — which hides that field from view of the road. Just in case I want to do it again…

    (Andrew, I can’t believe you dragged this confession from me! I will be sorry for admitting all of this later, but right now it feels so good.)

    • Andrew Keys says:

      That is HILARIOUS, and really interesting too, from an ecological perspective.

    • Donna B. says:

      I hate seeing people get reported for something like that… I let the thistle sow wherever they like – and you apparently had a valley of them? That was probably one of the more glorious sights. I’d love to be your neighbour.
      And I’m always in danger of being reported to my township… but I don’t really care. Hahaha! I’ll fight every negative against my gardens! >D

    • Ann says:

      Oh, man. I have Canadian thistle growing in my yard and my neighbor’s empty lot. That stuff is pernicious. We keep mowing it and pulling it up, and it keeps coming back month after month, year after year, under my blueberries, in my borders, in the lawn, in our mild Pacific Northwest climate. So prickly and painful and horrible.

  9. But isn’t there such satisfaction when you get something to grow that “shouldn’t”? Looking forward to seeing this book!

  10. When ‘Endless Summer’ hydrangea first came out, I had to have one. My grandmother had blue-flowered hydrangeas growing in her (much warmer) yard and here was my chance to garden like Grandma! Well, there is a reason it is nicknamed ‘Endless Bummer’. Sure it blooms on new wood–if it’s sunny enough, moist enough, warm enough, and fertilized enough. And it helps if you mulch it over the winter so some of those old wood buds make it through. Otherwise your first bloom shows up about three weeks before the first frost, when the whole thing collapses into a sodden mess. Meanwhile the H. paniculatas and H. arborescens of the world have been blooming madly with benign neglect, and when cold weather comes their leaves hang on and turn lovely shades of orange and yellow before dropping. I am not trying to make a H. macrophylla be what it’s not anymore!

    • Andrew Keys says:

      I am SO with you, Kathy. But then I guess I’ve never really liked hydrangeas either… I like the Hydrangea serrata cultivars, especially ‘Bluebird’, which are lacecaps. They can take a stupefying amount of dry shade–more than any hydrangea I’ve seen, FAR more than macrophyllas. Love paniculatas too.

      • Sarah says:

        I agree with her too! I was actually thinking about the 4 hydrangeas that came with the purchase of our house and haven’t bloomed well yet after 3 years (blame the late frosts!) Also, would love to read your book!

      • Ann says:

        Truly, it does great in dry shade? I am a bit addicted to the hydrangeas and have planted three in my portland-area yard, but man they want a lot of water during our drought time summers. I feel guilty enough so that we’re thinking of getting a 1000 gallon cistern and tucking it behind the house, to collect rainwater during the other nine months and redistributing it during our dry summers.
        I think I might need a Hydrangea serrata ‘Bluebird’ now to test this dry shade hardiness. In the interests of science, yes that’s it. Hmm. Where to put one…

  11. Lisa-St. Marys ON says:

    My name is Lisa…

    I have a problem with delphiniums.

    Whew, that was difficult. I was in denial for many years. I live with clay soil, and they don’t really like it here. I try to hide my problem in the back yard, so my neighbours don’t suspect. Putting the plant tags in a bag before they go in the trash.

    My children have been subjected to this abuse for their entire life. They really don’t know any different. I think they may suspect that other moms are not like their own. But they won’t broach the subject. Perhaps they are arranging an intervention.

    Help me please!

  12. Jane Marie says:

    If only I hadn’t planted my Great Grandmother’ western Colorado pasture spiderwort into my central Nebraska garden and if only I hadn’t thought it was cool & planted it in several spots. If only this spider wort didn’t spread like crazy here where it gets more rain, if only the roots weren’t so many, tiny, & brittle, and if only every little tiny piece of root did not produce more of this plant that is resistant to Roundup.

  13. gmarieb says:

    I travel along, see a sign even remotely having something to do with Nursery, pull into their venue and whala I find something absolutely gorgeous I’ve never seen before and must have. When I get home to find the best spot for the new arrival, that’s when trouble starts. I move plants around and around and around. Even mature trees. Many of the plants probably should never had made it to my garden in the first place. And although I can’t imagine what I’d missed out on if I’d only bought “appropriate” plants, I think my garden would have more maturity to it by now. Would love to read your book. I know it will give me some insight.

  14. Linda B Secrist says:

    A man after my own heart. When i started with my landscaping i was killing native solomen’s seal and solomen’s plume in order to grow those deva plants that i was supose to love. Finally got the ah-ha moment and started to love the natives that wanted to grow there without my effort and now i teach their blessings and virtue to all .

  15. Sigh. I have a yucca issue. We had neighbors with an insane yard so my grandmother stuck in a bunch of little yucca stubs and let them grow. Now I get to deal with the aftermath (the 4 to 8 foot tall and wide aftermath). New neighbors are much nicer and as I slowly try to hack away at the yuccas I am finding they hide a multitude of sins. But now I started, so I have to finish…

    • Andrew Keys says:

      Yeeeeeeeeeeah….. I hear you on the yucca problem, Anne. But I see you’re in the Bay Area, and big succulents can be beasts out there! I still love them. Sigh. I think it’s partly a rebellion thing for me–my mom hated yuccas! Ha! Of course I had to put them in the book because so many people hate them, and there’s no reason to miss out on the architecture of yucca if you don’t want to plant yucca.

      (Your blog’s name cracked me up, BTW.)

  16. Petunia says:

    I am a gardenia addict and have spent more time and money than I would rare to admit. Recently lost mine to a cold weather.

  17. tropaeolum says:

    I confess I have a thing for dahlias.

    First, you have to dig a nice big hole, amend with compost, pound in a rebar stake, plop in the tuber and cover it up. That’s the easy part.

    Then there are the 4 months of watering, fertilizing, spraying deer repellants, tying up and dead heading the plants. And by plants I mean approximately 100. I dare not count.

    Then there is the 2 weeks to 1 month of stunning flowers. All the plants are covered in bursting buds.

    Then there is the hard frost. And they all turn to black mush.

    Then there are the days of digging up the tubers, cleaning them, labeling them, and putting them in bags.

    This is followed by storing them for 6 months, taking up half the garage, and carefully monitoring the temperature so that they do not freeze and rot.

    Repeat.

  18. John says:

    I can totally relate. The grass is somehow always greener on the other side. I never had an interest in cacti or succulents when I lived in Southern California, but now that I’m living in North Dakota, I have these overwhelming urges to cultivate them. Why? Who knows. I think it’s just too much of an inherently human trait to want what we can’t have. One of the 10 Commandments is to not covet thy friends Rhododendrons or Bougainvillaea or Crepe Myrtle, just because they don’t grow in your area.

  19. Marlene says:

    I once heard a presentation from a professional gardener who had never met a perennial that wouldn’t do better in bondage. Honestly, every plant she extolled was in a hoop, staked or trellised.

    Maybe I’ll use that as inspiration and write a book called “Fifty Shades of Heuchera.”

    And ps to Evelyn – I never knew that Canada thistle was fragrant. Maybe that can be my excuse next year…

  20. Deirdre says:

    My darkest horticultural secret is……..no. I’m not going to admit to that.

  21. Donna B. says:

    Yes, I think everyone is secretly a victim to plant lust…
    I am a sucker for succulents [har har har] – outdoors I do okay with hens’n'chicks and other sedums… but I like the crazy ones people grow as indoor plants.

    So far… I’ve managed to NOT kill a cactus.
    [But I think it's because I forget it's there.]

    I scrape my arm reaching past it to cradle my jade plant in my lap and coddle it. The leaves are turning red/purple on the underside… I think it’s trying to commit houseplant suicide…

    Either way, I’m picking up this book! Maybe it’ll help me realize that I can’t grow everything I want… :D

    • MiSchelle says:

      Donna, don’t despair! The red/yellow underside on your jade plant is just it’s way of saying it wants a nap. Succulents, like our outside plants, go through dormancy. Just water it a little less over the winter to keep the roots from rotting and you will both be just fine!

      • Donna B. says:

        WOOSH! Thank you MiSchelle~
        That actually helps me feel a little bit better now, hahaha! To think I always thought it was me. :D

        Oh, I’ve had this scrappy little plant now for a good three years. How I’ve kept it alive for so long still boggles me completely… I think it’s because I DON’T water it, hahahaha!

  22. Michelle T says:

    I only moved accross the street, but my microclimate is totally different now. I keep insisting on wasting $ on dahlia bulbs every year, only to be disappointed again! And the tomatoes! Why can’t I get a ripe tomato?! Argh!!!

    • Michelle T says:

      I also just dug up some mint that went EVERYWHERE at my old house, and… put in right in the ground here. I knew it was wrong, but I read it would deter rats and I have an issue with them around our place. I figured mint was the better of two evils… ah, that felt good.

      • Paul W says:

        We too had escaped mint this year and decided to control it with Mojitos. We didn’t manage to stay ahead of it, but we had many, many great times trying :)

  23. Fred Karp says:

    Is it just the relative lack of light in the house that makes me want to neglect the indoor plants? They’re all scraggly, and this is only the start of the Dark Season.

  24. ChristyMN says:

    Same problem – continuing to plant things that NEVER grow the first time or things the critters just love but I never learn.

  25. I want a cottage garden so bad it hurts. I have a shady yard, but I can’t even get ferns to grow… and my poor sweet woodruff is pining away in the front yard. :P I love all the old tried and true favorites. Lilacs. Four O’Clocks. Clematis. Instead I get blackberry briars and dandelions. To be fair, I give them their due. Blackberries are delicious if you actually get berries. And dandelions are fabulous greens for my birds (and my family if I can get them to eat them), but I’ve got the bones here for a wonderful garden and I find myself struggling. :P I just can’t make myself love the awful hedge plant that grows everywhere… some kind of laurel, I think it is.

  26. anne says:

    I love volunteers, the plants that pop up from last year’s seeds…not necessarily where you want them. I have a hard time yanking them out!

    This book sounds fun. Every year I try to plant something new, I think most gardeners have that urge. Having grown up in northern CA, and now living in a mountain zone in OR, I am constantly pushing the climate envelope, too.

  27. As a passionate enthusiast of Hardy Geraniums, my beloved ‘Magnificum’ has now become second tier to other super stars. I have remodeled my tiny back yard and decided that I need more room for shrubs and year round interest. Though I still love her to bits, she’s just too “voluptuous” and tends to grow right over the top of other plants.
    So, this year and next year she will be relegated to supporting player status. I think I’ll be OK with it in time. I may be wearing black arm bands next spring though if you see me. :-)

  28. Pail Russeau says:

    Since Thanksgiving is near, I am thankful that I no longer have to plant every new plant from a division and that it is ok to toss those plants in the compost pile.

  29. Keith says:

    Invasives, no. Rare exotics that push my zone limits, yes! Try prying them from my cold, dead hands. I refuse to throw money away, however, and can only remember one deceased plant in the last 12 months. My voice says be a smart gardener, and I think your book attempts to help hobbyists make good choices. Well done!

  30. Leif says:

    So, you’re saying you miss the Southeast? I just moved to FL to find myself wishing for the foliage from back home. My green thumb has lead me to see the brighter side of things, and as an amateur gardener, the advantages to my new home climate. I’m trying to instill some caution in myself when hunting for seeds on Amazon, but I love growing plants that remind me of home. I do have a whole lot of fun, even if I have to watch some of my work go to waste. I’m still just a kid in a sandbox out here:)

    • Norma says:

      Leif, welcome to Florida and all its gardening challenges. I had to laugh at your comment of being “…a kid in a sandbox…” as that aptly describes the soil conditions down here: One big, massive sandbox.

  31. Tomi Matthews says:

    Hostas, are just one example. I have no business growing these as I live in (northern) California and they require a bit too much water. Nonetheless, a few have snuck into the garden where they drink water and in turn are devoured by snails and slugs. When I lived on the East Coast, hostas grew like weeds. Now, I have to sprinkle on the Sluggo routinely. But do I? Of course not, and the plants look like swiss cheese. Do I pull them out? Of course not.
    Don’t get me started on the hydrangeas…

  32. susan says:

    Brugmansia in Michigan. I grew it for several years in a pot. It grew nearly eight feet tall. Bloomed late but abundantly till the branches broke. Had to haul that pot inside to the basement narrowly avoiding a hernia. Spent the winter fighting mites and aphids. Still it was stunning and has now found new life in the “normal” plants after being composted. BTW I love these stories!

  33. Susan in WNC says:

    I should quit trying to grow potatoes (blight), morning glories (eaten by rabbits), corn (eaten by raccoons), tulips (eaten by voles), baptisia (who knows??), roses, and spinach (failure to thrive). On the other hand, the burning bush, privet, and honeysuckle, all inherited from previous owners, are doing quite well.

    Your book sounds like a great source of what to avoid and what to replace it with

    • Paul W says:

      Susan,

      Your Baptisia losses could also be due to voles. I’ve lost dozens of newly planted Baptisia to voles but in my garden, if I can get them through their first winter alive, they seem to be fine from then on. Good luck :)

  34. suzie says:

    I can grow anything if my heart is in it. I’ll admit to forgetting what I’ve planted because I plant a lot. I like the surprise of a flower blooming and not remembering that I planted it.

  35. Have you guys ever seen tobacco flowers very unique and beautiful? Growing tobacco seeds is very easy I must say everyone in the neighborhood makes nice comments about my tobacco plants. It doesn’t have to be for smoking rite? Reply back please

  36. Hoov says:

    My plants are addicted to water. I show them the water bills, and they merely laugh and shower me with flowers.

  37. Amanda says:

    I moved into an old, gardenless house in Montgomery, Alabama, and my dad has been “helping” me by sending tried-and-trues from his upstate New York garden. This makes me feel a little better about the remarkable failure, thus far, of the lilacs and peonies he sent! I’m still going to try — maybe I can hit that perfect microclimate — but I’ll send Dad a wishlist of plants that find hot and humid to be more hospitable :)

  38. MiSchelle says:

    I have spent too, too many years trying to establish foxgloves on my property. I know! Easy peasy, right? Wrong. I have seeded, transplanted, mulched, coddled, and pleaded to no avail. These prolific biennials (in any other yard) elude me, but I refuse to give up.

  39. Paul W says:

    It’s reassuring to see I’m not the only one. Why is that we have to see a “problem plant” be a problem with our own eyes before we’ll accept that it’s a problem? Miscanthus sinensis was just such a plant for me. When we moved in to our house 8 years ago, there were already several cultivars and I promptly added more. Early bloomers, late bloomers, lots of different variegations and cultivars – I was smitten. We didn’t have a seed issue for several years, but we do now. They’re coming up everywhere – even in our meadow that’s downwind. So now we’re swapping them out with other largish grasses like Sporobolus wrightii and several different cultivars of both Andropogon girardii and Panicum virgatum. Some of these still reseed, but at least I don’t have to worry about them “escaping” into the surrounding environment…they’re already native to North America :)

  40. VictoriaF says:

    I have a plant that is problematic: a dwarf hemlock, called Moonfrost which supposed to be beatiful when matures. I only want to add native plants to my garden to invite native insects and other creatures that depend on those insects. However, I did not count on wooly adelgids and other ailments. So now I have a not so beauful plant that I have to spray regularly with insecticides. … :(

  41. sherry brown 726 glen rhea dr, lake dallas, tx 75065 says:

    me too! i’m the idiot planting new flowers by flashlight, watering at 3 am so i get it all done on my day, when the city restricts water. i knew i had a problem when my neighbor saw me at Walmart and said “you actually do have clothes. i only see you in your gardening stuff (rags).”

  42. Amy S. says:

    Gardening in Alberta, Canada, is a seemingly perpetual exercise in horticultural foolishness. To be fair, it’s gotten a lot better as more hardy cultivars are bred, but every spring you never know what shrubs, perennials and bulbs will have made it through, and then if they make it through, they could still be destroyed by freak May/June snowstorms. Oh well, the climate hasn’t beaten the dreamer out of me yet so I’ll invariably make foolish purchases and fuss over my new perennials all summer, then never see them again. Such is life.

  43. Stacey says:

    This is the perfect present – for me! Because it’s my birthday on Nov 24! And I need to get rid of my tempermental roses and grow something else

  44. dawn says:

    My issue is the plants my mom planted long ago, many typical of what people put in that I’ve haven’t been brave enough to remove. I’m getting there. I plan to pull some this spring.

  45. gemma says:

    Lilacs in California? Fine. Lilacs in California in a container in a community garden? Fine for a couple years of glorious bloom, then its woody roots blocked the holes in the pot and it drowned, just as the buds were starting to open toward the end of a rainy season. I grew it from a 4-inch pot I got at a plant exchange, so I waited a couple years for the first flowers. Now I have another one, a 2-inch pot from a plant exchange…

  46. Pat says:

    I blame the garden catalogs. Every year I fall in love with the same gorgeous pictures, forgetting that I have bought, planted, and lost the same plants several times before. Or more often thinking “this year will be better”. (Like what I guess a Cub fan thinks every spring.)

  47. Patti says:

    Doug Firs – everything that I want to have in my garden fights with the 4 giant firs in my yard. I would have much less anxiety over watering and plant happiness if I just gave up and let the back of my yard go into lawn again! :(

  48. Janis says:

    I can certainly relate. Been there! I now grow mostly native plants that thrive in our area. It has increased my enjoyment and lessened the toil.

  49. barbara says:

    what gets done, gets done and if that means that there are still unweeded areas of the beds…..well, there’s always next year. As a compulsive överplanter”, treasure what has done well and want to spread the volunteers to take up the spaces of those who have departed this life. Old fashioned roses are the best. They rarely fail and for those weeks in June, there is nowhere else I’d rather be than in the garden. Had a fling with dalhias this year and will see if they become expensive annuals as I try to overwinter them here in southern Ontario.

  50. Jennifer says:

    Moved to Denver from Cincinnati a few months ago. Having a hard time not wanting to plant hydrangeas, hostas, and other humidity/moisture loving plants in my new garden. Forcing myself to look at other houses to see what I SHOULD be planting. Good news – roses seem to like it here!

  51. Beth says:

    My gardening problem is with labeling. That is a ‘gardening’ problem, isn’t it?

    I do not care the 10-year size of the plant. I want to know how large it will be when mature (and past maturity) so I know where to put it in my garden in the first place. Knowing the 10-year size isn’t terribly helpful without knowing a lot more about the plant. Some plants more or less stop growing up, and start getting wider (as humans very often also do as they age). Other plants… like Rhodies… don’t stop growing up until they die. And they can live a very long time here in the Pacific Northwest.

    Labelers, stop making us do math in our heads. So many gardeners are math-challenged as I am.

    I could go on… but so much of the current labeling… and LACK of labeling… is a problem for many gardeners. Yes, I’m an information freak. I need INFORMATION! :-)

  52. anne says:

    David Austin roses are my downfall. I keep hoping I get the big beautiful shrubs that are shown in the catalogs but my plants are spindly and leafless.. a girl can dream can’t she

  53. Zach says:

    Great insight! I’m excited to read this book and see if there are any plants I still hold in high regard on the list. I have been trying to convince my clients to ax their burning bush and put in blueberries instead for the past couple of years. I made the mistake of planting Phalaris ‘Strawberries n Cream’ in my full sun mixed perennial garden a few years back. I thought what a colorful foliage for full sun and clay soil! As much as I love it, I fight it every year, popping up in the midst of established low growing evergreens flanking the garden and choking out my other perennials. Runners can be a foot long on occassion.

  54. Sue Schwartz says:

    I keep planting Knockout roses and they only dwindle down to bare stems.

  55. Suzanne Drinkard says:

    I live in Montana where the growing season is short, the wind howls, and the hail destroys. They said you can’t grow a butterfly bush here, but I have 2 beautiful specimens growing in my garden! Folks keep asking me what is that shrub!

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