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What to do about a messy middle

“The middle is messy, but it’s also where the magic happens.”

— Brene’ Brown, "Rising Strong," 2015

We try our best to prevent it. Alas, one day we look down and there it is — a messy middle — flopping about in the most unsightly manner for everyone to see. There’s no hiding a messy middle.

I’m referring to our herbaceous perennials, of course, and the unseemly tendency for the stems of some of them to part in the middle of the plant and collapse outward (see pictures on my blog). Floppy flower stalks create an untidy appearance in the garden, and they block neighboring plants from enjoying their moments in the sun. Here, then, is what to do about the dreaded messy middle:

Be aware of the plants that have a tendency to expose messy middles. Examples include salvias, penstemons, asters, peonies, crocosmias and some sedum cultivars such as Autumn Joy and Purple Emperor. This year, a couple of my red valerian plants have developed a messy middle. In addition, lavender, oregano, and a few other woody herbs have the propensity to split open and flop over.

Try to identify the cause(s) of the messy middle. There are four primary suspects. One possibility is that the plant is not getting enough sunlight. Plants will grow weak, leggy stems if they must reach for the sun. Then, when the flowers bloom, their weight pulls the weakened stems right over. This was the issue last year when the rose campion I planted in front of my blue salvia grew taller than I expected and blocked the salvia from having its afternoon sunbath.

Another possible cause for the messy middle syndrome is that the plant needs to be divided. This is frequently the case with established plants that reproduce and spread quickly. Overcrowded plants are prevented from growing strong root systems that are needed to anchor the stem and support flowers. This is the problem I’m having with one of my hostas this year. I meant to divide it this spring, but never quite got around to accomplishing the task. Ditto a few of my daylilies.

It may also be that your garden soil is too rich for the floppy plant. Although most garden plants thrive in soil with lots of organic matter, some perennials prefer soil with low fertility. Often, these are drought-tolerant plants that are useful for rock gardens or xeriscaping. Examples of plants that prefer average to poor soils are sedum, gaillardia, alyssum, coneflower, cosmos, California poppy and spurge.

Some plants can be prevented from flopping over by pinching out the main stem when the plant is between 6-12 inches tall. Pruning a plant this way will delay blooming by encouraging the plant to focus energy on developing branching foliage, rather than flower stems and heads. A bushier more compact plant is a sturdier plant that won’t easily collapse.

Finally, perhaps your floppy plant is simply worn out. After all, perennial doesn’t mean immortal. The average lifespan of a herbaceous perennial is 5-6 years, and some short-lived perennials, such as lupine and delphinium, have only a few productive years. If it’s a plant you’d enjoy growing again, take cuttings to continue its heritage for seasons to come. Then, allow the poor collapsed plant to rest in peace in the compost pile for all those garden perennials that prefer nutrient-rich soil.

Author Brene’ Brown uses the term “messy middle” to refer to a period of uncertainty during change, so perhaps gardeners do experience messy middles more often than most. Let’s take heart in the words of leadership author and speaker Robin Sharma, who also wrote on the topic of change. He observed, “All change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and gorgeous at the end.”

Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.