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Plantgasm - I love plants too much. By Derek Powazek.

The Great Potato Bush Massacre

When we bought our place a few years ago, the back yard was already really nice. There was a good watering system and lots of happy plants. So our first few years here, I just maintained it. I put in a plant here and there, but it’s a small yard, so I mostly planted stuff in containers.

I think it was the Potato Bush (Lycianthes rantonnei) that pushed me over the edge. It’s a shrub, technically, but it was huge, leggy, and ate up the entire back corner of the yard (which is one of the best spots, sun-wise, in a mostly shady yard). It was pretty enough, with small purple flowers that appeared throughout the year. But it was an aggressive beast, shading out everything under it, requiring frequent pruning. It took me a few years of trimming and muttering about it before I finally decided. It had to go.

Side story: The bush put out long, straight branches. After one pruning, I kept some of the nice branches to use as stakes. They sat under my deck for months before I finally used some to put up some netting in the vegetable garden. A few weeks into their stake duties, I noticed something: they were growing new leaves. The fuckers actually rooted. Tough dude.

Because I’m an idiot, I always forget to take “before” photos. So you’ll just have to imagine a bush that reached 20 feet tall, 15 feet wide, and sent branches up so high they eventually bent down just because of gravity. Also, I think he was a drinker.

First I cut all the branches off with a hand pruner. (This really put my new Felcos to the test, and I hate to say it, but they didn’t do well. I liked the Bahcos much more. If you want details, remind me to write a review.) Then I used a tree saw to cut off the thick stems, some of which were 2-3 inches wide. This filled three SF green bins, so it took a few weeks to get them all out. (No room for a mulch pile in our tiny yard.)

Cutting down the Potato Bush.

Then I unearthed the rootball using a combination of a shovel, a pickaxe, and manly grunting noises. When I finally got the thing out, it was 2 feet wide and 3 feet deep. It was important to get it out because I’ve heard this plant can be leveled and still come back. And I needed the space for the new plants, of course.

I’m especially proud that I did this all without destroying the soft, black plastic watering system, which I kept finding new sections of. When you work in a garden someone else set up, it’s always a surprise what you find just under the surface. I also found what I think was once a marble cutting board.

Dig a hole, fill it up.

I shoveled out a garbage can’s worth of dirt. It’s mostly sand here (which explains a lot), leaving me with a helluva hole. I added two large bags of good soil (Sloat Bay Area Blend, which I love) and a bit of E. B. Stone Sure Start because I’m superstitious like that. I mixed it all in and tried to blend the natural soil in as best I could so it wouldn’t form a waterlogged pocket.

Now, finally, the fun part. Planting new things. See that huge concrete wall in the background? That’s why the previous gardener chose the Lycianthes. So whatever I plant, it needs to grow tall without going too wide to obscure the ugly wall.

In the back, I planted three Tree Dahlias (Dahlia imperialis), two purple-flowered and one white, all from the SF Botanical Garden where they grow, true to their name, like trees (20 feet tall or more in a single season). They’re incredible, but they are perennials, so I need something else to obscure the wall when they die back in winter.

In between the Tree Dahlias, I planted two Brugmansias (B. sanguinea ‘Inca Queen’ and B. vulcanicola). They’re evergreen, so they should do the job of hiding the wall all year. They also have amazing yellow/red flowers. They come from cool, cloudy mountain climates, so they should be a great fit for my back yard’s natural microclimate. We have another Brugmansia (fuzzy leaves, white flowers, not sure which species) that went from a small 6-inch pot to the size of a refrigerator in a year, so I’m feeling confident about Brugmansias in our yard.

Those are all the tall, wall-obscuring plants. Now I have an opportunity to plant in front of them. So I added a bunch of medium-sided Dahlia bulbs (‘Electric Light,’ ‘Purple Gem,’ ‘Avignon,’ and ‘Vancouver’) that my wife picked out at Sloat. I’ve never grown Dahlias before, so I’m excited to give it a go. I hear they need a lot of sun to bloom, so if they’re going to be happy anywhere in our yard, that’s the spot.

After weeks of weekend work, we’re left with … this.

Not much to look at yet.

I know, it doesn’t look like much now, but in a few months it should be packed with life. The groundcover (Lamiastrum) will make its way back in no time. And the Tree Dahlias already have growth spikes.

This has been a liberating experience. It’s the first corner of the yard I’ve really had my way with, and the experience has me looking at the rest of the yard with new eyes. Up next? I’ve never really been a fan of those Hydrangea….

See Also

3 Responses

This sounds like so much fun! I can’t wait until I have a yard where I can make major changes like this. It’s just not as much fun with only containers on a deck. :)

Posted by Jenetta on 13 February 2012 @ 1pm

That sounded like so much FUN! BTW, I just found my Katana blade. Let me know if you need help chopping things up next time. Heh! Side note: regarding the tree Dahlias – you will have no problems at all. I went from one of those “sticks” to -not one but TWO massive trees in 2 years! Can’t wait to see it all filled out!!

Posted by Rob on 13 February 2012 @ 3pm

Hurray!!!! So happy to hear you finally ripped that nasty thing out. Don’t you want to do it again? I think ripping out & rearranging is my favorite thing to do. Can’t wait to see your B. vulcanicola in bloom action. Great plant choices!

Posted by Megan on 13 February 2012 @ 4pm


Plantgasm is where Derek Powazek chronicles his botanical antics and misadventures. More.