Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Growing Up: Old-fashioned spirea bushes show off magical fountain-like beauty

This is the fourth summer season since we moved into the ‘Hart House’. I drove by it for years and never really noticed that it was there, because in the summer it is completely shrouded by fifty-year-old trees.  The house was vacant, for sale and I was hired to ‘stage’ it. As I entered the space it was like entering another time and place.

As I went through back door, I approached the mud room. It had originally been the back porch, but had been enclosed in the 70s when a master bedroom addition was built. The first thing that I saw was an exposed formerly-exterior sandstone wall and a stairway to the basement. This had been a stairway to a root cellar with dirt floors and a canning kitchen.

Immediately, I knew the house was special because even as it was completely empty, it radiated the warmest essence of any home I had ever been in. I started to think about the areas that could be emphasized for the home’s last open house after nearly a year on the market. The mud room needed a basket of faux eggs on the bench because I could see them being there ‘way back when’.

The landscape was beautifully over-grown, adding to its farmhouse charm. For staging purposes, I added items in the kitchen and living room that highlighted the natural assets of the spaces. Baskets of fresh vegetables sitting by the sink, green glass in the divided light glass upper kitchen cupboards and cast iron cookware enhanced the kitchen while artwork and mission style candlesticks and lamps accented the incredible sandstone fireplace. We set the dining room table for breakfast, complete with homemade rolls, orange juice, fresh fruit and flowers. I guess it worked because when I asked my wife, Angie, to come across the street to see our work, she basically sat down and said let’s make this happen.

There is irony in all of this because we had just completed a remodel at our other home and were enjoying the fact that it was done. Personally, my idea of our next house was a New York City loft with white walls, lots of glass and very few pieces of furniture. With that in mind, it did seem odd to buy a house with a pickling kitchen in the basement!

Buying this old house has been a kick. It’s been a really fun dream-come-true that I never realized I wanted. Maybe there’s a lesson there…It’s the kind of place you never really own. It’s more like you take care of it for a while and then pass it on.

Rewind to tackling the landscape. If there had been a pickup with a trailer hitch and a big chain handy, the first thing that I would have done was entirely remove the four bridal wreath spirea bushes that looked like leggy twisted dead branches. Had it not been for Angie’s repeated threats to me, it probably would have happened.

The first year I just let them do ‘their thing’. By July, they were infested with aphids and suffering in the heat. Happily, I let them remain in that state, thinking that they’d never come back.

That winter a huge snow storm caused branches to fall from over 75’ to the ground, which crushed the spirea like pancakes. When the damaged limbs and everything that they crushed on their way down were removed, I have to admit, it hurt. The exposure and loss of privacy was devastating. As part of the clean up, I trimmed the spirea to about 12 inches off the ground, making way for my spring plans of a stamped concrete driveway and sidewalk.

When the spirea came back stronger than ever, I realized I better figure out how to make them thrive, because they weren’t going to go away peacefully. I learned that spirea are old-fashioned. The large varieties are meant to look almost like fountains with lots of green space around them or as hedges. In recent years they have fallen out of favor because when they defoliate, it’s almost like they are invisible. The stems are thin and not particularly attractive. They also are magnets for aphids. Without proper pesticides both systemic and topical, within a month they can look very sickly. Just a few more reasons that I could add to my list of why they needed to go!

This year I had them treated with both forms of pest control for aphids. I carefully trimmed them before they began to foliate, layering each branch in and out so that the center and top remained full but the edges would be able to gracefully fall toward the ground. An early dose of fertilizer and some good mulch around the base completed my last-chance proposition for these bushes.

The result is breathtaking. Right about now they look like what the Golden Corral restaurant does to a busload of starving football players. I just kind of grin as I look at them, thinking how appropriate it is for them to ‘show me’! I will never make a removal decision about a tree or a shrub until I’m sure that I am properly caring for them, because this year’s show was worth the wait. When something is given a chance and the support it needs to thrive, it usually does. Another lesson from the garden that I can take into my life and relationships.

I share my spirea story today not because I want you to think I’m a magical gardener, but because I want to give the stage to these four spirea I had left for dead. They fought back and melted my heart by their beauty this year. Enjoy June in the garden — it’s a great time!

Spirea come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Added to a well-balanced landscape of other deciduous trees, shrubs and evergreens, spirea can add some spice and drama. Choosing them for focal point areas and concentration can mitigate the work required to keep them healthy.

Jim Gainan is VP/Shareholder of Gainan’s Flower and Garden Center in Billings.