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Growth Spurts
by Des Kennedy
November 12, 2000

I’ve just come in from an extended bout of Greco-Roman wrestling with a Clematis montana. This particular Queen of the Vines, after several years as a peaceable and well-balanced specimen, suddenly went beserk and began strangling a nearby clump of fountain bamboo.
A spasmodic insurrection by a plant like this is just one manifestation of the phenomenon we call the growth spurt. It is not unlike what certain glandular teenagers experience -- a sudden explosion of growth, perhaps accompanied by peculiar changes in behaviour and appearance.
Growth spurts, in my opinion, offer convincing evidence that plants possess both intelligence and a highly refined sense of mischief. Attempting to calculate if, when and by how much any given plant is apt to grow poses one of the major challenges to the designing gardener. Manuals that describe all plants as fast, moderate or slow growing to a specified height and width are entirely useless when it comes to growth spurts and should be read, if at all, as fiction.    
Some plants, for example, give endless promise of a growth spurt that never quite happens. For many years now we’ve coddled a Constance Spry rose that could still easily pass for a miniature. It’s supposed to be a robust and rampant character, so we’ve given it a wide berth, never planting other things too close lest they be trampled in the great eruption of growth dear Constance is destined to achieve one of these days. She never has, and never may -- unless, of course, we were to plant other things close by, which would almost certainly spur her into action. In this instance the trick is for the gardener to distinguish between a long-delayed growth spurt and a plant pathologically disinclined to grow at all.
Or you can have a premature performer, which can inflict even greater heartache than a non-performer. One of our very earliest acquisitions was a little tamarisk tree. We’d scarcely put it in the ground when it threw up a beautiful big leader and soon bloomed a somewhat questionable pink. So vibrant with promise, this initial growth spurt was the tree’s last and thereafter it settled, rather grumpily, into a routine of neither growing up nor dying down very much.
A variation on this theme is the intermittent growth spurt. In this scheme a plant will explode into lush and profuse growth one year, but not the next, maybe not for several years, but will again once you’ve decided it won’t. This random patterning can be especially embarrassing with plants that require staking or structures to climb over. After the firt big burst, you erect a trellis or arbor or obelisk to hold the monster up the following year, at which point it decides not to grow at all, leaving your grand construction looming over the garden like a fool’s delusion of grandeur.
Failure to install proper retaining structures, on the other hand, ensures that the plant will run amok. We have an Alchemyst rose that’s like this -- every time you turn around it has thrown out a muscular new arm that’s waving menacingly in the wind.
There’s no end of variations in the growth spurt game. There’s always the fake spurt, for example, when things are getting dull. Here you’ll have a plant that is proceeding to develop at a decent pace into a comely shape but will suddenly, for no apparant reason, undergo a growth spurt in only one branch. One of our crabapples pulled this stunt last year, completely undermining the symmetry of a carefully pruned crown by sticking a single skinny arm up into the sky like the class goody-two-shoes who knows the answer to every question.
Where this little tendency can turn a bit ugly is what I call the kinky growth spurt. Here again you get a singular burst of growth in one part of the plant, but in a completely perverse direction. One of our silver maples, blessed with a perfectly reasonable vertical trunk, insisted on sticking a bizarre horizontal arm out sideways, as though it were pointing at us accusingly over some imagined insult.
How’s a gardener to know when any of these aberrations will strike? You can’t, of course. These are how plants play mind games with us, having a bit of fun at our expense, while we continue in the delusion that we’re in charge of them, rather than the other way around.


Des Kennedy gardens and writes on Denman Island, British Columbia. His latest book is An Ecology of Enchantment: A Year in a Country Garden (HarperCollins)

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