I was reading an article from an old (really old, as in December, 1975) gardening magazine and came across a wonderful phrase. The author said, “All the plants in your garden should look as if they are having a wonderful time.” The author’s phrase was such an ‘aha’ for me, and so succinctly stated my philosophy of gardening, that I couldn’t resist making it my topic.
By the way, after finishing the article, I happened to glance back at the first page noticed that it was by Christopher Lloyd. Why didn’t I guess that?
But, getting back to the quote, I believe generally that if the plants look as if they are having a good time, the garden will look beautiful and pleasing. There are, of course, exceptions. I doubt that most bonsai look as if they are having a good time, but that is more like a regal pose. I rarely think of the Queen of England as having a wonderful time, but the pomp and circumstance has a beauty of its own.
There are three things which make a plant look as if it is having a good time. One is good health, a second is growing in a relaxed and natural way, and the third is blending well with its companions. I think that good health is obvious, but achieving that sometimes seems so very difficult. My single most important suggestion for this is: plant the plant in the habitat for which it has developed. Make the niche match the plant.
This seems so obvious that it should be self-evident, but we all ignore the rule at one time or another. Driving around, one sees hundreds of examples of poorly placed plants. The rhododendron long-suffering on the south wall of house, the gangly lilac stretching for light, the parched primroses, the sticks of roses long overtaken by shade. Not only do these plants look like they are suffering from environmental conditions, they also are being attacked by disease. A severely stressed plant is one less likely to be able to mobilize its immune system when under attack by insects or disease. This is not to say that a genetically susceptible rhododendron won’t be chewed by root weevils, but it does say that even a genetically robust rhododendron that is stressed will be chewed by root weevils. My waterlogged, poorly placed bergenias are much more likely to develop black spot in the late winter. Cuttings from the same plant in better suited locations glide through till new spring leaves with just a few blotches on a leaf or two.
Why do we NOT plant a plant in the most suitable place? I think for three reasons: An attempt at an aesthetic judgment, ignorance, and plant greed. A very good example of aesthetic misplacement is three lovely Japanese black pine trees that were planted around our former koi pond. They were wonderful as focus points and promoting the Asian feel of that garden. In theory they are beautifully planted. However, there was no regard for their habitat requirements. At most, they received an hour to an hour and a half of direct sunlight in mid-summer. Five years later, these plants were removed due to their severely stressed condition. Happily, they are in a friend’s garden basking in the sun by ANOTHER koi pond.
On a less grand scale, I wanted to have some early white flowers as highlights under some trees down in a wooded rockery. I had several white hellebores that I thought would look splendid. I planted them along the edge of the small rockery. But hellebores don’t like to be parched. We ended up having to water them constantly during the summer. They flagged daily because of the drainage along the rocks, and the following spring, three of them did not bloom and the other two were dead.
Ignorance is my second reason for making major planting errors. And ignorance can come from laziness or misinformation. Sometimes (I’m sure you’ve never done this, but I certainly do) you buy a plant because it romances you at the nursery. It’s stunning little flowers or leaves or dramatic form beckon you to come hither and buy it. And home it comes and languishes in a pot on the front porch until in desperation, you just stick it in anywhere so that it won’t point a shaming finger at you every time you pass by. If you didn’t intuitively place it properly, there’s a good chance the thing will be dead or diseased soon enough, and gets a bad name for being ‘tricky’ to grow.
Misinformation can come in several forms as well. Mislabeling is a good example. You diligently come home with your new treasure and carefully read the tag or look it up in your reference books and plant it perfectly in the conditions that it should like. When it finally sends out some flowers and you realize it wasn’t what it was supposed to be, it may well also be sending down SOS or death knells. The other great misinformation can come from friends and nursery staff. Holding your prize, you ask, can I plant it in such and such. Oh sure, they say. And such and such location turns out to be a deathbed rather than a flower bed for your little plant.
And plant greed? Do I really have to talk about that? I used to live on seven acres of high and dense shade and one acre of minimal sun conditions (six hours at most in high summer). What right did I have to lust after yet another Rudbeckia or Kniphofia. It was crazy, but I did. And I bought them and eventually, they languished and died. NOW, I live on a great windy bluff with nearly no protection and I crave those rhododendrons and little treasures I USED to grow. It’s a brutal fact of beauty driving us to distraction.
However, if you actually pay attention to your site and conditions and match them to the needs of the plants, you will have healthy plants that look like they are having a good time. Well, you will if you don’t then brutalize them. A friend recently made an offer on a house in Bellevue. It has a lovely mature 50 year old garden with lovely magnolias and flowering cornus, wonderful dwarf rhododendrons and towering arborized ones.
But the thing that caught my eye immediately was a pathetic sight. A struggling forsythia trying to bloom. It had obviously been unkempt for a long time, with two and three inch caliber branches that had been chopped and sawed off this winter (probably in preparation for the sale) into a perfect four foot ball. It was a cripple in the garden, obviously NOT having a good time and it took the joy out of the whole setting. It had no grace and no happiness.
How many Pacific Northwesterners cringe at the mention of photinia? Who could possibly love these over used, appallingly pruned, stock plant of strip malls and front hedges? I saw a bank of it along a local freeway that had been left alone and it was magnificent and obviously having a grand time.
Watch that you don’t prune just for convenience. How many people don’t end up loping off plants just so they can see through the window. If possible, move it or if necessary remove it and plant something more appropriate. If you want a Chihuahua don’t buy a Great Dane. If you are not an inveterate mover of plants, try to match the size and habit of the plant to the location. Think 10 years from now. Or steel yourself to removing it later.
Better a fresh new plant than one that looks brutalized and unnatural.
Having good companions is a whole other talk in itself, so I’ll save that for another time. But I hope that we can all work to making sure that our plants are having a wonderful time in our gardens and I’m sure we will party along with them.