Several years ago an acquaintance called me a “plant collector,” which was not a compliment. In the world of gardening, “plant collecting” is a derogatory term, leaving many novice gardeners shaking their heads — after all, isn’t a garden a collection of plants?
When I first started to garden, I fit the mold of plant collector. I was unfamiliar with so many plants — and I wanted to sample them all. Going to a garden center, I would collect a little of this, a little of that, taking my booty home to plant hither and yon. I had little knowledge of what would work and what wouldn’t.
The problem is that gardens aren’t supposed to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Gardens are supposed to have continuity. Gardens are supposed to have repetitions. So what is the poor plant collector to do?
I have since discovered that gardening rules are there to be broken.
Always buy in odd numbers, never use magenta in the garden, and provide for swaths of color are three common gardening rules. In fact, one landscape architect admonished me to always purchase 25 specimens of the same plant, something that caused me to rebel even then. I did try employing a swath of color when I planted 10 bright pink azaleas — and hated it. Today, not one of those azaleas remains in my garden.
My rebellion was such that if I saw a magenta-colored flower, I bought the plant. I sometimes had the audacity to buy two plants of the same species rather than one, three, or, heaven forbid, five.
There was a reason to my madness: I had determined that a grouping of five identical plants didn’t work for me. My eyes glossed over five similar plants, leaving me with a vision of blurred color. I like to see individual plants. Place one Dicentra spectabilis in front of me and I marvel at the delicacy of its leaves; put five in front of me, and I see a whorl of green. One Japanese fern captures my interest. Five scattered throughout the garden hold my eyes. Five grouped together make me yawn.
The taboo of using magenta in the garden can be traced back to Gertrude Jekyll. The talented gardener and garden designer loathed the color. Now I have three “Thomas Affleck” roses, shimmering in their magenta-ness, spread throughout the garden. It’s enough to capture my eye without surfeiting it in color.
However, what really turned me into a plant collector was my curiosity to see what a plant actually looked like in the garden. Did I like it? Should I buy more of this species? Or should I pull it out?
Some of the results were pretty bad. I planted Euphorbia wulfenii and soon realized each flower cast forth tons of seeds. The enchanting Chasmanthium latifolium, with its captivating seed heads, soon disenchanted me as those seed heads eventually created deeply rooted plants that I’m still pulling out. Invite in Cleome, an annual, and she returns year after year — along with an unpleasant aroma.
I remember that I picked up a sea holly, Eryngium planum, that sat, unmoving, in the garden for two years. Suddenly, during its third year, it became one of the ugliest plants I have ever seen. What I was actually nourishing was a perennial thistle with a long taproot. Who wants that?
Yet there were other species I grew to love. The lacy Dicentra found a permanent place in the garden, the old-fashioned crinums delighted me, and the native, rather hard-to-grow, Spigelia will always have a home. The hardy begonia, Begonia grandis, is a tactful seeder, spreading throughout the garden, casting a pink halo over the garden when it blooms during the latter half of July — the hottest time of the year in the Southern garden.
What turned me from a plant collector into a gardener were the themes I gradually began to create in my head. The primary theme was to have something in bloom 12 months of the year, which is almost doable in the Carolina Piedmont, although January can be an iffy month. With this theme in mind, I planted an equal number of Camellia sasanquas and C. japonicas. The sasanquas cover the late fall months, while the japonicas take up the theme from January through mid-April. When the camellias start to peter out, the spireas and viburnums take up the slack, and we go through a white-garden period.
The roses burst forth the latter part of April and continue through May until the summer heat causes them to rest. The daylilies take up the reins, bursting forth for two months. The Phlox paniculatas take us through the hot, sultry months of July and August. At the end of August, the roses pick up speed until the sasanquas burst forth again, completing the cycle.
I still have a lot of other plants, and my tendency toward plant collecting remains steady. I’m not about to give up my hostas, ferns, fatsia, fatshedera, Virginia bluebells – you get the idea. The lilies and calla lilies surprise me with their reappearance. I’ve been known to plant on top of the slumbering calla lilies. The amarcrinums delight me in August, and I have now developed an intense interest in clematises with one even climbing up through my windmill palm. Yes, I am a plant collector, but I’m also a gardener.
I tell new gardeners that there are guidelines to follow in gardening. Incorporating organic matter into our native soils, whether they’re clay- or sandy-based, just makes sense. There are a lot of good reasons to mulch the garden. In the sultry South, you really do have to consider space that provides for some air circulation.
However, when it comes to designing a garden, please remember it’s your garden, reflecting your personality. I started out as a plant collector for the simple reason I was curious about which plants would look good in the garden. Gradually a theme arose, one that I follow because I enjoy flowers in the garden.
My garden has a name: “Organized Chaos.” I call it that because it is organized in a chaotic fashion. Gertrude Jekyll probably wouldn’t have approved, but that’s OK. I would just tell her that I like magenta in the garden — and that it’s my garden.