Lindisfarne Castle, designed by Gertrude Jekyll

Here’s how it goes.  Referring, inevitably, to Gertrude Jekyll’s meticulous plans for her clients’ perennial gardens and probably reprinting one of her daunting assemblages of blobs labeled “yucca” and “lavender,” the books recommend that you, too, draw out similar “drifts” of blobs before you dare stick anything in the ground.

So, that is what I dutifully did as a young gardener, employing a pad of graph paper and a chart that listed the blooming times of the greatest hits of the perennial world.  I drew a plan designed to achieve miraculous combinations of shape, form, color, and size in my 20-foot by six-foot space, while ensuring a constant progression of bloom from April to October.

Here is what the books don’t mention:

  1. Gertrude Jekyll was a genius and a painter with a magnificent eye for color and form.  Presumably, you are neither.
  2. She was designing giant beds on giant estates.  Maybe if you’d been a little nicer to one of those finance majors in college, you too would have giant beds on a giant estate, but, no, you were too busy dating painters and poets.  With smaller beds, you just have to pick your moments.  They cannot accomodate enough plants to be consistently impressive from early spring to late fall.
  3. The bloom-time charts in books bear no resemblance to the reality of your yard.  Want to combine sky-blue delphiniums with orange Asiatic lilies, a combination Jekyll once raved about?  All I can say is, good luck and God bless.
  4. The height charts also bear no resemblance to what will occur in your yard.  Does the lily get four feet tall or eight feet tall?  Does it go in front of the thalictrum or behind it?  It all depends on how cheerful it feels in its particular hole.   
  5. Even if you do know precisely when everything actually blooms in your yard and how tall it will get, there is simply no way to manage all the variables–color, size, shape, season, soil and sun preferences–at once, unless you are Bobby Fischer.  Or, unless your best friend works in IT for a hedge fund and writes you a nifty little program.

Nonetheless, by dint of much mental effort and many erasers, I designed a plan for my first little perennial bed.  By the second season, half of the plants had disappeared, half had grown taller than I expected, and the rest of them proved butt-ugly in context.

For years, I muttered that perennials were stupid, unreliable weeds and concentrated on shrubs and vegetables, before I finally got over the trauma.

In my experience, there only two circumstances in which a plan is valid:

1. It is based on your own experience.  In other words, you are remaking your yard, not making it for the first time.  So you know perfectly well what will work where.  But in this case, you probably don’t need to pull out the graph paper at all!

2. You make your plan based on careful observations of your neighbors’ yards.  The problem with this, of course, is that it’s a good bet that your neighbors are unimaginative in their choice of plants, just picking up whatever is lying around in the parking lot at Wal-Mart.  And if you spend your valuable time reading gardening blogs, it’s a good bet that you would prefer something prettier and more original.

What’s an insecure beginner to do?

Well, I think that when most experts recommend “planning,” what they are really talking about is planting with conviction.  The fact that a lot of a few things generally looks better than a few of a lot of things.  The fact that repetition is harmonious and pleasing in a garden.

So how can you avoid dithering without a plan?  Well, how about first figuring out what grows really beautifully in the yard and then, planting lots and lots and lots of it?  Enough to astound all passers-by.

How about accepting the fact that there is no substitute for the actual experience of your terroir?  No substitute for the knowledge that is gained with the passing of a few seasons.  No substitute for experimentation in your own laboratory. 

Yet, when they’re not recommending tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of stone-work, garden experts are so parsimonious: Don’t buy it unless it works in the scheme! 

Well, who says every plant has to work?  Who says they all need even to survive?  Even the most experienced gardeners I know kill plants.  My friends Bob and Gerald, who have the most beautiful garden in my part of the world, conducted an elaborate exercise in futility a few years ago involving a hornbeam hedge.  Did they feel foolish?  Absolutely not.

So why not buy all kinds of weird things from weird catalogs and weird corners of the local nurseries and the weirder neighbors who contribute to the local plant sale?  If it does well in your yard, you can buy more.  If it kicks the bucket, you can be philosophical and shrug.  The plant is probably cheaper than your undershirt.  So why not take a flyer?

In my opinion, something as static as a plan is antithetical to the whole spirit of gardening.  Gardening is about the adventure, the chase, the pursuit of eternal mysteries that can only be found in an endless series of plastic pots, some of which will make your yard beautiful–and some of which will make you considerably wiser next time.

Photo credit.