A garden that accommodates change

The catchy phrase “right plant, right place” has gone viral in the gardening world, and it makes me groan. If these words referred only to choosing a plant suited to the site, soil  and regional climate, I’m good with it, but it also seems to imply more. It is often taken to mean that a carefully planned garden gets to an ideal state of maturity, where you live happily ever after.  

This idea that plants thoughtfully sited never become the “wrong plant” is misleading.  Go figure, plants have this crazy tendency to keep growing, or perform differently than predicted. As friends of mine often say, “plants can’t read labels.” Anyone who has gardened a number of years has been made painfully aware that plant tags lie, and they lie about many things, but especially about size.

Dwarf viburnum

I’ve heard lame statements from a few nurseries, such as “Well, sure, you have to prune it to keep it that size.” Shoot, I could prune a willow oak to stay four feet tall if I wanted to keep after it. Or, “That’s an average height for the number of years the average homeowner stays in a house.” Yet I read that the average number of years a person stays in a house is thirteen, and some of these plants have grown twice the height stated on the label in three, four or five years, so nope.

Also, are we saying that it’s just too bad for those people who are in the house after we’re gone? The unselfish side of me does not wish overgrown plants on the new stewards of this landscape, and the egotistical side of me stings to think of the disparaging remarks made by those new owners concerning the stupid decisions of the previous gardener (me).


Limbed-up boxwood

…and how dare we not be “average”? I’m working hard on my health so I can be that cantankerous old lady that hasn’t the good sense to move to assisted living. I hope I die in this landscape, a quick death, say 30 years hence. I can see it now, tripping over a hoe at a high-speed hobble and taking a header into the corner of my concrete block raised beds. I hope the vultures find my body and scatter it over the valley before any human beings take note of my absence.  

Of course, I’ve been around long enough to be wary of advertised plant sizes, but inexperienced gardeners are likely to be duped by plants labelled “dwarf” or “compact”. It is true they may have a tighter habit, or get too large at a slower pace, but get too large is what they do, all of them, eventually. I’ve stared up at dwarf yaupons taller than I by half. I’ve seen many a dwarf Burford holly limbed up to form lovely small trees 15 to 20 feet tall!

Paper bark maple shading a porch

Sometimes these overgrown plants are so awesome (or difficult to move) that a gardener elects to make accommodations for the unexpected amplitude. Has it thrown shade over a once sunny site? Move those sun-loving plants to a more favorable site and substitute with shade-lovers. Is it crowding a walk or blocking a window? Remove lower growth until it arches over the walk or the window.

This oakleaf hydrangea grew tall enough to form an arbor

There are a few woody plants that actually stay the forecast height. These are plants that reach the predicted vertical span and then begin to grow sideways. Some of them have a single trunk that sprays radially into horizontal growth. ‘Crimson Fire’ Burgundy loropetalum and Japanese plum yew ‘Prostrata’ are examples. Others set out on their horizontal journey via rhizomes or stolons. Sweetbox, Sarcacocca hookeriana var. humilis comes to mind for shady areas. A few nandinas also do this, such as ‘Pink Blush’ and ‘Lemon Lime’, which are fruitless so will not reseed. Spreading slowly from root zones can eventually become its own problem, so site accordingly, preferably contained by surrounding walks or patio, or once again, you are looking at a plant that has “gone wrong”.

I have one last beef about the “right plant, right place” mantra. I have grown to dislike the entire concept of a garden that sticks to a plan. Our needs change, our visions shift as we are exposed to inspiring and creative ideas. It’s not just okay to change our minds. It’s desirable. If my landscape ever got to a “perfect” composition and froze there, I would soon find it just as boring as a silk flower arrangement.

We change our minds frequently when it comes to our homes. We change our flooring or wall color, or add exciting fabrics. We knock down walls to combine rooms. We expand doorways, enlarge windows and change furniture. Consider how you’ve changed your own look through the years to accommodate new styles,  changing body,  and needs for comfort and self-expression. Why are we not as free-thinking and open to change when we talk gardening?

Looking back, I found I was intimidated when I first began to study garden design. I was told not to put a plant in the ground until I had a plan committed to paper. I heard with dismay I was not to ever buy a plant until I knew where it would go in the landscape. Sure, I’ve grown smart enough to know that certain plants require that “right place” to survive, but cultural needs aside, there are likely to be many plants that can flourish in that place as I continue the grand experiment of gardening. It is likely there will be many “right plants” in that place over the years.  

A beautiful changing garden

I remember the relief when I finally ran across a quote that spoke to my heart and set me free of the anxiety imposed by the idea that I had to get it right the first time. Maybe a reader can help me out on the author of this liberating concept, but it ran something like “Every great garden has been in the wheelbarrow three times.”

That turned me loose, because it’s factual. Gardens are ephemeral works of art, and change is part of the charm. Right or wrong, plant or place, I’ve given myself permission to get out there and garden by the seat of my dirty pants.