On my own accord, I am choosing to defend all the plants that are too often summarily dismissed, left out, disrespected, taken for granted, and ignored. Watch as I herald the worthiness and charm of the short-lived, the quick bloomers, the slow growers, and plants with just plain green leaves. That’s right. I am going where no blogger has gone before, and, you betcha, I’m terrified. But, I think it’s time we wrench ourselves from the tyranny of our own oversized expectations of what makes a perfect garden plant.
Plants that are simply good on their own normal merits belong in the garden. Though they may be marred by conventional genetics that offer nothing in the way of tantalizing, assuring, and time honored bullet points garden centers can print on laminated placards, they remind us of the natural world we inhabit, how marvelous it is all on its own, and how humbling it is to be a part of it. However, if we can’t dial down enough to wade into all of that, these plants–if nothing else–serve to at least make the “shiny object plants” shinier. So, if you have heart and a conscience, if you tend to think fondly of the “little guy,” believe in the greater good, and generally pull for the good guy when watching a movie, please read on.
The Short Bloomers
Nobody ever walks in to a garden center and asks for something that only blooms for three days, but that is all you get with some of the very best plants you can grow. Iris, species peonies, early magnolias in frost country, and cherries, these are all top nominees for a bloom that blows past you like a subway train that didn’t stop at your station. Yet, they are exceptional plants. Yes, their bloom might only last a weekend, but what a weekend that is! I describe the period where the weeping Higan’s cherries are in bloom as being like Christmas, Disneyland, and your honeymoon all rolled up together, only without that feeling of needing a shower afterwards. And because they come and go fast, they draw you into the garden. On one of those few days when that favorite plant is putting out pure magic, you damn well make it a point to go see it! Remember, gold is precious for two reasons. It’s beautiful and it’s rare. Think of that Iris blossom as being like gold.
Everyone wants plants that grow fast, and I get that. If your yard is baking in the hot sun, you need shade and you need it now. But as any dwarf conifer lover can tell you, the years go by quickly and even slow growers can take you by surprise. And, like the tortoise and the hare, the slower growers wind up being the most dependable plants. Peonies size up slowly. Your Baptisia will have you leaning forward in your seat for several years, urging it on with words of encouragement and splashes of liquid fertilizer. Amsonia hubrichtii, the best perennial ever, will be three spindly stems in its pot when you buy it. Four spindly stems the following year. Five the year after that. But then, oh happy days! And these are plants that don’t die.
Columbines, Coreopsis, Sisyrinchium, Silene, Knautias, Echinacea, and a bunch of others are often besmirched by those saying they’re short-lived. Sure, it’s true. And, of course, nobody wants their favorite plants to die, but these often do. They live hard and die young, and still most of them offer a thrilling body of work akin to many of your favorite rock stars who probably didn’t live long either. And, like rock stars, they tend towards promiscuity. If you don’t mulch like a person possessed, you’ll routinely find their offspring in their stead.
Build a fence. Learn to hunt. Talk to that guy who knows guys. Do whatever you must to grow some lilies again. ‘Nuff said.
Plain Green Leaves
Brunnera macrophylla is a terrific garden plant, and every garden center in the world sells it. Or at least they offer one of the fifty variegated selections. And, truly, these are all amazing plants. Each more beautiful than the next. Yet, none more beautiful than the plain, green, regular species. It grows with vigor and will seed a bit and form nice big, happy clumps, and there is nothing that highlights those charming blue flowers like a lush backdrop of (plain) dark, green leaves. And it blooms for a very long time. Yes, I realize the irony of mentioning that here. Similarly, there are dozens of variegated dogwoods and they are all dazzling in their white and green Sunday best. But, most are also pretty damned fine in their casual attire. And, they won’t clash with the fifty other variegated plants that might also happen to reside in your yard.
So drop your standards and relax enough to where you can enjoy some dignified plants that don’t call attention to themselves like fools. You’ll prize the rarity of bloom. Look forward to seedlings from those that drop dead. You’ll suffer fewer seizures in a garden with less variegated plants. And you’ll take pride in living long enough to enjoy the slow grower that has finally achieved some size. So try this. Go to your local garden center and ask these questions: 1) What slow-growing shade tree do you recommend? 2) Where are your short-lived perennials? 3) What have you got that blooms for less than a week? And, 4) What is something that won’t light up a dark corner? They’ll either recognize your brilliance or throw you out.