I have spent decades learning, teaching and working with plants and landscapes. But I hesitate to call myself a landscape designer. My expertise is in the creation of planted ecosystems. I create plant combinations that work together to please the human eye, fill an environmental function and are relatively self-sufficient. In my experience, many of the traditional ways of combining plants require continuous input of resources.

I was reminded of this when I received an email advertising a local landscape designers’ webinar “Workhorse Plants and Design Tips for Time-Pressed and Maturing Gardeners.” (Wait, aren’t we all “Time-pressed and Maturing”?)

As an example of the type of tips she would be covering, this designer offered the following combination: Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce, Calamintha, annual Isotoma and species tulips. Let me talk about why I disagree with every one of these. On paper, all these plants sound like they should work. You have an evergreen for winter interest, bulbs for early color, perennial workhorses, and annuals for season-long color. But how do they work together in the garden? How do they relate to one another and the surrounding environment? What benefit do they offer the other inhabitants of the garden and, most importantly, what happens to them over time?

Blue Spruce (above) are native to the Rocky mountains. In the garden, Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce are often irrigated and mulched in soil that is heavily amended. All this pampering leads to a buildup of organic material under and within the compact plant, which causes it to suffer fungal problems and eventual death. Even when planted correctly, and cared for properly, combining the spruce with the perennial Calamintha (native to Europe, northern Africa and western Asia) is problematic. If planted close enough to the spruce to fill in the space, it will compete with the slower growing spruce—shading it out and restricting airflow and inviting problems.

Give the plants more space, you say? THERE SHOULD BE NO SPACE BETWEEN PLANTS IN THE GARDEN (as shown above). Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don’t put a plant in that empty space, nature will, which is pretty much the definition of a weed. The Adam Woodruff Olympic Garden shown at top is an example. 

The Calamintha would have to be cut back every fall to give the spruce the space it needs for a few more years of life. The annual Isotoma is native to Australia and New Zealand and can be hardy up to Zone 6 and readily propagates from seed. If you’re going to introduce a reseeding annual, I might suggest one that is native to your region (in this case, the designer and I are both in New England). Annuals that do not reseed must be pulled out and replaced every year, costly and time-consuming.

Lastly, this designer claims that species Tulips are deer-resistant and perennial. If, by some chance she has found a pocket of garden where that is the case, then I offer her my congratulations. But for the rest of us, please, save the heartache (and bank account) and stick with Daffodils.

May I offer an alternative combination? How about Eastern Red Cedar (center), Amsonia hubrichtii (right), Black-eyed Susans and Daffodils? These combinations would play well together. The reseeding annuals function as a green mulch to suppress weeds while the slower plants fill in. If planted and spaced well, these combinations should require very minimal care and irrigation only until established. These plants will also host up to forty different pollinator species in my area, if they are not treated with pesticides.

Plants grow, change, live and die. If we want them to thrive, without constant attention or intervention, then we must look to our surroundings for instruction. Selecting plants should be nothing like decorating your house or kitchen. I believe my role as a gardener is to curate the natural menagerie. It seems to me that this is very different from the role of the landscape designer.