Guest Rant by Jennifer Smith
Many years ago, more than I want to admit, I was planting my first garden. I had one of every plant I could find, as one is apt to do when presented with nurseries’ amazing plant offerings. It was wonderfully overwhelming, the plant shopping, and in short order, my garden was overwhelming as well. One of each plant is not the way to design a garden. I was a gardener with no restraint, and it showed as the garden was a discombobulated collection of plants with no semblance of order, not even a timid nod to design. Over time I learned to plant in sweeping bands and groupings that take on natural organic shapes.Those first gardens were a bit of a visual disaster, but they were the best garden classroom I could ask for. If I had known good design principles when I first started gardening, how many plants would I have really gotten to know and understand in those early years in my tiny yard? Not many.
Today, I garden a very generous space at my office. When there are new plants, or new-to-me plants, that I want to try, my boss is likely to say “yes” to my request. It’s a perk of working for Wimberg Landscaping. One of my tasks is to plan, plant, and tend our extensive pollinator display garden. The garden is in its third year and I’m in love. There are sweeping bands of Solidago ‘Fireworks,’ generous stands of different native grasses, masses of Echinacea, and areas where plants are in more modest groupings of three. I use plants I learn of from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, or read about in books, and English garden magazines. At the shop I can see what happens when plants are left to their own devises. Will they become maintenance attention seekers or will they play nice with the other plants?
Experiencing such a garden is the best way I can coax those new to gardening or the natural gardening movement to swap part or perhaps even all of lawn, beds of ground cover, or stands of invasive honeysuckle for plants that are more beneficial to nature and more attractive. Seriously, how often has anyone waxed sentimental about their honeysuckle? But a generous stand of Echinacea in bloom or covered in goldfinches – now you really have something worth admiring. This is how I like to attract homeowners to more natural ways of landscaping, with beauty and a sense of awe.
I am not one to demonize gardeners. I may offer a bit a friendly scolding when I see a lazy design of the same old trees, shrubs, and ground covers, but it’s done in a way to break the garden conversational ice. To chastise or vilify someone for their plant selection only puts them on the defensive. And who wants to listen to anyone after they‘ve been scolded? Nor do I want to take on the role of landscape police. No, my way is gentler. A walk around our garden at the office or our company’s pollinator focal garden at Ault Park and the client can see what it’s like to garden for butterflies, for native bees, and for the birds. Most importantly, they fall in love with this style of gardening.
A photo of Little Bluestem is fine, but to see it in person, planted in a curve with a backdrop of Solidago in bloom, and able to run your fingers through their soft seed heads is how we sell the idea of planting for pollinators. To touch a plant, to see it intermingled with other plants, (what, no tidy rings of mulch around each plant?) to hear the crickets and the finches and to see the countless variety of bees and butterflies is how a new natural gardener is born. We entice with textures, colors, movement, scents, and sounds. I have that here in my office gardens, all that is grand along with a few cautionary tales. Mountain Mint, I take my hat off to you for your ability to draw in what I assume to be every single bee in a two-mile radius, but, my, how you spread!
Late summer and fall is the time to let our gardens show the beauty of planting for nature. When other traditional gardens are being put to bed, ours are still brimming with life and full of fabulous colors, blooms, textures, and architectural form. The natural garden is more than a riot of colorful blooms, it’s also winter habitat and food. And most importantly, if we want people to adopt this way of gardening, it’s a winter garden of immense interest. It’s a garden they will want to look at and explore, year-round. Can a lawn and obligatory shrubs draw us out on a cold winter morning to see how the frost settles on native grasses? The answer to that is “No.”
Jennifer Smith is a garden writer and photographer who works at Wimberg Landscaping. Jennifer specializes in pollinator gardens. She has created or adopted beautiful gardens in two of the city’s parks and at a retirement facility.