“When will the tulips be at peak bloom?” We sure hear that question at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. A lot! Best guess up until a month out, mid-April. But every year is different. Weather. In Cincinnati.

But today is April 12th, and, this year, 2023, they came in right on time. The weather was perfect and the crowds were out. Pure saturated color stimulation. The animals got looked at much less than usual but they’re down with it. They’re dazzled by all the color too.*

You gotta love crowd pleasers! And 100,000 tulips never disappoint. But neither does the scent of hundreds of judd, Mohawk, Burkwood, and Koreanspice viburnums, and, wow, they were pumping out the perfume this morning. Not to be ignored, Exochorda, crabapples and redbuds were rocking their flashy spring fashion. 

For subtler beauty, some early perennials and ephemerals were strutting their stuff. For quieter still, oaks, katsura, oakleaf hydrangeas, Japanese maples and others were unfurling new leaves. Elsewhere, there was the promise of more yet to come–big fat buds on technically still dormant trees and the crowns of summer perennials poking through.

I love all this stuff. All the above. It was a good day to go out and get photos. It was a good day in general.

Midway through I had an epiphany of sorts. Having just gotten back from the CAST tour in California, a tour of breeders and growers which focuses primarily on new annuals, I’ve been trying to wrangle in my head how these very different types of plants, along with their associated followers, how they all fit together as horticulture moves forward into a weirder and wilder future.

Because a lot of people see all that color in black and white. Whatever their view of plants, from annuals to shade trees, exotics to natives, they see them opposed against each other. It’s a battle of winners and losers. I’ve never seen it this way. To me, that feels like just another way overworked and underwater human beings cope with complexity.  “Ah, well, just screw it,” and then settle on overly simple, easy answers. Lock on, grip tight, shut mind, open mouth.

That said, I could never articulate why that kind of thinking never worked for me in regards to horticulture because I could never map it on some org chart in my mind. Turns out, I was seeing it all as static. Frozen in time. Bullet points on paper. Signed, sealed, delivered. But today it dawned on me. That isn’t how it works. Nothing is static. Everything is in motion. Moving forward. All of it all at once, and whether it is our thing or someone else’s, it’s humming along with the rest, running in parallel.

Highly bred tulips don’t do much for pollinators. Conceded. But their sheer unadulterated beauty lifts people like little else after a long winter. And there is a lot of value in that! Swear! And where are they planted? In a few big beds, generally in public spaces, to be followed by annuals.


And annuals? Well, first, the very showy ones, which, admittedly, are also not particularly useful to pollinators, generally speaking.** But most of them go into hanging baskets and patio containers where they bring a daily dose of beauty and joy to people who wouldn’t otherwise experience it. Plants where no plants would otherwise be. That’s a score. Right?

In other words, virtually none of these plants are going where a goldenrod might have been planted. ***

Are mistakes made? Sure. Can we do better? Yes. But more plants everywhere is the only easy answer here. Which ones where is more nuanced and there will always be room for tweaking and constructive debate. But the fact is we need more gardeners first, better gardeners second, and argument discourages the former from becoming the latter.  

So let’s hop this train. It’s moving fast, we need all the constructive time we can get, and, believe me, it’s a better way to live. 

*All photos taken today at the CZBG.

**Some annuals are excellent for pollinators and can be grown in small gardens or containers as a sure way to provide pollen and nectar throughout the growing season. 

***Several goldenrods make excellent garden plants and should be used much more than they are.