The Plant Collector’s Garden: Creating Harmony from Havoc
By Sara Malone and Sandy Metzger, Sonoma County Master Gardeners
You know who you are. You go to all plant sales and pore through catalogs. You always find or make space for yet another plant, though it may not be similar or related to any other plant you have. You may be attracted to its color, its texture, its size, its foliage. You must have it. Friends insist on giving you plants. What’s one more plant, you ask? You’re sure that you can squeeze it in. Try as you might to simplify, you cannot commit to only a few species, or to the trouble-free varieties. After all, there are too many good ones out there not to have them. You’re a plant nut and you can’t help yourself.
But that’s not all bad. Your friends walk into your garden and swoon at the explosion of color, the unusual combinations, the variety. They appreciate your dedication to difference. Designers, on the other hand, weep at the confusion, the contrast, the competing colors – the chaos!
Two gardens in the 2008 Master Gardener Bloomin’ Backyards tour represent devotion to disparate elements: Flora’s “Collection of Gifts” and Sandy’s “Eclectic Habitat”. One person’s hit-and- run havoc is another’s harmonious haven. We think you’ll go for the eye-catching eclecticism in both!
Neither garden relies on designer-recommended massed single-species plantings. Instead, the gardens are filled with hundreds of varieties, creating an effect of riotous colors and plants of every size and shape imaginable. Both gardens are jam-packed, with very little soil showing in between. Flora and Sandy readily admit they are vaguely obsessed with using many species in their respective gardens. Flora’s began with gifts from friends while Sandy considers her gardens a “laboratory” and selects accordingly.
Right now Sandy is on a kick to include more and more native California plants to her garden. “I want cultivars within the species and am always willing to try a new plant, just to see if it works,” she says. One of the challenges she faces is that her rural northeast Santa Rosa property is surrounded by high ridges that form a bowl, the cold air flowing downward to create winter temperatures as low as 22°-24°. Many consecutive days of frost and frozen birdbaths in her microclimate force her to select plants that are mostly hardy. Additionally, her clay soil turns rock-solid in the summer, complete with ankle-twisting fissures.
Flora, on the other hand, lives less than 10 miles away in a warmer microclimate in the southeastern end of Santa Rosa. Consequently, her backyard is a lush sub-tropical paradise where she can grow plants that do not do well elsewhere in the county, such as the Chilean Bellflower, Tree Dahlias, Burmese honeysuckle, and several varieties of amaranth. Flora readily admits to being in ‘zonal denial’ and her garden is proof positive!
Sandy began with a plan—always an advisable strategy—but it deteriorated as some plants self-seeded or spread by rhizome or she filled in bare spots with plants she’d bought on a whim. Her three basic “design” requirements were these: (1) drought tolerant, meaning native or Mediterranean, for the most part; (2) “habitat” plants to attract birds, bees, and other beneficial insects and (3) color in one of her favored blues, purples, or reds. So the first method for bringing harmony to havoc, if you are a collector, is to limit something. In Sandy’s case, she limited the type of plant (drought tolerant) and color palette. She also uses a lot of plants with glaucus foliage, so the leit-motif of her garden is soft, blue-gray foliage and flowers in a restricted color spectrum. Even though the plant varieties are wildly disparate, the common hues make a harmonious whole.
Another trick for making your haphazard collection is to create ‘specialty gardens’ within the greater garden and group plants to emphasize their compatibility rather than their discordance.
Flora, for example, loves succulents as much as she loves the lush tropical vines and shrubs. So she has made the front of her house her succulent area, while the back is reminiscent of a tropical paradise, complete with a water feature. In fact, the two parts of her garden are so different that the Sonoma County Water Agency named her front garden an excellent example of ‘Water wise gardening’. We doubt that the back would qualify! This segmentation allows Flora to buy dramatically divergent types of plants and still have appropriate places to put them. This segmentation or ‘compartmental-izing’ doesn’t have to stop at two areas – think of museums with different rooms for different painters or styles of art. You can use your patio, one side of your driveway, your side yard, your backyard – each could be a different ‘collection’. By keeping something consistent (remember Sandy’s use of color), you can link these rooms together.
Both Sandy and Flora make use of containers, another good way to highlight favorite specimens and bring continuity to the garden. And both gardens organize their owners’ mania for plants through extensive collections of “yard art”, just enough to add focus and whimsical points of interest to their gardens, but not enough to give them that salvage yard or flea market appearance. Painted furniture coordinates with the color palettes in each garden, and much of the other “art” is functional rather than strictly ornamental, thus giving the various pieces a reason to exist and tying the garden together from one “room” to another.
In sections of both gardens, re-seeding is allowed and encouraged. This provides a more natural look and exemplifies the design principle of repetition that gives a garden a feeling of harmony and consistency. Consider what a garden might look and feel like if every plant and flower were a different color with different foliage, varying heights, texture, and forms: visual pollution possibly triggering an unsettling subconscious feeling of anxiety! Repetition in a garden is comforting and easy on the eye.
Here are a few tips to bring a bit of harmony to your otherwise havoc-appearing garden:
• Limit something, whether it be color or type of plant
• Segment your garden into “rooms” so that the styles are identifiable and the transitions subtle.
• Use yard art judiciously to avoid the flea market or thrift shop look.
• Use foliage (with no colorful dramatic blooms) to unify your garden, easing the eye through the garden with cool shades of green. Limited sections of lawn serve a similar purpose.
• Or use a neutral tone like glaucus gray as punctuation to draw your attention as you wander from bed to bed.
• Use repetition for comfort and consistency.
• Above all, make certain your garden is both healthy and tidy — a sickly and chaotic garden is not charming!