AS AN EDITOR of garden books, I’ve learned some rules about plants and gardens. The one that sticks most firmly in my mind is Never buy a plant on impulse, without knowing where it will go in your garden.
So the observation I made when deadheading the lady’s mantle in my main flower bed last summer was a bit disconcerting. The bed was looking particularly good. Better, I thought, than it had in years, and 1 was especially pleased with several new plants. But—according to the rules—those plants didn’t belong in my garden, and certainly not where I had placed them.
Squeezed between a daylily and an edging rock was a pink Gaura lindheimeri, its delicate wands waving in the slightest breeze. I hadn’t thought of buying it until I got to the garden center, and I really didn’t have a place for it. Furthermore, with its purchase I broke another rule, the one that says you shouldn’t buy just one plant of a kind, but at least three, and be sure you get an odd number. Apparently by accident, I bought the one perfect plant and found the perfect spot.
Looking at other new additions to my garden, I realized that each of them had been bought on impulse: a single joepye weed, too large for my bed, yet somehow working well as a background; one very tall sunflower lending a whole new dimension to my garden; lisianthus (Eustoma grandiflorum), a real prize and new to me, with elegant fragile flowers that last a forever in a vase; and the Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) whose pale gold feathers I couldn’t resist when they beckoned from a container at my favorite nursery. It looked just beautiful in the front of my garden all summer.
“Do as I do, not as they say”, says lifelong rule-breaker Frances Tenenbaum
Naturally, not every attempt at breaking the rules has been a success. Of course it was foolish to buy a small dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) just because I liked its story. It lived 20 million years ago, in the time of the dinosaurs, and we are growing the descendants of a single clump discovered as recently as 1940. OK, mine didn’t survive two years—but I still like the story.
To be honest, ignorance isn’t always bliss. It’s safe to buy a plant you know, or an annual that won’t return next year, or a perennial that isn’t hardy where you live (but remember kudzu). The feather grass that so pleased me in my Massachusetts garden shows signs of being a troublesome weed in California. If I lived between USDA Zones 7 and 10, I’d need to be careful with it. Be wary of unfamiliar groundcovers; they could cover more than the ground. My nephew bought Houttuynia cordata for its pretty colors; by the third year it had overwhelmed every plant in the bed. He spent the summer using a teaspoon to get every tiny bit of root out.
Still, for next year, I’m thinking of ways to make more room to break the rules. Certainly I won’t give up plants that came from my mother, or a favorite author, or a good friend no longer here. But do I really need so many daylilies? How about those old Siberian iris that bloom briefly, then spend the summer as large clumps of green? My epimediums were better before they spread. I don’t actually have impatiens, but if I did I’d pass up those cliches for annuals not designed for corporate headquarters. Looking at the garden this way, I see that I really have plenty of space for more impulse days at the nursery. I can’t wait. H