High Ground 30

For Marty Ross, a weakness for small plants makes a garden strong

ON THE FIRST REAL SPRINGY DAY of spring, my husband and I planted two dozen ‘Green Velvet’ boxwoods in our garden in Kansas City. We got most of them in the ground before lunch, and stepped back to survey the scheme—boxwoods bounding up either side of the front walk, dotting the flower bed by the driveway, and giving a bit of definition, finally, to a new bed out by the curb. But really, our work was barely apparent: when you start with $5 boxwoods, the effect is mostly in your imagination, and that is as it should be. By the time anyone else even notices the great transformation these shrubs have wrought in our garden, maybe in a year or two, they will be enormous in our eyes.

I like small things. I’m susceptible to baby animals. I have always loved to grow plants from seed and from cuttings, and many’s the time I have come home from a plant sale with trees in four-inch pots. Our new boxwoods will be as big as bushel baskets in due time. Meanwhile, I want to watch them grow. I maybe getting older than I care to think, but I’m still in no rush.

My friends in the landscaping business laugh at me. Their customers want gardens that look established as soon as they’re planted, and bite-sized boxwoods just won’t do. People who spend thousands of dollars hiring an expert to design and install the garden of their dreams are not much interested in watching mighty oak trees grow; they want the dream to come true right away. I want the dream to last, and my pockets are always full of acorns.

The rewards of starting small are considerable. Small plants cost far less than large ones, and you don’t need a pickup truck to get them home from the nursery. We never have to dig big holes: we often plant shrubs with a post-hole digger, and the work goes fast.

Small trees and shrubs adjust quickly to their new environment. Our little trees take off like a house afire. That first exhilarating spurt of growth takes place right under your eyes, where you can really appreciate it. Bigger trees take longer to get going again after they’re transplanted.

When you start small, you develop an intimate, motherly relationship with plants. You get to know them from unexpected angles. Two years ago, we spent the first months of the summer looking fondly down on a handsome little Magnolia grandiflora ‘D. D. Blanchard’. There’s a picture of me standing proudly beside it at the end of that first season in the garden—we’re both five-two.

A few years ago, perennials in four-inch pots seemed to be an endangered species. I bought one-gallon plants and divided them. Most sun-loving perennials, especially, fill out quickly in the course of a summer. Some need special attention, of course: half-pint perennials that have not quite reached competitive size can always be potted up and encouraged on a nursery table until they are large enough to be turned loose in the rough and tumble of a mixed border.

One of the risks of starting with small plants is that you sometimes just lose track of them. We now put tall stakes by our little trees, not to hold them up, but to make them easier to spot. A nice variegated holly is just recovering from a brush with a mow-and-go crew that never even knew it was there.

I’ll never get to see my little slip of a beech, dug up in the woods, tower over what is now a grassy meadow at our place in Virginia. But I can visualize it, and I’ll have the pleasure, for decades, if I’m lucky, of watching it grow up, flush with the vigor of its youth, and that will be no small thing. H

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