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Garden Design for Plant Collectors

You've heard designers speak about structure and balance, the need for negative space, repetition, fitting in with a regional style–but you're a plant collector, and for you these rules seem to stand in the way of your true goal: adding more plants.

Did you ever find an old jigsaw puzzle without any picture to guide you to the solution? If you're a plant collector, putting together a design for your garden can remind you of just such a challenge. You've heard designers speak about structure and balance, the need for negative space, repetition, fitting in with a regional style–but you're a plant collector, and for you these rules seem to stand in the way of your true goal: adding more plants. Your dream is simple, to display your choice plants so beautifully that every visitor draws a sigh of envy. Yet the task of rearranging your existing treasures into an appealing design, while still keeping space for future additions, sometimes seems impossible.


As a collector-gardener you not only have thousands of plants in your head, but already quite a cast of specimens scattered throughout your garden. To bring order, first list all your existing plants– those that “came with the house” as well as the treasures you've acquired. It helps to keep separate lists for trees, shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers so you can see where you are truly out of control.

Next, critically assess plant health. If any are doing poorly and unlikely to do better elsewhere in your garden, drop them from the list. Be certain to remove them as soon as possible! Then decide if you truly like the remaining ones where they are, as a design. Cast a steely eye on the garden and rethink it by the collections you want to grow. Determine which of your existing plants, plus those you intend to soon acquire, are truly crucial pieces of your puzzle. You have made critical design decision number one–you've figured out which plants will drive the long-term framework of your collector's garden.


Successful gardens develop a simple, hardworking design layout that creates plenty of room for experiments. Make a short list of key plants that you both really like and that will also survive your worst weather and keep on thriving–a bit like finding the corners of your puzzle. Look at your inventory lists again and ask the critical question: do you really like your existing structural plants? For the collector nothing is sacred; just because a plant is in your garden is not a reason to keep it, or, within reason, to keep it where it is. If a large spruce or maple is not only giving dense shade but also taking every drop of moisture, just take it out. There are too many good plants on your lists being blocked by the tyrants that came with the house. Just how much potential planting space do you have? Don't give away an inch. Reassess all the microclimates and special soil pockets (having your soils tested is always a good idea). Think of optimizing the water from the downspouts with plants that need just that extra bit of moisture, and check whether you're maximizing your use of winter shade (for evergreens that would otherwise burn) and summer sun (for those that need the heat to mature). Consider which plants from your lists prefer these conditions, and pay no attention to the current occupants of the space. No matter what your planting style may be–habitat-based naturalism, prairie forbs and grasses, classic mixed perennials and shrubs, shade-tolerant woodlanders–it pays dividends to plant your hardiest, “cast-iron” plants to be the frame.

Reconsider every space that could potentially be part of your gar-o den, including turf, driveway, utility areas and street-side “hell strips.”

The size of your yard needn't dictate the size of your garden. Consider every structure, every corner, a place for more plants. Using all surfaces doesn't just increase how much you can grow–it expands the possibilities of what you can grow.

Turn your edges into planting spaces, perhaps as hedges, that themselves are simultaneously design elements and collections. Think of Piet Oudolf 's clipped wave hedges, a hedge of grasses, of flowering shrubs, of peonies or roses. And don't ignore hedging techniques: stilt hedges, Belgian fences, stepovers, tapestry hedges, orchard hedges, and fedges (vines woven through fencing to create a narrow hedge). Go back to your inventory and see which plants in your collections can take the role of ruling the edges. Rethink every garden area this way including beds and borders, the pathway to the garage, the wet/dry spots where nothing grows well, even large areas of your lawn–each and every one is now a potential site for a collection.


You'll be pleased with your collections, and have room for more plants, if they create a cohesive picture. Paradoxically, by dividing space you can make it appear larger. Ignore your existing layout and find the longest line in the garden. It's probably a diagonal. Now think of making a view from end to end of this line, and create “pocket stages” for your collections along the way. You'll be drawing people to explore to your furthest point, and you'll offer surprises. Make paths that meander to reveal hidden areas, remembering to wind around something (a framework plant?) and to keep a minimum winter width of four teet to allow summer growth to spill over and still preserve a walkway. Make every structure serve double duty! If you build a wall, make it a planted wall, or use it as a support for climbers; create planting pockets in your terrace and paths; add window boxes to a deck; turn a lawn into a meadow and mow paths through it; surround utility areas with trellises for vines; even replace part or all of your blacktop drive with porous gravel to serve as a place for self-seeders. Additional space can come from layering, making every inch do double or triple duty. Plan to treat each plant as the star it would like to be, and plant only your favorites. If they're not pleasingyou at any time during the year, make a change.


Once you redesign your garden's frame, and decide to reclaim and expand your available planting areas, it's time to place your choicest collections, but try doing it in unexpected places–it will make your garden visitors look twice. It's easy to take a collection of Japanese maples and decide to make them the basis for a woodland garden, but they could equally well line a driveway, frame a parking court, edge a terrace, or back a border. Mad about lilacs? Try organizing them by color, fragrance, or time of bloom, then plant them as a mixed hedge or espaliers near an herb or cutting garden. Don't have space for five witch hazels? Choose two–maybe your favorites for particular seasons–make them the very best specimens you can find and plant them in special sites along your pocket stages. And therein lies the heart of my way of handling a collector's garden–act as the collectors of fine art do. Constantly re-assess your plants, search out the best, and de-accession the rest. You'll not only make a new gardener very happy, you'll be inducting someone else into the joys of the collector's garden with your now-surplus pots of excess beauties, and you'U have the hidden bonus of giving yourself space for more of your “must-have” plants. Enjoy!