The Complete Guide to Landscape Design, Renovation,
by Cass Turnbull
SPEAKING AND UNDERSTANDING GARDENESE
When you go out to fix a back yard that has become a jungle, you
will be passing judgment on each of your plants. You must weigh
many factors on whether to prune a particular plant, move it, get
rid of it, or leave it alone and nurse it back to good health. This
section is devoted to helping you decide what to keep and what to
kill. A shortcut in this process is to hire a starving gardener
and pick his or her brains. But be aware that there are a lot of
plant snobs out there who have slanted judgments. This chapter may
teach you how to hold your own. Perhaps it will even start you on
the road to becoming a plant snob yourself.
When you look at your plants in your yard, you can start to assign
them points according to the following system. This section on how
to speak gardenese should be used when deciding what to add to your
yard as well.
"Mature And In The Right Place"
You can give a plant lots of points for just being the right size
and in the right place. When you design your yard, you site plants
by the size and shape of the plant more than by the specific kind.
For example, I want a low, fat plant under my window so it doesn't
block it, or I want something tall and evergreen to hide the neighbor's
garage, with something that changes color or has nice blooms in
front of it. This is what is meant by giving a plant points for
being in the right place. Also, if you have a difficult area, say,
hot, dry, clay, or sand, and something is actually surviving and
doing well there, give it points. It's what most of your plants
have going for them. It takes time and money to get a new plant
just the way you want it. So, if you have a five-foot rhododendron
in just the right place, or a full-grown tree of any type that isn't
in the wrong place (under wires, for example), give it some points.
Plants, just like people, get lots of points for making it from
maturity into great old age, even if they were nothing special the
rest of their lives. If somebody on your block has stopped and said,
"WOW! that's a really old blah, blah," consider keeping
it even if it's not a choice plant.
Choice is gardenese for good. It includes many top-of-the-line
plants. However, before you buy or keep a choice plant, you may
wish to find out if it is choice and easy or fussy, choice and well-behaved,
vigorous, or messy, or choice and perfectly hardy, tender, rare,
Some bamboos are very choice, but are considered too vigorous. A
snowdrop tree (Styrax j.) is choice, easy and not too big. Hardy
cyclamen is choice and easy, but not too vigorous.
A Heartwarming Ginko Story
The ginkgo is a choice tree that people don't plant much. Here is
an excerpt from a local planting project tree list: "ginkgo
or Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba), grafted males only, ht. 35-50'."
It is one of the author's favorites because it is trouble free,
has nice fall color, and comes with a lot of history. (I love a
good story.) Not to be planted under power lines, this tree gets
big, eventually! Its slow growth habit and its very dainty, uniquely
fanshaped leaves keep it from ever becoming oppressive. It's tough
and, unlike many other plants, is not prone to any diseases or pests.
The ginkgo's main attraction is its fall color, which is an amazing,
flawless, soft yellow. Even though I don't like yellow, I really
love this tree. An added attraction is that it drops its yellow
leaves in a week, not slowly over months, something to consider
when you do your own leaf raking.
|Ginkgo leaves look like tiny Oriental fans.
Now for the history and the story. Ginkgos are from an extremely
ancient order of plant, a living link with the prehistoric tree-fern
age. Technically speaking, they are conifers, that is, cone-bearing
plants like pine trees, not flowering plants. They used to flourish
all over the world. Petrified ginkgos can be found in eastern Washington.
The story is that ginkgos disappeared from the wild and were kept
alive only in Chinese monasteries. This notion caused plant explorers
to go traipsing around the Chinese country- sides and led plant
historians of the past century to pour over old travel logs looking
for "wild" ginkgos and to argue about whether or not they
were really wild or just escaped cultivated ginkgos. I rather like
the idea of ginkgos being perpetuated through history by Chinese
monks and ending up on the parking strips of Mytown, USA.
The only drawback to ginkgos is that, in their early years, they
may look a little gawky. Early years means before age thirty. But
if you plant this tree, not only will you get connected to the distant
future, but your ginkgo will reach maximum beauty at full maturity
in 2000 years. Wow!
The only reason you don't see more ginkgos and other good, choice
plants is that people don't ask for them in the nurseries, so nurseries
don't sell enough of them to grow them, so nobody buys them, and
you never see then, so you don't ask for them, and obviously, it's
a vicious circle! Demand and availablity! Your chainstore usually
only stocks those plants that are frequently requested, but your
local independent nursery has some plant nuts in there who are trying
to sell you some rare and wonderful things, but you have to look
around to find them. Designer-architects are reluctant to recommend
plants that are hard to find or that may be rare because they're
difficult. But really good designer-architects will give you two
or three choices for each circle on their landscape blueprint, including
some rare and wonderful plants that aren't likely to die.
Some plants are choice because they do or are something unusual.
Blooming at an odd time is unusual. Plants that bloom any time other
than spring get extra points. I personally am very fond of winter
bloomers and especially of scented winter bloomers. There are others
that just look unusual, like bright purple berries (beauty berry),
and anything that's contorted (curvy limbs like corkscrew willows)
or pendulous (weeping willows). I've heard a plant of this type
referred to as a "weirdness." You shouldn't have more
than a few of them, but one or two can add a lot of interest to
a yard. If you have two weirdnesses that are right next to each
other, I suggest you move or get rid of one because they compete
for attention and detract from each other.
"Rare" Vs. "Common"
Some plants achieve choice status just by being rare. That's why
a diamond is worth a lot more than ocean-washed glass even though
they can look a lot alike. The flip side of rare and wonderful is
the "familiarity breeds contempt" syndrome. A lot of people
consider our wildflowers that spring up everywhere to be sort of
devalued because they're so common. The British think they're grand
and rare and often take some home, work on them (hybridize them),
and sell them back to us as choice British garden plants.
There may be some very good reasons why a plant is rare around your
area. One is that it doesn't like it there. Some plants grew up
in and are adapted to different soil types, temperatures, and amounts
of sun, and when you put them into your yard they will be so rare
as to die slowly and meanwhile, look awful. These plants are rare
and difficult or take special culture, which means that you have
to put blankets on them in winter or plant them in straight sand
or put on hats for the rain. Sometimes a plant is rare and tender.
As a novice, avoid these.
"Tender" Vs. "Hardy"
A somewhat tender plant is a plant that's likely to freeze. A hardy
plant won't. The world is divided up into climate zones. Often the
major determining factor in whether a plant will survive is the
lowest temperature it can take. If you have a eucalyptus in your
north country yard, it may be choice and rare simply because it
hasn't frozen to death like others in the city. Your yard has many
micro-climates, and an iffy, somewhat tender plant will survive
in one spot, yet freeze only thirty feet away. Older somewhat tender
plants have a better chance of making it through a freeze than ones
just getting stabilized, so you may wish to baby young new plants
for a few years with mulch and windbreaks and then see if they can
tough it out. Some tender plants are good enough to plant and then
just replace when they freeze (that is, treat them like annuals).
The hebe ("Autumn Glory"), for example, is such a plant
for relatively moderate climates. It doesn't get too big, looks
tidy, blooms in the fall, is easy, but sometimes freezes. When it
does, I just plant a new one.
"Easy" Vs. "Fussy"
These terms have a lot to do with whether to choose a new plant
or whether to keep an old one. Easy is short for "easy-culture."
That just means that you can take it home and it will do well with
a modicum of care. There will be a wide range of situations it will
take: it will be happy in sun or part shade, it doesn't need more
or less water or fertilizer, it won't freeze, and you can transplant
it. On the other hand, some plants are fussy and maybe you'll be
lucky and they will like where you put them, and maybe they won't.
Sometimes you never know why.
Daphne odora is fussy. This is a highly prized evergreen plant (tree-like
and it likes lime) that has extremely sweet smelling (odora!) flowers
in early, early spring. Mine is doing well, but some other people's
never catch on. Alstomeria is another plant that can be either fussy
or too easy, baffling its owners. This is a tall perennial flower
that costs a fortune as a cut flower in the shops. In some people's
yards it never takes off, while in others it's a weed. It's taking
over one of my beds and actually over- coming a rhododendron. Want
"Well-Behaved, Reliable, Vigorous, Messy, Invasive"
The most important term in this glossary is vigorous. Vigorous may
mean that you won't have to wait fifteen years for it to look like
anything if you're planting it from scratch. It won't die of disease,
drought or cold. You won't have to spend your life babying it. So
it may be the ever popular low-maintenance plant. Or, on the other
hand, it could be a damn weed. It all depends on how you look at
When you ask your nursery person about a particular plant that you
like and he or she says, "It's rather vigorous," a little
red flag should go up. Your next questions should be, "Could
it be considered invasive?" I would suggest that you don't
plant anything that's considered invasive until you know what you're
doing. If you have invasive plants you may even wish to do battle
to eliminate them. I have an "invasive" section in my
yard, but I watch it very, very closely. I call it the woodland
section where lots of choice-vigorous things duke it out. I go in
every once in awhile and referee. The section is low maintenance.
It has foxglove, salal, wild bleeding hearts, wild iris, huckleberries,
trillium, forget-me-nots, kinnikinnick, ferns, welsh poppies, merry
bells, and ginger, to name only a few of the carefree inhabitants.
But it has eaten up a lot of choice and not so vigorous plants like
wintergreen, hepatica, lady's slippers, and avalanche lilies.
Beware The Vines
Most vines are vigorous, and you have to watch and prune them regularly
or they will climb on to your tree and smother and kill it. The
English like to run vines through their other garden plants, but
it would make me pretty nervous. Vines are simply wonderful and
worth it in many, many cases. There's nothing like them for hiding
your neighbor's ugly chain link fence or filling in big empty walls,
or for growing up arbors or standards. Many of the great weeds are
vines: wild clematis, ivy, and bindweed can and will kill forest
trees. So watch their city cousins carefully. The only really well-behaved
vine I know is Hydrangea petiolarus, a hydrangea vine. It is very
understated and tasteful.
Give points to your plant if it is well behaved, which means that
the plant will not creep or grow huge too fast or seed a bunch of
unwanted babies in your yard. Well-behaved means it's not messy
either. Messy plants usually drop things like acorns, dead twigs,
too many big leaves, honeydew, seeds, pods, berries that stain,
bark, you name it. If your messy tree leans over a cliff or is in
a woodland bed that gets raked out once a year, it's no big deal.
If your messy plant drops seeds that grow into zillions of little
trees that you have to pull out with pliers in two years, you may
have a behavior problem.
A classic example of a well-behaved, reliable, and not too vigorous,
easy shrub is the pieris or andromeda. I also think it's choice
because it has three good shows in that it's 1) evergreen and tidy
looking, 2) with sweet smelling spring flowers, and 3) new growth
that is coppery colored.
"Hard-Working, Two Shows Or More"
Because your yard space is so valuable, you want to give lots of
points to plants that do more than one thing. Some combinations
are good foliage and flower, fall color and spring flower, scented
flower or scented foliage with something else. Then there are good
winter branch patterns plus anything else, or good flowers and interesting
fruit. Give your plants lots of extra points for these.
Before removing any old plant or tree in your yard, or adding a
new one, consider its health. I have never been a health nut, but
gardening may make me into one and that's because health is what
makes plants look good or bad three-fourths of the time. You probably
don't realize it, just as I didn't.
Most people develop an unwarranted prejudice against certain plants
because they are either 1) too common and vigorous, or 2) the ones
they had before were sick and badly pruned. Before you slate a plant
for death, especially if it's a rare and wonderful one, you may
wish to be nice to it for awhile with good weeding, watering, pruning,
and fertilizing, to see if your sow's ear will turn into a silk
purse. I promise you that a little care and attention can work miracles.
Conversely, some plants are simply prone to diseases and are always
in a state of dropping dead bits. In some cases you just learn to
live with it (like mildew on your Oregon grape or azaleas), or you
fight back with vigilant use of chemicals and/or good maintenance
(garden hygiene and pruning), or you cut the damn sick thing out
and put in A GOOD PERFORMER!
Horticulturalists today are taking a lot of our old garden favorites
that have disease problems and breeding disease-resistant varieties.
All or most of the fruiting and flowering cherries, plums, apples,
peaches, and crabapples and roses get a lot of diseases, and if
you don't want to spray like crazy and can't stand to see a certain
amount of damage and dead wood, ask your nurseryperson for disease-resistant
varieties. Good roses are being invented. Also dogwoods that are
prone to anthracnose are being worked on. So, if you love that old
cherry tree but it is looking bad, consider removing it and replanting
with a well-behaved, reliable, disease-resistant variety. Give points
to your plant if it's healthy and disease-resistant.
A plant gets further points for being particularly well-formed.
When I was doing my back yard I wanted to take out the mountain
ash tree (Sorbus a). It had going for it: 1) already being there,
2) providing two shows, 3) being well-formed. Lots of mountain ashes
are shaped badly, but mine is a perfect globe. Against it was the
fact that: 1) it's common, almost a weed, 2) it's in the wrong place,
taking up valuable headroom, 3) it produces troublesome little seedlings
everywhere. My husband-to-be was aghast at my suggestion of removing
it (I wanted a nice disease-prone "Autumnalis" cherry).
In fact, the question was a pivotal point in our relationship. (If
the divorce ever comes, I know where to take the chainsaw.) I grumble
at the seedlings every year. I've replaced six plants that couldn't
get established underneath it because of root competition. But right
now, November, it's breathtaking in its ruby-glowing and gold color.
Sometimes I get up just to look at it out the window. Anyway, if
your common thing happens to be healthy and nicely formed, consider
keeping it. If your rare and wonderful thing is sick and badly formed,
consider nursing it back to health and doing a little corrective
pruning over the next few years.
Many people have a fondness for the plants they grew up with. Having
seen their mom's great yellow forsythia in bloom one spring day,
that shrub has meant spring to them ever since. Roses and lilacs
are old favorites. Every year when it's spring I stuff my nose in
a lilac bloom. The olfactory trigger sends me back into some vaguely
remembered distant, simpler, finer days.
Plant snobs often eschew these old-time plants. They want to turn
you on to some rare wonderfuls that they know, and their own taste
has evolved from nostalgia to certain specific styles. Some have
gone the tasteful, understated species route. Others, the new and
improved hybrid route. We will discuss these in the section on garden
styles. Sometimes they know that the plant you love is not appropriate
for your setting, for example, an old fashioned grandma forsythia
in a redwood forest. For one thing, there's not enough sun, and,
well, they just don't go together well. But you don't ever have
to remove something you love just because it's theoretically wrong.
REMEMBER, the ONLY PURPOSE of a garden is to give you (and maybe
your neighbors and their kids) pleasure. So give your plant lots
of points, too, just because you like it. If a gardener wrinkles
his or her nose, say, "This came from a start that came over
on the Mayflower," or "This is from seed I collected at
Vita's garden." (Vita was a famous gardener.) Then your snobbish
gardener just might say, "AHH! How rare and wonderful!"
Gardenese is not difficult to learn--much of it is common sense.
When you have mastered the language, you will be able to find out
a great deal about what to plant where and the kinds of care your
Learn to speak gardenese and then use your local Extension Agents
and nurserypersons for advice.
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