Sunday Opinion: Collecting Plants

Buck and I were out to dinner the other night with friends.  The rather spirited and hotly debated topic of discussion-collecting.  From the dictionary, a collection is a group of objects to be seen, studied, or kept together.  That group could be as little as 2; anyone who owns more than one sports car, garbage disposal or vintage fountain pen is a collector in my book.  Could one not get by with just one of each of these things? If you own one or none of something, you aren’t collecting, you’re just living.  Some collections are entirely utilitarian.  Dress shirts and sports coats, juice glasses, socks, garden books and steak knives-these objects in numbers serve a purpose. A clothes closet, a cutlery drawer, a bookshelf-these are means by which a collection is kept together for ease of use.  Seeds harvested by a grower ia a collection that will be studied; the tomato seeds will be kept with other tomato seeds-maybe they will be tested for viability.  Once the seeds of a given variety are packaged for sale, they may be displayed in a garden center next to packages of other varieties of tomato seeds.  This kind of collection gets studied by the individual gardener.  The gardener that buys seed for twenty different types of tomatoes-that person we might call an afficianado, or connoisseur, chef de cuisine, farmer, or a gardener that particularly values fresh and homegrown food.

Buck is a collector.  He has a collection of vintage accordions-maybe 38, maybe 52.  Many of them he has taken apart, cleaned, and restored.  I am not sure how many he has, as all but 2 are packed away, stored in their cases.  This is a group of objects meant to be seen.  What about displaying 4 of them in every room of the house?  This does not sound good.  They should be kept together-but how?  Displaying a collection is an art in itself. He also collects vintage movie projectors, slide wire potentiometers and other antique instruments used to precisely measure voltage.  Every square inch of the walls of his den are lined with them.  A pair of movie projectors from the 1940’s taller than I, sit on the floor face to face, and occupy one entire wall.  Though not the usual room decor, this loosely related series of machines all from a particular period make a very strong visual statement.  My interests could not be further from this, but I like collections created by an individual, rather than by committee or consensus.

A few years ago, I got him going collecting vintage composition dolls, doll heads, and doll parts.  I always bring a little something back to him if I am travelling-a trip shopping to the Roundtop Antique show in Texas would be no different.  Booth after booth stocked with every imaginable collectible object were set up in giant fields.  An elderly lady had a booth that was entirely devoted to vintage dolls.  She had countless glass jars full of doll parts. Many of these dolls had seen what Buck would call 1000 miles of bad road-dragged through the dirt, left outdoors, an arm missing.   One doll head-a composition head with bleached straw like hair, half of which was gone,  and alarmingly blue and fixed glass eyes – this would be perfect for Buck.  Compelling, and a little scary-he likes this.  But I walked away, thinking I might find something better.  Of course I didn’t-nor could I find my way back to her booth.  I thought about that head on and off all the way home; all I could do was tell him about it. A month or so later, a box of doll heads arrived.  Soon they were arriving every day. He did an installation of quite a few of his collection on a wall-they look great.

Our dinner companions-they are good friends, and avid plant collectors.  He was interested to know what Buck had to say about displaying collections.  He waded right in where I would be reluctant to tread.  When I go out to dinner with friends, I act like a friend.  But Buck doesn’t design gardens-his involvement is strictly on the looking end.  His take- a collection gains visual strength when it is arranged, grouped in a way that makes visual sense. As he is not a horticulturist, he sees overall shapes, colors and arrangements, not rare cultivars, or unusual specimens.  It is one thing to garden with such ability that all of your plants perform and thrive.  It is another thing all together to make them read visually.  I have few clients who garden with such a range of plants even close to theirs.  Conifers of all kinds, rare shrubs and trees,  wildflowers, perennials of every description, tropical plants, roses, bulbs, dahlias-you get the idea .  Their passion is for plants.  I have no problem spotting a small start of a rare jack in the pulpit, or an unusually variegated Japanese maple-but Buck can’t see that.

Making sense of a collection visually means that you enjoy it just as much from a distance as you do up close.  Once my collection of peonies got to 25 cultivars, I knew I had to arrange them in some way.  I could have spread them out, planting a few in each of many perennial areas.  I instead chose to line them out in rows, like crops.  From a distance, the green rows were orderly, and made a big statement.  This arrangement made caring for them easier.  When they were in bloom, the mass of flowers was beautiful.  When I collect one type of plant in depth, I like to keep them together.  I like hedges of peonies, better than individual bursts of peonies.  In my little south side rose garden, I did not plant one climbing rose.  I planted the entire wall with a collection of climbing roses.  I planted a collection of roses of only 3 varieties, that I thought would make a pleasing mass and interesting color contrast.

 When I collect plants that are related by some organizing characteristic-such as dwarf conifers, meadow perennials, rock garden plants, bog plants-a collection such as this is broad, rather than deep.  I would tend to arrange these related plants together, such that the overall shape of the collection makes as big an impact as a mass of one plant.  Naming gardens and spaces helps to make clear what goes in that broadly concieved garden, and what would be lost, or just doesn’t belong there.  I like plant collections that are arranged such that I see what made the garden maker collect them to begin with.  If you are unable to edit your collecting, I am sympathetic. I do not do a very good job of this either.  But I have a very small garden-my limits are clearly defined.  A large piece of property-I would be out of control.   One of the reasons I enjoy gardening for a living is the access I have to garden and plant collections other than my own.

At A Glance: The Peony Garden

A trip to the American Peony Society yearly meeting and exhibition in Mansfield Ohio in the 1980’s-I cam home knowing I had to grow peonies.  I also knew I would have a very tough time choosing which of a few I would grow.  So I grew them like crops, in long grass-infested rows.  I have no idea where this grass came from, nor do I know what grass it is.  Do you?  They did amazingly well with this less than ideal care.  Peonies are very persistent and long lived.  By the time I sold that first garden property, the patch probably had 400 peonies in it.   

paeonia lactiflora hybrids

peony Raspberry Sundae

Japanese peony Do Tell, and double cerise pink peony Kansas

Japanese peony Whitecap

peony patch

peony Festiva Maxima

peony Pink Dawn

peony Princess Margaret

peony Kansas

peony Coral Charm

The First Garden: Part 3

This picture taken from my rock garden in 1987 makes me wonder-how did I manage to work a job and look after all of this? If you can spot that the peony hedge that is running along the drive is infested with quack grass-I coped as best I could.   Keep in mind, you are looking at the front half of the property.  Thank heavens, the back half was wild-I never did get into it much to bring any order to bear-beyond the rows of peonies and Siberian iris, and a giant run for the Newfoundlands.  The back third-groves of poplar trees, and giant old ash trees sporting a groundcover of rosa multiflora, brambles, quack grass and all other manner of tall wild plants.  Those tall wild plants grew over all the trash the previous owners took to the back, and dumped.  But this wild place was home to lots of wildlife I have not seen since moving to the city.  The most precious-the owls.  I rarely ever saw them, but I could hear them. On the opposite side of the drive from the meadow garden, a wild semi-shady place that rewarded me with stands of trillium -once I hauled away the dead trees and brush.  I responded to that cue.  For those of you who live in my area, I spent a few years working for Frances Hughes, at Hughes Gardens.  He specialized in bearded iris, daylilies, and wild flowers.  Any wildflower he sold was dug from his garden-few wildflowers were grown in pots. His stands of double bloodroot were legendary.  So many times I saw him dig a small start, brush the dirt off the roots, and bag the plant for a customer.  Only a few customers were able to persuade him to part with big divisions of his wildflowers. Those clients paid dearly.  My wildflower garden-years in the making. 

I did not make very much money working for Frances-he probably did not make that much either.  No one grows, gardens, and sells plants because they want to-they grow, as they are compelled to grow.  It is as vital an act as taking a breath. I was able to get by, but what I learned from him was worth a fortune.  He would put a start of dodecatheon-shooting star-in my pay envelope at the end of the week.  Or a start of anemone nemerosa.  He introduced me to uvularia-merrybells.  Merry Bells-who would not want that in their garden?  The rare and unusual trilliums-he grew them all.  I planted everything, and hovered over these plants like my life depended on it.      

But the greatest gift from Frances were the violets.  Every wildflower he ever potted up in the spring had a violet of some kind attached.  I have read no end of articles about how to eradicate violets-what for?  I thought mine looked great.  The weedy grass areas in my wildflower garden were quickly colonized by violets from Frances.  Some were named cultivars.  Some were random crosses.  But all of the violets seeded far and wide. All of the violets bloomed.   My rough carpet of quack grass and violets-the most beautiful perennial garden I have ever had.  I have few good pictures, just great memories.  

The garden was full of diminuitve species, and ash trees.  The largest, by my measure of the caliper 8′ off the ground, was only 2 inches shy the Michigan record ash tree.  Later in the season, the ferns would carpet the ground.       

Cypripedium pubescens-the yellow ladyslipper orchid-is native to Michigan.  Many variations exist in the wild-my stands of these orchids came from Al Goldner.    Amazingly, Michigan has more native orchid species than any other state, save Florida. My family vacationed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when I was a child.  A bouquet of pink lady slippers-Cyprepedium Acaule-that I picked in the woods and brought to my Mom got me a serious spanking.  My Aunt Blanche made it clear-do not ever, ever, pick the wildflowers.  Pink ladyslippers are all but impossible to cultivate in a garden-what they require only nature is able to provide.  I consequently made a point of listening to Blanche.  Cypripedium reginae-though I was young and not so skilled-they grew for me. 

I never cleaned this garden.  I attribute my success with growing wildflowers with my ability to leave them be.  They resent too much housekeeping.  They are not fond of too much fussing.  I would plant, water, and let them be. 

Sometimes I would intervene.  My 5 acre first garden was located fairly far away from any human hub.  But where I lived was rapidly developing. This picture from the back of my pickup-sods of hepatica rescued from a developer’s bulldozer. This drive around, dig, and rescue-on a Sunday morning of course.   Many Sunday mornings, actually. These hepatica had a friendly adoptive home on my property.     

This was a very happy time in my gardening life-my early thirties.  I was enchanted by every plant that came my way.  I gardened early, worked the day, gardened late, and studied by night.  This program suited me just fine.  My Mom photographed me this day, picking chionodoxa for a a vase she brought by.  How pleased I was to send her home with spring flowers from my own yard.  Better yet, the spring impending some odd thirty years later feels much the same.  I am thrilled-spring seems imminent.

My First Garden: Part 2

My first driveway-a 400 foot long ribbon of dirt. As I bought the house in October, I did not understand what that would mean in April after an inch or two of rain.  But only once did the man across the street need to come haul my car out of the mud with his Ford tractor. Rough-everything about the property was neglected.  I could work all weekend, and hardly spot what I did.  But eventually the property did begin to work and look better. 

The day I was able to buy gravel for the drive was a good day.  I did a half-baked job of grading it with my lawn tractor and a drag bar; I went on to persuade the gravel hauler to drop half his load every so many yards.  I don’t remember my aching arms-I only remember how thrilled I was to have a real driveway.  

 My lot was 300 feet in width, and over 900 feet deep.  In the midsection-a low spot that collected water.  Good horticulture had finally begun to influence where I planted things.  My first choice for that wet spot-a 3 foot tall larch in a five gallon bucket.  It grew like a weed, as did the spartina pectinata aurea marginata.  Prairie cord grass loves marshy places, and will spread vigorously.  I was fine with that-I had lots of room.  It has a gracefully droopy look.  The star of the bed-a collection of Japanese iris, backed up by a stand of yellow flag iris.  The tree in the background was dead, but plenty of bird species nested in it.  I kept it until the wind blew it over in a storm.  I would learn that Japanese iris like wet during their growth period, but a gradual drying off and good winter drainage.  I would move them three times before I got it right.

 Gradually I added arborvitae, hoping to screen the road from view, and a single metasequoia set in the lawn to the left of the spartina grass.  Planted in that low lying ditch of a spot, it grew incredibly fast.  I bought it for a song; for whatever reason, the leader had died back.  It was a park grade tree-meaning it was useful in a landscape where it would look fine, viewed from far away.  It promptly developed a pair of leaders from the side-I rather liked that two-pronged look.  Even up close. 

There were not so many plant species here, just lots of a few things.  The bed finally got large enough to make a little statement from my bedroom window. The larch pictured on the right-a cultivar with distinctly blue cast.

The part of my property closest to the road was home to an orchard at one time.  Many of the properties in this neighborhood had old fruit trees-it must have been a very large orchard at one time.  Three rows of apple trees, an intermediary swath of weeds,  and one row of pears were all that remained.  I liked these remains.  Cutting the grass around the trees involved a wild ride on the mower.  The ground was very uneven, and there were rocks that would pop up every spring in new places.  I finally decided a meadow would be in order.  I think I was beginning to really think about landscape here.  It became a substantial feature of my garden-by virtue of what I did not do.  A giant unmowed area can make a big statement.

All I planted into it were as many daffodils as I could spring for every fall.  I bought many a daffodil just before Thanksgiving for 10 cents each.  I owned this property 15 years.  My goal was to plant 1000 daffodils every year; I think I came close to that.  I would rough cut the meadow once a year in the very late fall, or the very early spring.  Never have I had a garden that gave so much pleasure with so little work as this one.  The four-sided brown pyramids you see?  I built the pyramids out of exterior grade plywood, and stapled cut boxwood to them for a client.  Once she was done with them, she gave them back to me.  I think the brown boxwood stems and leaves held on for at least 4 years after I placed them in the meadow.  They were my first garden sculptures.     

I no longer remember what these vertical evergreens were, but they marked the entrance to the meadow.  I mowed a path through it, so I could walk the garden whenever I wanted.  I invariably went this way to the mailbox, and then back up the drive past the wild garden.  I eventually planted some species roses in this garden.  Rosa Complicata is one of my favorites.  Rosa Canina did well for me as well.  Rosa glauca (in those days rose rubrifolia) and rosa seticera-I grew these too.  I did nothing to care for them-they seemed to thrive.  In the far top left of the picture, a very old marble sculpture of a torso of a lion-a gift from Al Goldner, a landscape designer and mentor whom I greatly admired.   

The daffodils were beautiful in the spring, as were all the meadow plants coming out of the ground so green and so lusty.  The quack grass was rampant, but it did not deter the queen anne’s lace, and the asters.  There would be a point in the summer when the entire meadow was a haze of lavender and purple. 

This pot from Italy-my first, in 1993.  I eventually did sell it to a client whom I felt wanted it even more than I did-I couldn’t say no.  But while it was there, I hauled water in a five gallon bucket all the way out there almost every day to keep that pot planting going.   

Though I knew but a little something about horticulture, and but a little something about composition, this picture really pleases me.  I had an idea to grow plants, and create landscapes.  I was having the time of my life.