How to Garden with All the Plants – Designing a Collector’s Garden

Erica Browne Grivas

I always loved visiting the Brooklyn Botanic Garden – still do. Growing up in Brooklyn, the frothy cherry orchard, the stalwart lilacs, hordes of bluebells, and the musclebound wisteria never disappointed. Yet I wondered – where’s the shazaam? It was more like a living library of plants than what I thought of as a garden. The plant families were laid out in neat categories, but dryly and nakedly, without groundcovers or companions. I remember thinking, that’s not the way I’d want to garden. I wanted drifts of color and texture playing off each other with syncopation and harmony.

Simple is easier for the eye to read. By using only two bulbs, a white scilla and two-toned muscari, the gardener has created a strong composition. Image: Erica B. Grivas

Botanical gardens have an excuse for what we call “collectoritis” – the “I must have that – it’s new!” obsession. They are supposed to have all the plants. When individual gardeners succumb to it, it usually looks like your kitchen junk drawer got upended.

Designers – and I technically am trained as a landscape designer by the Big Apple’s other botanical garden, The New York Botanical Garden – are taught to plant in substantial drifts of odd numbers, repeating plants, colors and shapes to create visual continuity that reads a mile away. Yet somehow in my Seattle garden, I have nine kinds of sage, seven kinds of echinacea, four agapanthus, two grevillea, and three kinds of scabiosa. Scabiosa is an annual, for goodness sake!

There are reasons – accessibility from working at a nursery and going to plant conferences, busy-ness from same as well as freelance writing and parenting, but they don’t matter. What matters is we need to Marie Kondo this place.

I picked a loose palette and then added plants as they came my way, doing my best to make them work – with mixed results.

Here’s what I would tell me if I hired me as a garden coach, starting with a nice, established hodgepodge.

  1. Decide your garden priorities – how much time you want to work it, water it, and renew annual flowers displays or vegetables.
  2. Look at existing plantings – assess what is working, what isn’t. Remove and give away what isn’t.
  3. Make a map including planting, play and entertainment areas.
  4. Note the soil and weather conditions for each planting area.
  5. Note any special issues to address like muffling noise, creating smooth traffic patterns, screening for privacy, decide on solutions.
  6. Have a watering plan – incorporate irrigation or soaker hoses and mulch or groundcover plantings to conserve water. Group plants needing water and attention closer to the hose and house, more drought-tolerant ones farther afield. Group plants with like needs together.
  7. Plan for views inside the house and winter interest.
  8. Decide on color palettes for the garden, or at least individual beds.

Then – and only then – add plants.

If you are in the happy place of contemplating a new garden bed, and love to collect, say, dahlias, there are ways to make that work.

  1. Corral plants of one type together, but within a strong year-round framework – like a raised bed, or a hedge of Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) in sun or fragrant winter-flowering sweetbox in shade(Sarcococca spp.). Feel free to go wild with color if you want.
  2. Use different varieties of one plant in the same color or palette to unify a bed. This works best with very few other types of plants and a limited palette. For instance, multiple echinaceas in white and yellow punctuating a wide river of Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima). Or try it with various-shaped echinaceas – some frilly, some reflexed. The textural change becomes a strong element, and the color changes are kept to a minimum.
  3. If the beds are far enough apart, you can have many colors.
  4. Combine collections that don’t compete – your tulip collection can share space with your summer dahlias.
  5. Containers are a great place for collections – ask my driveway. They will look best if a color, container shape, or plant is repeated.
  6. If you already have highly-mixed borders, add in some strategic repetition to tie them together. Triple up on key plants to lead the eye across the landscape.

At Ravenna Gardens nursery, displays always use strong color blocking to unify the scene. Image: Erica B. Grivas

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