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.
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.
- Decide your garden priorities – how much time you want to work it, water it, and renew annual flowers displays or vegetables.
- Look at existing plantings – assess what is working, what isn’t. Remove and give away what isn’t.
- Make a map including planting, play and entertainment areas.
- Note the soil and weather conditions for each planting area.
- Note any special issues to address like muffling noise, creating smooth traffic patterns, screening for privacy, decide on solutions.
- 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.
- Plan for views inside the house and winter interest.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- If the beds are far enough apart, you can have many colors.
- Combine collections that don’t compete – your tulip collection can share space with your summer dahlias.
- Containers are a great place for collections – ask my driveway. They will look best if a color, container shape, or plant is repeated.
- 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.