Round Robin: Justify That Plant

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DENVER, Colorado—How many friends do you trust to tell you the truth? How many of them will let you walk around with a blob of ketchup on your tie, mismatched socks, spinach in your teeth, or an open fly—all the while telling you how great you look? It’s the same way in the garden.

I like compliments on my garden, and I hope I accept them gracefully, but good, constructive criticism is even more valuable.

There’s a difference, of course, between a helpful critique and a negative comment. There’s not much point in saying, “Holy cow, that Artemisia ‘Valerie Finnis’ has choked out half your herb garden,” when the gardener is painfully aware of the problem. A better approach might be, “Can I lend you a goat?”

I tire of visitors’ giving unsolicited advice. Too often, they dismiss plants as inferior to some form that they cultivate, or they warn me that something is going to get out of hand even though they don’t understand how some other­wise aggressive plants may stay docile in a semiarid climate. Sometimes, they forget their manners altogether, like the guest who looked around and said, “It looks like things are pretty much past their peak.” That’s when I muster every ounce of graciousness I can instead of telling them, “Don’t let the front gate hit you on the way out.” I dislike basing garden strategy around peaks. People who value gardens only when they bloom demonstrate a lack of respect for the plants they profess to love.

Nevertheless, we all fall into gardening ruts or run into problems that we can’t solve alone; I’ve found that a friend’s fresh perspective can make an enormous difference. I solicit opinions from three friends whose taste and judgment I admire.

I recently stayed in Dublin with my friend Helen Dillon, a gardener with a formidable artistic reputation. Few visitors would dare offer her advice, so I was honored when she asked for mine. While photographing Helen’s garden, I’d run into some blah spots. We both agreed that a camera was a good way to find the dull areas. Gardeners get so used to some plants that they stop seeing them in a critical light. “What’s that doing there?” I asked as we walked past a hunk of Sedum spurium ‘Red Dragon’ spilling out onto the walk. “It’s been there for twenty years,” Helen said, “and I don’t pay the slightest attention to it.”

We agreed that the Red Dragon’s muddy color didn’t do much to complement the silver and blue leaves of dianthus and sea hollies in that bed. If it disappeared, we reasoned, there would be room for something more attractive, such as Artemisia canescens, a low grower that looks like reindeer moss covered by a silver frost. I imagined how it would complement the thin gray needles of the pinks and the metallic leaves and thistlelike flowers of Eryngium bourgatii. I made a mental note to try the same combination at home.

We spent the afternoon playing “Justify That Plant”, a game that any two gardening friends can play. Sometimes my point of view prevailed, as in the case of the dull brown-leaved sedum (its foliage glows red only in spring), while other times Helen would offer a good reason why a plant had to be in a particular spot. For example, when I asked why a certain hellebore had such a prominent spot, Helen replied, “It’s quite rare, and I’ve got to keep an eye on it in case a visitor might decide to pinch it.”

Gardeners who live in different climates have much to learn from one another. There’s an enormous overlap in the plants we grow, even though we must look for the right microclimates in our gardens for them to prosper. Helen needs to find a hot, dry spot (as far as this is possible in Ireland) for her sea holly, while I grow it where I take care not to incinerate it. Though Denver and Dublin have radically different climates, we can both share our tips and grow the plant beautifully.

I’m looking forward to the day when Helen visits my garden in summer. She’s seen it only in winter, but even then she was fascinated by the stark ­silhouettes of freeze-dried pods, bristly coneflowers, and clumps of tawny grasses. “I’ve never seen them like this,” she exclaimed. “At home, they all turn to mush in the winter rains.” This winter, I feel a renewed appreciation for the season that brings such beauty. A person who can appreciate the garden only when it is at its peak misses a great deal of garden charm.