It’s not what you plant, but how you grow it

Story and Photography by PJ Gartin

There isn’t a single gardener on this green Earth who doesn’t harbor plant prejudices. Some of us moan that Zinnia are too common, while others judge Agapanthus as old-fashioned and boring. Surely, I’m not the only one who’s tired of seeing yellow swaths of Chinese hibiscus (H. rosa-sinensis) interspersed with croton (Codiaeum variegatum). This pair, along with their faithful sidekick, Vinca, has been so overplanted at commercial sites that home gardeners now refer to them as “shopping-center” plants.

Rather than relegating an oversized rose-of-Sharon to the center of a lawn, reduce its size and let it join the garden party.

Oh, but let’s not confine our rant to herbaceous flora. Ligustrum, Pittosporum, and Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) are so pervasive that we no longer pay attention to these durable shrubs.

Overused or seemingly lackluster plants don’t deserve banishment. Instead, figure out how to reconnect these plants to our landscapes.

Although we’d rather eat compost than inflict our gardening opinions on others, the truth is that most of us are garden snobs. If we stop pointing fingers, we’d be more successful with our own garden designs. It’s time to remove our horticultural blinkers and accept that it’s not what you plant but how you grow it.

Rose-of-Sharon isn’t the only chubby overgrown shrub that lends itself to severe pruning. This potted oleander (Nerium oleander) adds a sparkle of color to this earth-toned enclosure while also providing vertical interest.

Take rose-of-Sharon or althea (Hibiscus syriacus). We plant it in the wrong place, then blame it for looking unattractive – not us. This periwinkle-blue-flowering shrub is often found all by itself in the middle of a lawn, surrounded by nothing but grass. Yuck. Several planted closely together to form a screen look only slightly better. But get this – when reduced to a few tall stems and layered with other shrubs and perennials, it becomes a stunning addition to a small garden.

This tall hibiscus (8-10 feet) blooms in late spring or early summer – about the same time bigleaf and lacecap hydrangeas (H. macrophylla) are in full flower. When rose-of-Sharon’s star-shaped blossoms twinkle in the morning sunlight above hydrangea’s bluish hues, the overall effect is exquisite. To complete this setting, play off the subtilties of rose-of-Sharon’s scarlet blossom centers by incorporating wisps of a similar color near it.

Turning ordinary plants, such as rose-of-Sharon into attributes isn’t difficult. All it takes is patience and a discerning eye. Rather than bidding an undesirable plant good riddance, consider how it might look in a different location, or if it could unify an assortment of plants with contrasting textures and heights. If an annoying shrub grows too close to a building but can’t be transplanted, consider coaxing it into a more interesting shape and espalier it to the structure. Many ornamental shrubs, including rose-of-Sharon, are amenable to this technique.

Butterfly bush’s open growth habit is obscured when planted in masses. They also ease the vertical transition from the water to the cabbage palms and contribute to the setting’s balance and scale.

Why are ligustrum, pittosporum, and Japanese yew so omnipresent? Because they’re relatively disease-proof and shrug off our heat and humidity. This is why landscape architects regularly include them in design plans. These evergreen shrubs also make excellent foils and backdrops for other plants.

Shrubs with open growing habits, such as butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.), often look better when grown in front of the much denser ligustrum, pittosporum, and Japanese yew. If fuller shrubs are not available, plant masses of butterfly bush closely together. When in full bloom, the crowding transforms this plant’s airiness into clouds of breathtaking color.

Ordinary shrubs aren’t the only plants that can be transformed into valuable garden companions. Trees are exceptional modifiers of scale. Tall ones soaring above and from behind a house contribute to the overall spatial organization of a property. Trees also help to frame and enhance architectural detail.

Ordinary plants such as elephant ear (Colocasia), Algerian ivy (Hedera canariensis), and purple heart (Tradescantia pallida) become extraordinary when they are presented at eye level in a window box.

Italian or Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) has an unfavorable reputation among some gardeners. This is because it often ends up as an out-of-proportion towering screen in front of a house. However, this tall (30+ feet) columnar evergreen makes an attractive accent near a building, and several planted along an expansive brick wall interrupts monotony. When several are situated behind a home, they enhance the visual relationship between the house and the front yard.

Rather than installing Italian cypress in straight lines, consider planting odd numbers in a cluster. They look more interesting if they are not the same height. Varying heights also eliminates the angst of trying to maintain symmetry and, if some of the crowns begin to tip downward, this will add additional interest. Another plus to grouping several together is that if one becomes damaged and must be removed, its replacement will not look shockingly out of place.

Cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto) is another tall tree that is regularly planted in straight lines. Although some horticulturists argue that South Carolina’s state tree should remain in maritime forests and not home landscapes, this hasn’t stopped determined gardeners from planting them. But instead of placing a pair at the end of the drive or a row of them in front of the house, consider planting a tightly clustered trio near the edge of a property.

Turning run-of-the-mill annuals and perennials into dazzling garden accessories frequently requires a slightly different approach because so many of them grow close to the ground. Because of this, we conceptualize horizontally and skip the vertical part of the equation. Low-growing plants need taller companions in order for us to notice them. That’s why we’re smitten with window box arrangements. We approach them at eye level. A similar strategy is to provide seating next to a large container filled with small plants for a face-to-face encounter. 

Resist planting in rows because they are static. Abandoning symmetry opens up opportunities to play off light and shadows and offers new approaches for creating transitions. Even if the overall garden design is formal, don’t be afraid to create surprises. Make a border more visually engaging by letting Coreopsis peek out from behind a Japanese yew.

For a more interesting effect, place a trio of cabbage or sabal palmetto at the edge of a property instead of lining them up in a straight line across the front.

In conclusion, overused or seemingly lackluster plants don’t deserve banishment. Instead, figure out how to reconnect these plants to our landscapes. When our yards and gardens speak to us – even when they’re brimming with workhorse shrubs and trees and ordinary flowers – we’ve mastered the power of scale and proportion. And once we understand the importance of three-dimensional organization, we’re free to continue our gardening adventure without worrying about what’s currently popular or out of date.

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