Bad Hair Days for Plants
Plants rarely look pretty all the time. There are off-season times when they look pretty… bad! There is usually a low point during the year for every plant. That’s why writers mention “seasonal interest” as an asset in the garden. During different seasons of the year, different plants will peak. The transient nature of gardens is part of their value to us. The off-season moments remind us of the fleeting beauty of all life.
When I lived in the North, the plant selections were based on cold-hardiness rather than clean shapes. If a plant could survive the harsh winters of Iowa, they earned a place in the limited list of options for landscape design. Precious evergreens were planted in double rows as windbreaks, and foundation plant beds were expected to be bare during the harsh winters. Cold-hardiness was a key requirement for every woody ornamental plant.
When I lived in the Midwest, large, deciduous, flowering shrub borders were the standard in every landscape. With attractive fencing as a backdrop, lots of flowering shrubs were lined up along property lines in long shrub borders. Conifers were often segregated into separate collections in their own display beds. Taxus held the foundation plantings together during the dormant season. The off-season for most plants was after spring flowering, when the shrub borders became plain-Jane plant growth—just messy tufts of uninteresting green.
When I first moved to the Southeast, I was surprised to see the typical choices made by landscape designers. Planting plans were almost exclusively broadleaf evergreens. It looked like every professionally-landscaped outdoor space was dressed in black tie and tuxedo. Beds were neat and refined and full, but they were a little boring. Boxwoods and Burford Hollies were everywhere. A manicured look year round comes with a cost to color and textural interest.
Something happened in the late eighties. The New American Garden movement started mixing ornamental grasses with perennials and shrubs. It created a market for diversity. Plant nurseries started offering more heirloom flowering shrubs in the South and more perennials in the North. Ornamental grasses became part of many planting plans. People became more tolerant of off-season lulls to accommodate the new American garden look.
The New Perennial movement is opening up ideas for creating a new, natural-looking meadow garden. The style appears to require a dedicated gardener with a sophisticated herbaceous-plant knowledge base for each site, in order to nuance the interconnected growth of different species. It may bring more die-hard annuals, perennials, and native grasses into the market. The off-season changes for herbaceous plant material can be dramatic! The expanded choices will draw on the professional landscape designer’s horticultural wisdom as well as real-life experience with each species.
If you are going to use a variety of plant types in a landscape design, which is wonderful, you need to anticipate seasonal changes that come with your diverse design. Get to know the timing of the plants you select for your plans. Consolidate plants that peak at the same time, and include edging, screening, or distractions from the plants that become ugly ducklings during certain parts of the year. Provide facer plants for shrubs that grow unattractive legs with time. Re-plant annuals each season. Don’t let plant diversity intimidate you into limiting your design choices. Landscapes change with the seasons, and that is part of the joyful experience of being outdoors.