Like every person, every plant has at least one characteristic that drives you crazy: peonies cascade everywhere if they’re not hooped, bee balm invades the entire garden seemingly overnight. For the sake of the plant, or the person, most of us decide early on to ignore that trait and focus on the qualities we love. But what if you could take the most troubling feature and turn it to your advantage?
I was a chef before I was a gardener; I loved the taste, and the look, of desserts made with phyllo dough, but I hated working with the stuff. No matter how careful I was, no matter what I made, the wafer-thin sheets tore the minute I touched them. I felt like a rank amateur. I cursed, I cried, I almost gave up; then it occurred to me I could beat the phyllo at its own game. Okay, I know that competition with a sheet of dough is slightly obsessive, but I created what became a signature dessert, and here’s how: I tore the phyllo. Deliberately. I tore it, bunched it, folded it, baked it in a spring-form pan, filled it with sautéed pears, and called it a rustic pear tart. It was a huge hit.
So it occurs to me, as a gardener, that I can do the same with the least desirable trait of a plant, or a shrub, or a site. Peonies cascade; I let them tumble down a gentle slope. Bee balm invades; I set it free in a patch where only the weeds seem particularly happy, knowing that the weeds don’t stand a chance. By placing the material where it can do what it is inclined to do, I eliminate the perpetual drudgery of my vain attempts at control.
Here in Maine our season is short, our summer nights cool, and our soil as acerbic as our collective wit. Along the coast in the southern part of the state, Nikko Blue hydrangea flourish and, with precious little help, produce heads of a shade that rivals the sea on a August afternoon. Now, I can understand wanting pink heads, or red, but they don’t call us the Pine Tree State for nothing and we sit on a ledge of granite, to boot. Trying to sweeten this soil is a never-ending, and largely futile, task. It may be the human condition to want, always, what we can’t have, but I favor an easier road. Plant what grows, and plant it where it wants to be so that it can do what it wants to do.
Back to the Nikkos for a minute. Their least desirable trait, this far north, is the winter dieback. This makes them unreliable for use as a hedge but perfect for the interior of a garden space, where they’ll stay about four-by-four. Those fabulous heads, with ornamental grasses, delphinia and single white peonies, create a lush, elegant look that is almost effortless. The hydrangea branch is stiff enough to offer modest support to a tipsy delphinium, and single peonies — not nearly so heavy as their double cousins — stand on their own. If they don’t, by the way, that’s what vases were made for.
This method of gardening is applied just as effectively to the physical properties of the land. One of my favorite clients, though he has a lush, green back lawn, was desperate for a lush, green front lawn. He had been told by several landscapers that it could be done, no problem. I walked on site and said, Nonsense, there’s lichen everywhere. Lichen is an intriguing, gray-green fungus that grows on sun-drenched stone outcroppings. I realized immediately the reason the builder had given the house such a long setback from the street: the bulk of the front yard was ledge. Can you install a lawn over ledge? Yes. It will, however, cost you thousands, and more still over the years to maintain a space that never, really, will match the picture you have in your head.
My solution to this, and to all similar dilemmas, is to express the natural inclination of the site. In the case of ledge, my preference is to fully expose the rock. At the opposite end of the spectrum, in areas that tend to be damp, I plant things that like their feet wet. Red Osier dogwood, for example, grows in all but standing water and provides winter interest in the vivid stems. It’s only down side is the tendency of branches to go gray with age, but an annual harvest of one-third of the twigs keeps the shrub rejuvenated and the color rich. It also provides me with a wealth of scarlet to use as seasonal decoration, but I’m not sure whether that’s good gardening so much as Yankee practicality.
In fact, I’m not certain this whole concept of gardening to the least desirable trait isn’t born of the same stuff. If you’re raised with farmers and lobstermen, you learn to plant what wants to be here and to set your traps where the lobsters are. One local farmer plants sugar-snap peas in a field where mustard, a prolific self-sower, runs riot. The peas use the mustard greens as trellises, and the farmer doesn’t waste his time trying to eradicate this intruder. The worst trait of the mustard is turned to his advantage.
I can take this same theory to one of the most common shrubs and one of the most common problems: rhododendron, and its tendency to become leggy with age. I can spend three years pruning it back into a more compact shape, or I can articulate that trait by elevating the canopy.
When I expose its gnarled and knobby limbs by removing the lower branches, this bit of urban sprawl is fixed in a day and three additional benefits follow. The shrub acquires a stylized attitude akin to Bonsai; the space beneath is freed for planting and the flowers, though fewer, are dramatically larger. Bad trait, good result.
People should be so easy.