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A Plant Collector’s Landscape Design: Three Lessons Learned
by Joseph Tychonievich - posted 07/02/14

When I bought my last house, there was a half-dead rose bush, some stumps of dead arborvitaes and a lot of ugly fencing. I sold it last year after three and a half years, having created a garden in the front that I was rather pleased with. There are lots of tricks, rules and guidelines to making gardens, but here are three things that I feel helped me the most in creating this garden.

These lessons also will guide others who love and collect plants yet still need to have a respectable looking landscape.


Joseph Tychonievich’s former home (top), before he created garden beds (right).

Lesson One: Have a Nursery Bed

Nursery bed is what I call it, but I know people who call theirs an orphanage or, most poetically, Plopper’s Field. Whatever you call it, it is an out-of-the-way place where you can put plants that don’t have a home. I’m an obsessive plant collector, always buying new things to experiment with and see how they do.

Before, they’d always wind up in my landscape somewhere, creating a random patchwork of one of this and one of that, half of which weren’t really adapted to my climate, and none of which really looked much like a garden. Now when I pick up a plant that I don’t know what to do with or am not sure will actually grow well for me, it goes in the nursery bed, leaving my actual landscaping open for plants that I know will perform and look good together.


Plant lovers should establish a section of their landscape for a nursery bed, Plopper’s Field or other holding area for plants purchased on impulse to trial before moving to their permanent landscape home.

Large, lavender alliums (Allium giganteum) contrast nicely with the texture of the bold-leaf cardoon (Cynara cardunculus). Sprays of bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) add a bit of froth.

Lesson Two: More is More

The oft-repeated rule is to plant no fewer than three of each plant and it is a good one. My personal variant on it is to plant most things in groups of at least six, and repeat those main plants many times throughout the bed.

In one garden, bold, silver-leaved cardoons; dark, ferny bronze fennel; and sweeps of bulbs are repeated throughout the space, making the garden hang together and look intentional. With the theme of the bed established, clumps of solo plants — a crocosmia here, a bearded iris there — look like well-planned accents, rather than the plant nerd’s impulse purchases they actually are.

Lesson Three: Less is Also More

I’m not a confident designer and the easiest way I’ve found to make a grouping of plants that looks good together is to simply forbid myself certain colors. In this bed, the forbidden colors are yellow and orange (with the exception of the orange tulip ‘Princess Irene’, which I simply love too much to ever forbid from any garden space for any reason) both in flowers and in foliage. The end result is harmonious and feels surprisingly sophisticated, and didn’t require any deep thought or color schemes on my part.


The only orange allowed in the front garden are the ‘Princess Irene’ tulips (Tulipa). Editing color is one way to make a bed cohesive.

The summer garden is a mix of textures and plants, which punctuate the scene, such as the red flowers of Crocosmia.

From Michigan Gardening Volume I Issue IV. Photos by Joseph Tychonievich.

 


Joseph Tychonievich, author of Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener (Timber Press, 2013), is nursery manager at Arrowhead Alpines Rare Plant Nursery (arrowheadalpines.com) in Fowlerville, where he lives and gardens with an excessive number of cats, tomatoes and flowering bulbs.