Plants versus Plans: Which side are you on?

Hello. My name is Helen, and I am a plantoholic. Most recreational gardeners are. Even the best of us, those who never set foot in a nursery without a shopping list, often start with a wish list. Of plants.

We’re easily revved into a frenzy of plant lust by magazine, blog and catalog descriptions of new varieties, new colours, new flower forms. We can’t resist a few (or few dozen) impulse buys. Then, we return to the garden with our booty and ask the eternal question: Where the heck do I put this?

What would happen if people in other fields (if you will) had “our little problem?” If an architect fell in love with a bunch of bricks. (Oooh, cool. I’m sure I could fit in a few!). Or an engineer bought girders on impulse (Oh, look, new colours!), or a plumber came home with unusual taps (I couldn’t help it; I’ve never seen that form before!). Wouldn’t happen. She wouldn’t work backwards from assorted materials, without knowing whether they were right for her project. Neither should we.

After only two sessions, the Ryerson Art and Management of Planting Design course I’m taking is leading me to a different path. I’m trying to un-install the T in my favourite word, and move from plants to PLANS.

Imagine how mushy the texture would be without that one blue hosta, H. ‘Tokudama’. We want more effects like that.

The plans will focus on a front garden that after many years of evolution has become scruffy. There are too many plants of the same texture and foliage colour, haphazard blooming times, underperforming specimens and a tiny patch of grass that always looks unkempt. Not to mention, the branches of a dead burning bush that I’ve kept, thinking I would paint… but never have. As my “face to the world,” it’s all a bit of an embarrassment.

My first step will be to make a list – and you can guess that I don’t mean a plant list. This is a list of criteria for my garden or problems to be solved, in no particular order… yet (we’re brainstorming here):

– an easy-to-maintain front garden with greater impact
– a way to disguise the air-conditioning unit
– less (or no) grass to mow
– solution for the too-steep slope and too-narrow driveway
– more variety in foliage texture
– more multi-season interest, especially winter
– entrance too congested; how to fix?
– succession plan for aging street trees
– counteract “flyer guy disease” – plants being trampled by the guys who hand out flyers

The list will be longer, and I’ll be looking for patterns. Some things, like my too-narrow driveway, might require more than my current budget allows, but for now let’s keep it on the list.

My burning bush in happier times. No, we have absolutely no snow now in Toronto. This was December 2008.

To borrow a creative concept from my working life, innovative solutions often come if you define a problem by asking a question, such as How do I reduce congestion at the entrance? rather than stating some kind of solution, such as Widen front pathway. Turning these points into questions will allow me to open my mind to possible alternatives… and you never know what might work better.

I’ll be treating myself like a client as I go through this planning process. More reports as I go.


  1. Enjoyed your post! I like that to take the t out of plants…plan. If I don't plan, I will have a lot of "I don't know where to put it" plants.

  2. Bravo! I'll be interested to see how your plans proceed! As a complete plant nut, I know where you're coming from. As a plant nut who's also a designer, I have a bit of a Jekyll/Hyde situation over here. I've learned to use both to my advantage, enough so that I've come back around and realized that, with thoughtful planning, I really can find a place for most of the plants I love in my garden. The key, as you illustrate, is to plan first.

    It's funny you say that about architects — it DOES happen! Specifically with bricks! Boston is the poster child for it.

  3. Amy, There are a lot of us plantoholics out here. Not to say we can't fall in love with them… we just have to think ahead before we bring them home to meet mother.

    Andrew, You know, I hesitated over that architect reference. I'm sure they do fall in love with a load of bricks… many creative people are inspired by certain materials. However, I don't think the architect actually *buys* the bricks they fall in love with before drawing up plans… or do they? Set me straight on that.

  4. In a previous life, I worked in a "World Class" nursery. I knew I was a plantaholic before that but, it was re-enforced after working there.

    When a Tree Peony is flown in from China, by the breeder personally and driven from the airport directly, you KNOW you are about to face your horticultural demons in spades.

    Oh, the stories I could tell. πŸ™‚
    Thanks for this post, looking forward to more!

  5. Helen, This is such a thought-provoking post. I generally go back and forth between plans and plants. Since my garden is still in the expansion stage, I think that makes it easier to start with plans. For example, the fence border began with a plan to screen the clothesline from the deck. But once I knew I wanted a flower bed there, the next thought was, "Wow! Full sun! I could grow peonies here." As I planned the shape and the plantings for the new bed, figuring out the number and location and varieties of the peonies came first. -Jean

  6. Great post, Helen. I'm all about the plants, not so much about the plans. If a plant expires, I consider it a readymade hole to put another plant in. My story is that I'm going to be a bit more planning oriented this spring, but this is before Urgent PlantSeeking Madness hits me…

  7. Helen, I really laughed at your analogy of the tap-happy plumber. I'm going to put it like that to myself the next time I have my hand on a new plant I don't need. It will make it a lot easier for me to see the impulse purchase for what it is — not a harmless indulgence, but actively damaging to the overall harmony I'm trying to achieve.

    – Sheila Averbuch, Stopwatch Gardener

  8. Fantastic post Helen. Sounds like you're getting an awful lot out of your course πŸ™‚

    I must come back again when I start on a major border revamp in the spring.

    However, I did meet the owner of a most spectacular and innovative garden during the week. I asked the question about whether he'd palnned the garden and he hadn't! Mind you, he'd worked on another garden for 25 years and studied natural planting in the wild in many countries, so I guess he has the right experience to just make it up as he goes along!

  9. On the architect thing, you're right, they might not actually buy the load of bricks — more likely they've mentally bought the load of bricks and designed it into their plan (Irony?), such that they may as well have. It was an excellent analogy.

    Thank you for stopping by my blog, BTW! Replied to your Baptisia question — I'd start out by leaving off the feeding and watering.

  10. Great post Helen. I like your idea- to solve a problem by asking a question. My garden is still in the planning stage as well. I have to decide what to do with well meaning gifts from garden friends.

  11. Helen:
    A most enjoyable post. It seems that a lot of us are contemplating a revamping of sort for the gardens, but personally speaking, this is only to fight the withdrawl symptoms that have spun out of control into overdrive!

    To your question though: It has always and will continue to be about the plants. I can say with utmost confidence that the Shaded Walk is what it is because the 'plant' was front and centre in my mind. Of course once completed I was immediately reminded of a question the late Christopher Lloyd used in 'The Well Tempered Garden: 'Are You A Planner, or a Muddler?'

    Surprisingly there is a greater amount of cohesion than I first anticipated. Perhaps a plan did exist at one point, but it was a heady Eden that resided only in my imagination. There was no pen or pencil to paper. Is either the better choice so long as we are happy with the results?

  12. With this, my second garden, I am trying soooo hard to stick to the *plan* – unlike last time when we (mostly Hubby) had to dig up every single perennial when I decided I needed trees and shrubs along that side. Ack – I want to make it to my next anniversary – so no more moving entire beds! πŸ™‚

  13. Very funny yet so painfully true…as a designer and a not-yet-recovered plantaholic, I struggle with this CONSTANTLY. In fact, I'm feeling the urge to shop right this minute…but luckily it's raining out which will curtail my impulses. Once the weather warms up, I'm a goner…no hope at all. Each Spring I say a silent 'Hail Mary' and hope I can find a home for my truckload of new plants without totally destroying any semblance of order in my garden!

  14. Yeah, good luck with those plans. I'm betting that after you see this year's most unique heuchera, or new super-sized dahlia, you'll fall off the wagon. The only thing that's stopped me is, I've run out of space.

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