Sunday Opinion: Community

So much of horticulture is really about community.  Plants have very specific requirements in terms of soil, light, water, drainage, exposure and winter hardiness.  If a plant does not get what it needs, it will languish at best, or die.  Plants requiring similar conditions would indicate a community, would they not?  This part can get tricky. 

 Good gardeners understand vigor.  Some plants are robust, chatty, and spread their cheer with abandon.  To have them is something akin to being occupied by an army.  This phrase, a line from a poem by Marge Piercy –  I have never forgotten it, as it is so seminal to the art of gardening.  The art of gardening that comes after one has mastered the basic science of gardening, that is.  In this group, I would put butterburrs.  They own a spot in my garden bordered on one side by a concrete curb and driveway.  The other borders-I maintain.  OK, I police the butterburrs.  A local nursery digs them out of my yews, my driveway and my hosta garden, and grows them on for sale.  They do me a big favor.  I would not want to do without them, but they are a poor candidate for a community.  A desolate boggy place needing plants by the thousands-they are happy to oblige.  Gooseneck loosestrife is another such plant.  Should your garden require a a bed the size of Indiana, plant a few.  In this group, I would place baltic ivy, ostrich ferns-you get the idea. 

Other plants are hesitant growers.  They lack self confidence, they are fussy, they find the reality of community overwhelming.  They may be beautiful, but they whisper.  In this group, in my zone, certain roses, heaths and heathers, big leaved rhododendrons, lupines and delphiniums.  What gardeners call plant habit might better be understood as plant personality.  A description of plant habit seems a fairly cut and dried affair, reeking of science.  Personality-a big fluid topic.  A consideration of personalities can better inform your decisions about what garden communities you intend to sponsor. 

My roses tolerate the community in which they live.  They tolerate the asparagus and hibiscus that they live with,  they ignore the vigously growing boltonia. The roses somewhat benefit from the Japanese anemone that covers the ground, and conserves moisture.  No relationships are perfect, but this community garden has prospered.  Every voice gets heard.  The climbing roses love the heat of the south facing wall.  The only exasperated voice-me trying to wade in there to deadhead the roses, or read the gas meter.  Peace is not necessarily about a lack of voices.  It is more about the balance of voices.

My small patch of meadow features panic grass, echinacea, hyssop, and monarda fistulosa Claire Grace.  I have to intervene on occasion.  I chop out pieces of the grass, and fill those holes with soil-the grass would overrun the entire bed, given free rein.  I do not plant fancy new hybrids of echinaceas here-I need vigor more than I need an unexpected color or form.  Hyssop can be fleeting in my zone-I have to replace them on occasion.  I am not an impartial observer here.  I am a supreme court justice, enforcing the law.  This community thrives, given some stern intervention.

I had big beds of baltic ivy when I moved here 15 years ago.  The lily of the valley has no problem representing in spite of its tangled thicket of stems and roots.  Both plants race and spread, equally.  If you have ever had occasion to dig out baltic ivy, you know from whence I speak.  Running a rototiller through an ivy bed-hold on to your hat; golf cleats would be an excellent idea.  My stands of crocus look fragile-nothing could be further from the truth.  They suffer the cold, snow, and sleet as if it were nothing.  I have had ample evidence of that these past few days.  Their slender leaves come up through the ivy like a warm knife negotiating a cold stick of butter.  Though they appear to be delicate, they write a definitive essay about determination. 

I am a fan of rupturewort-herniaria.  I have planted lots of them, in two separate communities.   I observe that they like good snow cover, and protection from wind.  Rupturewort can be good, or it can be horrid, given the character of any given winter. I want them in my community-so I do what I can to insure their success.  I protect them.   What I learn about plant community informs everything I do in the landscape.

Our first ever spring event is this coming weekend, April 9 and 10.  This I planned last fall, anticipating the fifteenth anniversary of the shop.  We planted every garden at the shop with spring bulbs.  The front gardens-2600 tulips.  The driveway garden-a glorious mix of many hundreds of hyacinths.  I planted hundreds of containers with all manner of spring bulbs.  This spring has been cold and slow-but I did prepare for a community gathering as best I could.  I have invited growers and landscape service people whom I buy from and admire to bring their spring plants, and information about themselves. 

The garden industry-I am a member of that community.  We all have our strengths and our quirks.  Should I not have something a client needs, I send them straight away to that place that could help them.  Other plces do the same for me. We are by no means a full service plant nursery-we have specialty plants.  This means whatever we take a fancy to at that moment.  We are willing to talk about why we choose this, and not that.   Other places have more selection.  Our greater community-some are big and strong, some are small and very personal.  All of us have our own personalities.  But to the last we are committed to great plants, great gardens, great landscapes-and great service. Should you have the time, please stop by.  My idea-a celebration of my professional and my client community is a good thing for everyone involved.        

Lots of what I know about plant communities has to do with experience.  I try things.  Should they not work, I try something else.  It may take years to get something right.  I view most things through this gardening lens.  The group of us are bound to get something right. Spring in Michigan is fast and fleeting; I invite you to participate in our version.  All of us would be so pleased to see you next weekend.


  1. “Peace is not necessarily about a lack of voices. It is more about the balance of voices.” In the larger garden of human community, this should be our gospel.

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