Garden Design for Plantaholics

Katherine Tracey at Avant Gardens (Dartmouth, MA), in this interview with her at Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden, hits the nail on the head for me:

“I think ‘collectors’ of plants know their affliction, and they may already know that they have a choice to make: a garden with a sense of place and design, which means including masses of “supporting cast” plants, or they can choose to simply love their collection, call it what it is and not make any excuses for it. If a plantaholic’s design sense wins out, then they will begin to add supporting-cast plants to their garden.”

I have — and always have had, in each place we’ve lived — a collector’s garden, which sometimes challenges my design sense and desire for a harmonious, rhythmic garden. I am drawn to Dr. Seussy, variegated, architecturally interesting, odd-foliaged, and unusually textured plants, especially those that attract insects and other wildlife, and especially those that like some shade.

So in my current garden, which doesn’t quite hang together for me yet, I have:

  • a dwarf weeping Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Pendula’) as the focal point of one garden bed,
  • a pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) anchoring the back border with the lanky Joe Pye Weed (variously Eutrochium purpureum and Eupatrium purpureum) and Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum) giving vertical interest farther along the bed
  • a martini-glass shaped crabapple (Malus sargentii ‘Tina’) in another bed, so fragrant in spring
  • a weeping crabapple (Malus ‘Red Jade’) as the main show in a front bed
  • a variegated Nishiki willow tree (Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’)
  • a 6-foot tall Filipendula (not sure of species) in the kitchen garden (in a wet spot it enjoys, so that I don’t have the heart to move it to a more appropriate bed)
  • and a very vertical Rhamnus ‘Fine Line’ in a side border

Among other perennials in the garden are many kinds of sedums, from ground covers to Autumn Joy (‘Hab Gray’ and ‘Turkish Delight’ are two of my favourite large sedums, and S. japonica Senanense and S. selskianum ‘Spirit’ for smalls) , a willow gentian blue, various penstemons (including ‘Jingle Bells,’ with bright red flowers that attract hummingbirds), an angelica (a biennial … may need to replace this year), the rainbow Leucothoe, Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’), wild ginger (Asarum europeum), several Rodgersias (Rodgersia aesculifolia), vertical anise hyssop, some Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), veronicas of all kinds (‘Red Fox’ is a favourite), and many less common grasses, hostas and lamiums (dead nettles). My interest in annuals runs to large and small fritillaria, unusual and variegated tulips, coleus, edibles everywhere, nasturtiums, borage, fennel and dill, vanilla marigolds and lime zinnias.

Some new plants on order this year include a Crimson Passion dwarf cherry  (Prunus x kerrasis), green- and plum-coloured gladiolus, and three tall sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata).

As you can probably envision, these choices can make for some strange (garden)bed-fellows. I struggle each year for the harmony that’s not necessarily inherent in this admixture of plants, though it may be that where, how, and in what quantities I have planted them is more at fault than the clash of the plants themselves. After all, is there a better artist that nature? This year, I’ll try harder to take my cues from her.

Below, some photos of some favourites in my collectors gardens over the years and places (click on each photo for more info):


  1. I like reading about your passion for gardens and gardening, and admire your photography, too! I have very limited gardening knowledge. I enjoy hearing the names of plants, even though I never remember them!

  2. Thanks, Laurie! I hope to post more once our snow is gone and ground and plants are visible again.

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