Plants Are Not Furniture

Plants are not furniture, but some people try to use them as if they were. Books on landscaping and garden design often advise turning one’s plot of land into a set of “garden rooms” separated by hedges, trellises, shrubs or changes in elevation. That analogy is useful, but some take it further, instructing the homeowner to furnish the garden rooms with suitable plant material as well as actual furniture such as benches.

In selecting plants for a particular space, the architectural approach is useful. It makes sense to think of shapes and proportions before going to a nursery or plant catalogue. This approach, however, cannot ignore the fact that plants are living things that grow and change.

I began thinking about this topic upon seeing brand new gardens laid out and existing plantings undergoing maintenance. The new gardens look so promising — young, healthy, compact plants spaced out in plots of freshly turned and enriched soil, oriental hellebores alternating with ornamental grasses, and a few shrubs to add height. Very nice.

The established planting was one near a large new commercial/residential development intended to have a “village” atmosphere. More than a year ago, legions of blue fescue and lavender plants were installed in a long strip along a major road. At the time I wondered how they would fare, while acknowledging that they looked pretty good, lush yet neat. Recently, an army of landscaping company personnel trimmed, raked and mulched the planting, refreshing it and restoring tidiness.

Looking out at my as yet un-edged and mostly untrimmed beds, I felt more than a twinge of envy at the thought of these orderly plantings, but I have been a gardener long enough to know that application of considerable resources is needed to maintain this state. Plants, as I’ve already said, grow and change. The sofa and coffee table in one’s living room don’t double in bulk over the years or die out in the middle. Rugs may get grubby but they don’t start expanding into adjoining rooms. Perennials, shrubs and groundcovers do all these things, some very quickly. The only way to keep them within the bounds intended for them is to prune, shape, divide and sometimes replace. Even so, some plants die and others fill the spaces left vacant by their deaths. Unintended plants, weeds and others, creep in. The owner of the property may grow tired of the struggle and give up. A few years later there is little or no bare soil to be seen and the proportions and colour schemes so carefully worked out at the planning stage are gone.

If the neat, newly-planted or strictly maintained look is wanted, there are only a few solutions — rip everything out and replace it all at regular intervals, say annually or every two or three years, or choose a few plant varieties that lend themselves to regular trimming, plant them in masses and hire an outfit to keep them in shape.

But is that gardening?

Gardening is more than just keeping things orderly in the “outdoor living space.” Gardening is entering into a relationship with the plants and other living things in the garden, and negotiating with them to achieve a result that is visually and spiritually rewarding. The gardener learns what a plant does through the course of its life, rather than ripping it out when it loses its juvenile charm. Years of successes and failures, experiments and happy surprises, all of that gives a garden a history and makes the person who acquires plants and works with them into a gardener.

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