Monday, March 7, 2011

Is there a place for nostalgia in a well designed garden?

I’ve been working through my issues with Bishops Weed, and finding the “right” rocks for my yet-again redesigned/replanted front garden…and you’ve all been very helpful. But there is something else that’s been nagging at me…my inability to get rid of the foundation plants we inherited with the house. I’m speaking of a hot-pink-blooming Rhododendron: Two Pieris japonica (this one due for a bottom trim-up): And a candy cane Camellia (please ignore the mostly dead Phormium on the right): If I were starting from scratch I would never include these plants, but I’ve got ‘em…and I’m sort of attached to them. The Camellia was love at first sight, although I hoped its flowers would be simply red, or white, not striped like a candy cane. I was indifferent to the Pieris, they were just “shrubs” neither good nor bad they just were. And the Rhody? It was coming out right away! No place for a silly Rhododendron in my garden! But then it worked its magic on me and now I love it, wouldn’t part with it…can’t part with it. These shrubs are old, established and have a history here, I've grown attached.

So there is an inevitable disconnect between these inherited “foundation plantings” (doesn’t that sound horrible) and the types of plants that I will be planting further out in the front garden. Is it going to work? I dunno, but I have decided I’m okay with it, either way. This isn’t a garden designed for a magazine…it’s MY garden (or as Amy Stewart said during one of her talks… “it’s just the place I put the plants I buy”). Still I’m just curious…is there a place for nostalgia in a well designed garden? And by asking that I am not pretending that my garden is now, or ever will be a “well deigned garden” it’s just a hypothetical question.

A couple of updates, first on the Bishops Weed battle. After 3 applications of Round-up (yes I’ve temporarily gone over to the dark side) this is what it looks like…
Ya, that looks dead, right?

I think I am stuck with it.

Second, the large rocks. The more I think about it, and look at other gardens around town, I’m just not so sure I want to include them. If I do it will be a very few, and very subtly. What Scott said when he commented on my rock-shopping post: “but I'm not convinced I could use rock without it looking too contrived” keeps bouncing around in my head. Plus my front garden is small, and, well… to put it delicately I don’t exactly live on a street of “designed” gardens. It’s not a block of palatial estates, big craftsmen bungalows, or mid-century brick ranch homes (I wish!). I live in a neighborhood of “post war boxes” as one friend so cleverly described it. I think the most generous term I’ve heard is “ranchalow” but heck even that is more than they deserve. I think by skipping making a “big rock” statement and just sticking with the gravel already in place (and more all-season plants) I’m in line with the architectural style of my house and the neighborhood. At least that’s where I’m at right now.

So how about that nostalgia question?


  1. If you like them, keep them. If you like them, they probably aren't so out of place. You don't sound too attached to the Pieris, so go ahead and yank those. I've never understood their appeal. That might calm the voice in your head that's telling you to yank all the other stuff.

    I'm dealing with these same issues, and my foundation shrubs are even bigger. If I replace them with new shrubs I like more, they will be smaller, and the absence will be conspicuous. For myself, I plan on replacing on or two a season, evaluating at the end of the season if I need to take out more next season.

  2. I'd say it depends. First, I am ALL about gardens being designed to make their owner happy. So if you love them, keep them. But would you be happier with them gone? In a former dwelling, I inherited a bright pink azalea that I sort of didn't like. But it was healthy and big... then one day, I finally ripped it out, and planted a gorgeous bottlebrush buckeye in its place. It made me grin with pleasure every time I saw it. SO much better. I think especially in small gardens, you should LOVE every plant. So if you can think of something you'd like better in the same spot, I'd say rip 'em out and put in something that will make your heart go pitter-patter every time you see them.

  3. Okay, I've actually been known to invoke the term "foundation plantings" because I think it goes two ways: 1) the foundation of your garden, which needs certain structural elements to be visually appealing, and 2) shrubs, etc. that serve to hide the often unattractive interface between the ground and the home. Of course you can do it with any plant type - it certainly doesn't have to be the tried and true NW faves.

    For the specific shrubs you have, I think it's all about what works for you. There's a challenge in accepting the existing plants (or at least some of them) and working them into your vision of your own style and plant groupings.

    Besides, nostalgia is in the eye of the beholder: If the rhody and the camellia make you feel all warm and fuzzy, keep them and maybe make even more of them by creative pruning to show their structure as they continue to grow.

    But I'm not a pieris fan, so I personally would be yanking those suckers out ASAP. I know: totally heartless!

  4. Oh my what a question and not one for me to answer...My gardens are truly a place to put the plants I of it are coming together to look like the gardener had an inkling of an idea of what she was doing...everywhere else...long term storgage? lol If you do decide to take up any of those plants I'm sure you could offer them to a nursery or another gardener in your area...I do believe there should be some element of nostalgia in any garden, well designed or otherwise.

  5. Dig, dig, dig. Pull, pull, pull. Repaint any bishop's weed returning.

    Foundation plants planted too close to the foundation? Can you relocate them elsewhere? Camellias can grow to tree size in the right place. The one you show is close enough to espalier -- they take pruning well.

    Grow what pleases your eye.

  6. I always love when "zone envy" rears its ugly head, since in the Southeast, we would KILL for a rhododendron like that!

    With reference to the garden, if you're not going for that "designed" look, I think what matters most is that the garden brings pleasure to YOU.

  7. Consider yourself lucky ,you only inherited one each of these plants..I've got 6 Rhodies, 4 Azaleas and 4 Pieris !!!....sometimes one needs to be ruthless.

  8. I think it's your garden and you should keep them if you like them. What I do with my inherited foundation shrubs is a lot of annual, judicious pruning. Most of the time these shrubs have really nice trunks that can be showcased with all the extra lower branching taken off. Just a thought. I really like the color of those Rhododendron flowers and I'm not a huge fan of the shrub either.

  9. Ryan, "If I replace them with new shrubs I like more, they will be smaller, and the absence will be conspicuous" hit on something else there, I totally agree. I like your one at a time idea.

    Greensparrow, funny you should mention a bright pink Azalea! Guess what I used to have 2 of? Those got their marching orders right away!!! (shortly after the roses and daisies).

    MulchMaid, great definitions of foundation plantings!!! They are a little better pruned than shows in the pictures, but still a point worth remembering. And what's with all the Pieris hating!!!???

    Darla, we had some overgrown ugliness removed from the north side of our home last summer. I was very happy that the fellow doing the removal wanted all of the ferns. I hate to see plants go to waste.

    NellJean, espalier Camellia! I never thought of that. I like it. If I were to repaint all the bishops weed I would be at it 24/7 for the next 6 months...I don't have it in me.

    Tim, guess what...I have two of them! (one front garden and one back). And thank you for your remark about it mattering most to me, I agree but can always stand to be reminded of that.

    Lynda, actually those were just the topic of this post. I have 2 HUGE Rhodys, 2 Pieris, 1 Camellia and I had (past tense) two of the biggest Azaleas you'd ever want to see. Those went away the first year.

  10. Now THIS is a post to ponder over. I think the answer is YES! I think a well-designed garden is a one that makes the gardener happy. I think too often gardeners (myself inlcuded) get too wrapped up in the "idea" of what our gardens are (and should be) and forget to step back to consider whether all of that is what we really want and enjoy, or merely arbitrary ideals that we've convinced ourselves are desirable. I guess that's a long way of saying do what makes you happy! If you really love them, you'll find a way to make them fit in with your aesthetic...or appreciate how they stand apart. I know how you feel though, inherited foundations shrubs are like a hot poker in the eye at times...if I could pull mine out tomorrow, I would...well, maybe :-)

  11. When we moved in, I took no prisoners with the foundation plants. They all went, but the previous owners were not kind enough to leave me any nice plants like yours did.

  12. I was brutal about ripping out the previous homeowner's plants when I moved in... though, they had things that were bad choices for Tucson and even with the irrigation system running regularly, they were half dead. So out came a couple trees and a lot of bushes.

    And, they left behind a garden gnome. The snob in me had always been anti-gnome, but I grew attached to it. So it remains as a reminder that I wasn't the first gardener here, perhaps like a little monument to the previous owners. Does that make my garden good design or bad design? Well, the garden makes me happy.... so as far as I'm concerned, that makes it good design. :)

  13. I'm trying to figure out what to do with my inherited foundation plants at the new house. This being Alaska, land of no imagination when it comes to builders putting in plants, means I have our ubiquitous lilacs to deal with. If nothing else, they badly need a haircut.... The red twig dogwood is getting cut to the ground. That should buy me what, a month before I should decide whether they stay or go. I don't complain though. That is the entire list of plants in my garden so far. Rather dreadful, no?

    Christine in Alaska, no rhodies or Pieris

  14. Everything that was in this yard when I moved in except for 1 Camelia, and 'Jeanne Lajoie' , a miniature climbing rose. I particularly don't miss the Escallonias -blech!

    I say take those plants you have become attached too and make vignettes that feature plants you love. Not sure the Pieris can be saved however.

  15. I have a love/hate relationship with our Rhododendrons and Camellias as well. I do like having the evergreen structure as a backdrop and once established they are indestructible....

    Poor Rhoddy, it's hard to be so un-hip!

    Wyatt's mom

  16. I understand people's enjoyment of Rhodies for their flowers, their evergreen-ness and the place they hold in the landscape. They have a 'presence' that you respond to. If you were to use them as placeholders and plant other things you like around or under them and create a vignette, like ks said, you might feel differently when you look at them. For me, that's what really matters -- how you feel every time you walk by.

  17. You are entirely too modest. Every glimpse I have seen of your garden screams "designer", or at least "good eye". Anyway, you might want to visit the Japanese Garden to see how they have pruned their camellias, and Joy Creek for the Rhody's. In both cases they have been opened up in such a way that the trunks and branches are very architectural/sculptural, instead of the blobby things they so often are.

  18. I loved this post :) I went to school in PDX and we lived in a house that had a HUGE Rhodadendron bush. To me, they are such a wonderful 'Portland' plant. Thank you for sharing!

  19. scott, as always I love what you have to what are yours?

    Les, oh god...that has me wondering what you ended up with?

    Les ( are a new Les!)... "Well, the garden makes me happy.... so as far as I'm concerned, that makes it good design"...and gnome too! Please come by and comment more often!

    Christine B, oh god...I am humble in your presence. I get all upset thinking about a California garden, I have NO IDEA how I would make it in Alaska...

    ks, you too with the Pieris hatred? Why????

    Wyatt's mom, I think that is part of what I love about the Rhody...that is is so unhip and rather grandma!

    Willow, actually I agree completely. I love our Rhody's...not always the case. I just wondered if they would look like they belonged.

    Ricki, I need to have you over to visit this summer to get that idea right out of your head! And I thank you for the idea of pruning's a good one!

    Anne, I am glad to hear this! Thank you for commenting.

  20. It's your garden.

    I love the nostalgia plants, I'd surround myself with peonies and primroses and iris...

    It sounds like what you are really asking is if you should design a transition from one mood to another. I'd need to review some overall shots of your place to give you any ideas in that direction.

    Finish painting, take some pics, come back and ask this again.


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