True collectors keep buying plants

Garden Muse

I start by buying lots of plants that speak to me. I don't think about where I will put them - I just have to have them. No matter how clearly I know there's no more room for new plants, when I see a shrub such as golden-leaved 'Little Honey' oakleaf hydrangea or red-stemmed 'Showy Lantern' enkianthus, sooner or later, I will take it home.

The first time I might resist. Say if the price is sky high, I might tell myself to wait until next year. Sometimes I hold out until the second time I run into the plant before I give in. But probably before I even leave the nursery, it's in my cart. Especially if there are only two or three on the display table, and for sure if there's only one.

Recently I came across 'Mariken' ginkgo that I'd seen two years ago in Holland. It's a dwarf, a shrubby version of the ginkgo tree, with adorable rounded fan-shaped leaves and a compact shape. There was only one plant in a gallon can. I gasped at the price, then immediately began to rationalize. It cost only as much as a bag of groceries, and would make me happy for much longer. Besides, I was paying for the efforts of a grower, nursery employees, water, fertilizer … why it was a steal!

In just this way I collect shrubs, perennials, even trees. Usually, I like to buy small plants and repot them into larger containers, tending them with care. That's part of the fun: watching them grow, contemplating where they will go, daydreaming about what other plants they will combine with well.

Out with the old

At this point, with a garden that's nearly 25 years old, bringing in new gems means removing old ones. Last year, I dug up a huge colonizing shrub rose from a bed that was once sunny and was now shady. In the fall my neighbors brought by cartloads of leaves, which I layered with steer manure, coffee grounds, alfalfa meal and bonemeal. I herded worms into the bed, carrying them from the lower compost pile to their new playground.

Now I looked at the blank slate, staring at the soil while imagining a variety of plants that would like the shade, and would associate well together. With my huge stash of plants waiting on the patio, I didn't have to shop.

I took a first stab at the layout by digging some holes, plopping some plants in them (still in their pots), then covering the pot rims with old leaves. That gave me a chance to look them over for a day or two before committing. Just for fun, I asked my husband Tom to take a peek too. Although he's not a gardener, he has a good eye for shapes and textures.

I'd included a 'Kimberly' camellia, the 'Red Lantern' enkianthus, several golden-variegated hostas and a few lacy ferns. I'd add bulbs later this fall.

'Are you planning to put a little path through so people can see these plants?' Tom asked.

'Well, they'll grow taller, in time,' I said. But he was right. Compared to the plants nearby - a huge silver willow casting shade, a large viburnum, and a row of floral carpet roses in front of this area, where it was sunnier - these new plants were tiny. Only the visiting neighbor cat Mr. Blondie and I would ever know they were there.

I mulled it over, stewing about alternatives all evening. I had plenty of taller hydrangeas in pots, but they wouldn't get enough moisture or enough light to bloom beneath the willow. Tom and I watched a comedy that night, which distracted me, but I fell asleep thinking about the unfinished project.

'Did you know you woke up at 4 a.m. talking about plants?' Tom said the next morning.

'I did?'

'Yeah, you said hydrangeas would never work there, but you had a better idea.'

'What was it?' I asked, hopefully.

'I can't remember, but you were mumbling about plants for a long time.'

I vaguely remembered this, but the solution was gone. However in the shower it came back. Several variegated boxwoods I'd started from cuttings seven years ago were waiting for a home. They could take shade, didn't need much water, and would light up the bed. The dark green camellia would go well with them. I might transplant some tough Solomon's seal and a few hardy ferns from another garden bed. But first, I would sleep on it.

Coming events

Oregon Garden hosts 'Surprises from Summer Cutting Gardens,' a lecture by Linda Beutler, author of Garden to Vase, on how to grow flowers and foliage for cutting, and flower arranging, 10 a.m., July 24. The fee of $15 includes admission to the Oregon Garden, 879 West Main St., Silverton, Ore., 97381. Tickets may be purchased in advance at or by calling 503-874-8100, or at the door.