Blooming Biases

Blooming Biases

Blooming Biases - Plants that will never make my "A" list

Ok, I admit it. I am guilty of prejudice. Plant prejudice, that is. Some may call me a snob, looking down my nose (which is tough, considering that it turns up at the end) at some poor innocent flower, for some poor, insubstantial and stereotypical reason - such as "I don't like it".

I'm not talking about the garden thugs like mint, that once invited in, take over and show themselves unworthy of your gesture of hospitality. I'm talking about perfectly good plants that for some reason have failed to make my "A" list when I drew up invitations to my garden beds.

And what are my reasons?

Well, they vary from plant to plant, actually - but here are a few examples.

One of the first flowers that I turned my already turned up nose at were those of the Impatiens family. They bored me. Ours is a shady street, and the front yards are inhabited almost exclusively by impatiens. It's like they are the "in" family - and I tend to avoid fads. And it's no wonder the selection of annuals at local nurseries tends to be so abysmal. No one will consider anything else!

So I considered it my civic duty not to buy impatiens, but instead to ask for interesting annuals like osteospermum or scaveola. Year by year, the selection of annuals widened a bit. Pretty soon the Nicotianas (the hybrid, unscented kind), Pansies, Petunias, Coleus and Dusty Miller were available - although in my humble opinion they haven't any more special flair than impatiens. Then last year I went to a local nursery and found scaveola. So the party prospects are improving.

Confession: Last year I allowed a few white impatiens into my yard. I didn't really mean to, but I read that it would bloom in deep shade. My husband's garden isn't just in deep shade - it's in the dark! So I figured I'd give impatiens a try and do you know what? It bloomed! And it looked absolutely lovely among the ferns and hellebores. Considerate, adaptable, modestly lovely - suddenly I began to understand why everyone was so fond of it.

That does not, however, mean that I will stop bugging the local nurseries to stock the exotic osteospermum! Just because impatiens turn out to be useful, easy care and attractive does not mean I want to settle for only them. I gave up wearing uniforms after high school, and I refuse to dress my garden in one now. I value individuality very highly.

Another plant that was relegated to my "B" list for years was Hosta. I adopted one poor slug-riddled orphan because the lady across the street was discarding it, and it languished under a lilac, alone and ignored. In our neighborhood, if someone wants a companion for impatiens, they plant hosta. Plain green ones, who apparently couldn't be bothered to dress for the occasion. I think it's the Chinchilla, PA version of the passalong plant. B-O-R-I-N-G! And boring was not my idea of a good guest. But sometimes you have to get to know someone to appreciate them.

One reason I never looked any further into hosta is because at the time my gardens were in full sun. So I never even ventured near the shade houses at the local nurseries. But when I saw an ad looking for a garden writer to write about shade plants I thought hard and volunteered to write on the one shade plant I grew. Off I trotted to my favorite nursery to buy a hosta book. On my way, I paid a visit to the shade house to "get to know" my subject. And there I discovered a new world - blues, golds, chartreuses, stripes, skinny leaves, fat leaves, heart-shaped ones, tiny plants and unbelievable giants. A family of amazing versatility!

I was hooked! I thought of how well the blue 'Halcyon' would get along with my heucheras and Japanese painted ferns, and I realized how few 'Sum and Substances' it would take to fill the bare area of my side yard under the maple tree; I realized what an interesting companion 'Kabitan' would make in the garden with the golden sedges and deep green rhododendrons - and bang! Another bias bit the dust.

So while plain old boring makes for a poor party guest, useful and dependable - or full of unexpected variety - will get you inside in a trice!

Probably my most unreasonable prejudice was against the color red. Loud guests offend me - and red is about as loud as you can get. Anyway, I just don't like it, which seemed reason enough to exclude it from the garden. I think it began with the displays of red and yellow tulips people seem so fond of planting and which so remind me of catsup and mustard. My dislike also stemmed from the fact that my palette is primarily pastels, with some deep purple foliage as the accent. To invite in a red flower would be like asking Jezebel to the convent!

But that purple foliage did me in. I spotted an unlabeled plant at the nursery with gorgeous purple-black foliage and a hairy stem and asked the owner what it was. He described all the merits of that particular Lobelia cardinalis with unbridled enthusiasm. I put it back emphatically; he pulled it back out. I protested that I didn't want anything with a red flower; he shoved it into my hand. When I said no again, more firmly, he said "I'm giving it to you! Take it!!"

I took it.

Smart move on his part. When that plant bloomed it was one of the most glorious sights I've ever seen. Purple and red, I kept repeating over and over. Purple and red! Who'da thunk??" And so it was back to the nursery for red daylilies and castor beans, burgundy-leafed cannas and other jewel-colored plants to go along with it. One bright red plant inspired a whole new guest list and a new type of party in my pond area. A brilliant and exciting party, I have to admit. Yup - who'da thunk it??

So I am not an unredeemable snob. I have been able to admit a few errors in judgment. But there are still a few plants that are not invited into my garden anymore.

Roses as a whole was one category I used to ignore - until I discovered that there was life beyond the Hybrid tea. I wasn't interested in inviting in finicky plants that demanded constant pampering, feeding and even nursing. If you're sickly stay away from the festivities!

Now, Old Garden roses are a different story - many being hardy and disease resistant beyond belief, as well as wonderfully fragrant. So heirloom roses are in - but Hybrid Teas are definitely OUT!

So is Boltonia. I planted it once - and just like the catalog said, it erupted into what seemed like millions of blooms. But it was a poor mixer - it grew in such an awkward shape that I never did find a way to make it look integrated with the rest of the plantings. I have the same problem with Physostegia, although mine has never been the pest others claim it is; it is just so stiff and awkwardly upright that I can't relax just looking at it. They call it "The obedient plant" but passive resistance is more like it. These plants were misfits at the party I have assembled in my yard, although they may suit another sort of gathering quite nicely.

And I refuse to have those trite red salvias around, as I prefer some variety in my conversation. They are worse than my initial impression of impatiens, since they are both loud and banal. A gathering of 'same old same old' wears thing pretty quickly, but I suppose it functions as a security blanket for the non-garden types.

And how about the Cockscomb family (Celosia)? To me they look like fuzzy brains - and the obviously brainy are always a disaster at gatherings. Plus - they're hideous! With so many perfectly gorgeous plants out there, why on earth do people go out and buy flats of something that is just plain ugly???

Of course there are many plants that I will forever more avoid because they are so insistent, never giving you a moment's peace, and always warring with their fellow guests. Purple loosestrife, Silver King artemisia, and dwarf bamboo all fit here. Unless you are trying hard to cover a huge patch of ground quickly, you will quickly grasp my reasoning for excluding them from the party. But that is only common sense.

The rest has to do with my own biases, my particular personality, and the kinds of plants that I get long well with - and which get along well with each other. My kind of party is my kind of party - and I'll invite whom I want to. You are different - and so may have different criteria for your guest list. Partially it will be the personality of the plant, partially the personality of the plant-er. More than either, it will be the way the different plants can thrive and complement each other and create an enjoyable atmosphere in the particular setting that is your garden.

Perhaps this is just another instance of "right plant, right place" with a dash of personal preference thrown in - but isn't that what good gardening is really all about?

About the Author

Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.


About this Author