As a garden designer I frequently see newer gardeners make plant choices that I shake my head at. With experience comes the knowledge that some of the basic choices presented by nurseries and big box stores are not only uninteresting, but often not really the best choice for other reasons, too. Disease resistance, hardiness, or how easy the plants are to grow are often factors that seem to be disregarded in the choices. Many times the reason those plants are there is because they fill our collective memory; we all think we know something about them and have a sentimentality that drives us to buy.
Part of the fun of being a designer is introducing a client to a new plant that surprises them and excites them in a way that helps them forget the pain-in-the-butt fiddly plant that they think they want to grow (just because their mom did). My friend Andrew has recently written a whole book about this very subject. It's called Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?: 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants, and in it he proposes lots of ideas for better alternatives to the standard selection. He is one of my go to guys for plant questions and is one of the most knowledge plant people I know, so I thought I would share with you a recent conversation between the two of us — cause you can always learn something when you eavesdrop on a couple of gardeners.
Rochelle Greayer: Here are my 3 most annoyingly over used plants...what would you tell people to replace them with? Rhododenrons, Arborvitae, Japanese maples.
Andrew Keys: Rhododendrons: if you can grow 'em, you can probably grow mountain laurel, and it's forever one of those underused gems in the landscape. I'd love to see it planted more.
RG: Oh - I always get seduced by the images of Mountain Laurels but then find them to not be as exciting in real life as I expect - (that happens so often!) - I think it's because the flowers are often tucked so deep into the foliage. Any that you can recommend that have the showy factor that I sometimes crave?
AK: I think mountain laurel is definitely a plant that comes into its own after it's planted! My go-to for mountain laurel what's what is Broken Arrow Nursery (pretty local to us in New England, in Connecticut, but also mail-order). Dick Jaynes, its founder, is THE expert on this plant in the U.S. They have a new introduction on their site now called 'Firecracker' that looks like it lives up to its name.
For arborvitae, there's a great tall, narrow cultivar of eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) called 'Taylor' I'm a little obsessed with now. Deer tend to look at arborvitae as the best buffet ever, and only go for cedar as an absolute last resort. If all your neighbors are planting arborvitae and you plant 'Taylor', you're probably in the clear. It's better for hot, dry sites too.
RG: I like the look of that one -- adding it to my spring plant buying list!
AK: So Japanese maples: I swing back and forth, but they look so distinct that I find it hard to plant one without having "a Japanese maple garden." Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) is really interesting and underused.
RG: Until you said that I don't think I fully understood my contempt for the Japanese maple. The reality is that I enjoy my own Japanese maple very much and can totally understand why everyone loves them -- but it is one of those plants that really needs to paid special attention to. You can't just slap one in a border and not expect it be the star that it is....and that is where I start to find it annoying. It is so often placed in a way that undermines its quality and specialness. It's one of those plants that just can't help but be a scene stealer, and sometimes scene stealers (who aren't properly managed) can be really annoying.
AK: Yes! That's it exactly. Japanese maples seem to blend so well at first glance, but then I realize I'm finding it hard to pay attention to anything else in the tableau. My top three annoying plants: first is burning bush (Euonymus alatus). People in Massachusetts BEMOAN the fact that it's a banned invasive species now. Plant some blueberries, folks! Or 'Henry's Garnet' itea! They're great too, they'll play much nicer with your other plants, and they don't want to take over the world.
RG: Ha! Burning Bush IS the Twinkie of the garden world -- in that we all knew it wasn't that great from the beginning - in fact they kinda sucked - but now that we can't get it, it's all anyone wants.
AK: Yes! And they seem so benign, until you try to plant something under them, or realize there's an army growing in the woods out back. Second on my list is mophead hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla). Yeah, I said it — just call me Madonna. I loathe hydrangeas, but only the plain ol' mopheaded kind, especially when there are so many tougher, more interesting hydrangeas to be had: mountain hydrangeas like 'Bluebird; smooth hydrangea cultivars like Invincibelle® Spirit; peegees like Little Lime™ and oakleaf hydrangeas like 'Little Honey'. They all give you that hydrangea fix.
RG: Wait - Madonna doesn't like Hydrangeas? Says who?
AK: Says Madonna! Remember in 2011 when a mic she didn't know was on caught her dissing hydrangeas at the Venice Film Festival? And then she taunted hydrangea fans further with a faux apology? Solidarity, Madge. I'm so over mopheads. Third for me would be hybrid tea roses. I mean, duh. Especially when there are so many great disease-resistant roses to be had these days.
RG: Wow - how did I miss that Madonna hydrangea thing??? But really, do you actually know anyone planting hybrid tea roses these days?
AK: It's shocking, isn't it? But it's true.
RG: I'm sick of a few other things, like Lime Green Potato Vine in Containers — even though I love chartreuse. What would you do instead?
AK: Why not try 'Tiger Eyes' sumac instead? It's a great container plant.
RG: Love that! Would I have to move it out of the container later - won't it get big?
AK: Keep it on the dry side and in part shade (it'll be more chartreuse in shade too), in a large container, and it'll be a long time before you do. And even then, you could divide off a bit to reboot your container.
RG: Are you a grass guy or do you think there are better options than a lawn?
AK: I'm not not a grass guy, but is there anything more high-maintenance? I hate mowing the lawn. There are so many better options out there now. The only reason I haven't replaced my whole lawn is that removing it is no picnic either, and other yard tasks have had to take priority.
RG: I have to admit -- I get weird satisfaction out of making perfect patterns with the mower. Am I the only one who takes great joy in this? I just wish those lines weren't so ephemeral. But I feel lucky that I live in a place where my lawn requires nothing other than the mowing — no watering, and I don't treat it with anything and it is as fine as I like it (which isn't exactly bowling lawn perfection). Mowing I can handle (I really do find it meditative)… its the other stuff I loathe. If I lived somewhere that required all this, I'd have to give it up.
AK: I think a lot of people enjoy mowing, and that's a good thing, as long as their lawn isn't environmentally detrimental, like you said. The chores that come with gardening should be able to be fun somehow. If you find they never are, I'm all for looking at ways to nix them altogether.
RG: And what is your favorite plant-y thing right now?
AK: My favorite plant-y thing right now, since it's winter, is plotting and planning for the year ahead. What new stuff will I plant? How should I rearrange things? My garden may always be a living canvas that's never finished, but I like it that way.
RG: Yeah, me too.
(Images: Andrew Keys)