Defining Ideal Plants for Your Ideal Garden
By George Graine, Fairfax Master Gardener
Landscaping is not a complex and difficult art to be practiced only by high priests. It is logical, down-to-earth, and aimed at making your plot of ground produce exactly what you want and need from it.
— Thomas Church in Gardens Are for People (1955)
Kelly Norris, author of Plants with Style: A Plantsman’s Choices for a Vibrant, 21st Century Garden (Timber Press, 2015), has written what he calls “a manifesto for modern gardening.” An ideal starting place is the end of this book: the single-page Conclusion sums up the author’s challenge to not just garden with a purpose but garden with a purpose with you as the center of your own garden universe. Norris accounts for the current vogue of sustainability, biodiversity, and ecological principles. At the same time, he has written a “… sassy, punchy, irreverent look at fresh plant choices for modern gardens, with sidelong glances, along the way, at how gardening is more relevant than ever to our quality of life.” In other words, the author advances a sort of garden revolution by paying attention to plants that will thrive and at the same time emphasizes plants with “personality.” Of course, you need to consider your landscape environment, as well as seek plants that will provide seasonal color and structure to reach the gardener’s nirvana: something of interest through all four seasons. But go ahead and consider plants that have a certain oddity that makes them unique choices.
Unlike many how-to garden texts, this book takes a philosophical approach to gardening that goes beyond the familiar shorthand of right plant, right place. Throughout the book the author emphasizes gardening with purpose — suggesting this as a new mantra for the modern era. Norris celebrates ecology by truly believing in a partnership with Mother Nature. One conclusion to be drawn from the book is that one should not become burdened (hindered?) by so-called garden rules. Instead, buck them and learn from your results. You might be quite surprised. Cultivate your inner plant geek, and garden in a way that makes sense to you. Try some of the newer plants, and you may find they deserve great recognition.
As you probably realize by now, Plants with Style is not your typical garden book that adheres to topics such as plant growth, sun and shade, and soil type. Instead, the Norris approach to garden writing is essay-like, which you may find more interesting. Often a book’s table of contents is uninspiring; not so, however, with this book. Its atypical nature makes you want to read what’s between the covers. To give you a flavor of the contents listing, here are the chapter headings — with a few comments of my own. More intriguing than a by-the-numbers systematic approach to plant descriptions, don’t you think?
- Environment: Planting at the Intersection of Place and Ecology
Embrace: Planting with What Grows Around You
Create: Making the Garden with What You Have
- Structure: Living Framework
This section is about trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and high- and low-level plants
- Emblems: Keeping Pace with the Seasons
An interesting approach to four-season gardening that starts with winter
- Vignettes: Expressing Yourself in the Garden
This is where plant personality and the gardener come together
- Essential Kitsch: Horticultural Odds and Ends
An interesting take on some garden oddities and more
To sum up, Plants with Style is a provocative garden book. It will bring you up-to-date on how the botanical world is forever changing and how you can change along with it. It is your quarter-acre (or more) of the world, so why not awaken your inner self to the possibilities that are available as close as your garden center or online source? If you are open to a new adventure in gardening, you can make this transformation, and you have Kelly Norris to thank for such an eye-opening, informative book.