Landscaping Your Way

By George Graine, Fairfax Master Gardener
“If you are not killing plants, you are not really stretching yourself as a gardener.”
— J.C. Raulston (1940-1996), Founder of J.C. Raulston Arboretum, NCSU

book coverAt last, a book you may have been waiting for has been written by Loree Bohl. It is called “Fearless Gardening: Be Bold, Break the Rules, Grow What You Love” (Timber Press, 2021). Before the introductory chapter, Bohl includes a few words that set the stage for what is to come in the next 250+ pages including beautiful color photos that help get her points across. She writes: “To every gardener who has ever thought, but I can’t or I shouldn’t, yes you can and yes you should.” There you have it — permission granted! This book is a here-to-fore way to garden that you may not have previously considered. Think of yourself as an iconoclast. Surely not a word associated with horticulture; however, this is what it takes to be a fearless gardener. For gardeners this word can be defined as: an image breaker and one who assails traditional landscape beliefs that some may refer to as “garden commandments.” Why is the opening quote to this article so appropriate? Because Bohl is spot on when she writes, “Experimentation is at the core of building a garden. It’s only through trial and error and dead plants that you discover what works.”

To get a flavor of “Fearless Gardening,” below are just a few chapter headings that will empower and inspire you to do your own thing in the garden. You will quickly realize there are other ways to garden because now you have been given “permission” to break the rules. For example:

  • There is No Right Way to Garden
  • Create a Garden You Love
  • Explore the Possibilities
  • Grow the Unexpected

In other words, set aside those illustrated pre-planned landscape designs that often appear in popular horticulture magazines and other sources. For sure, all appear to have a nice appearance and are most likely an easily achieved landscape or garden bed. Now ask yourself a serious question: Do these designs reflect who you are and your personality? If the answer is NO, then consider designing a garden that pleases you and creates your own personal space. Think happy plants = happy gardeners.

The point of “Fearless Gardening” is for you to look at your plants in a different way. Those pre-planned designs noted above are not particularly inspiring. Forget trying to impress your community. Your garden should be about selfishly pleasing yourself. On becoming a fearless gardener, you will challenge yourself and experiment. Do not become overly concerned if “it” does not work as planned or imagined. For some, you have permission (that word again) to do your own thing unless you happen to live in a HOA community and must garden by their hidebound regulations. You need to get over fear of failure and take chances. Of course you want to achieve success, but with some failure, as in many things about life comes an understanding. If you get bored looking at some plants, do not fret. Perhaps the plant du jour will brighten your day and your garden, too. There is no end in sight because plant propagators continue to tantalize us every year with new, different and improved plants. Think new plants and new ideas. Stay true to your dreams and fashion them into a garden reality.

Another way to consider this book is to avoid the way we were probably taught as children to only draw inside the lines in a coloring book. Is it possible that this learned behavior tends to stifle garden creativity? Is this the reason why the words “garden commandments” noted earlier insist on the boundaries of a landscape design? Who is to say this is the right thing to do? Fortunately, no teacher is leaning over your shoulder now and going tut-tut. Consider your garden creation over time. Do you still like it? Perhaps a tweak here and there could be just the cherry on the top. You have so many opportunities to be creative with plants as well as with garden art. It is never too late to plan your new personal space.

Fearless gardening also means you can grow a diversity of plants and not adhere to the standard of odd number of 3-5-7 plants of the same variety. Consider plant pollinators, evergreens — broad-leafed and needled, trees with interesting bark, ornamental grasses, ferns, flowering shrubs and, not to be forgotten, flowers and bulbs. Also, consider all four seasons and how some plants will look when leafless. You might even consider how the garden looks in the moonlight. This can be so enchanting along with the sounds that you do not hear in the daytime.

In summary, gardening in a fearless way is really a paradox. Initially you probably think you are in complete control but then Mother Nature steps in. This can be good or unfortunately not exactly what you had envisioned when you decided to take on some planting risks. It is easy to reclaim control by adjusting your design ideas. With a few new plant purchases, this may now result in the garden you anticipated. You must be bold, go ahead and break the rules and of course, grow what you love.