ET phone home.
Who can forget those heart-felt words uttered by the most appealing extraterrestrial in the history of film? Despite this clear warning, it took Elliott declining to the point of near-death and an entire squadron of hazmat docs in shiny silver suits to finally realize what we smart movie-goers had figured out long before: ET simply couldn’t survive in an alien environment. Why then, do we insist on choosing plants for our garden that we know full well don’t want to live there?There are plenty of reasons for this. Although my clients count on me to be firm in the face of zone denial when drawing up their planting plans, I confess I've been sedued by a flashy nursery temptress or two in my own garden. A far more common reason that they yearn for inappropriate plants happens to be the topic of this month’s Garden Designers Roundtable: the connection between gardens and memory.
I’ve been a California girl since the age of 11, and growing up I saw first hand how powerfully motivating the desire to re-create a familiar environment can be. Since moving here from the east coast, the first thing my mother has done at every house she’s lived in is to plant an insane number of trees, all in an effort to reproduce the dappled green light of the leafy, wooded landscape she left behind. No amount of tree planting will transform a sun-drenched, water-parched California vista into the humid, humus-y landscape of North Carolina, however, and over the years she has gradually come to embrace at least a few of the plants that make our local gardens unique. (But only a few. To her way of thinking, succulents rock, but ornamental grasses are simply a vast horticultural conspiracy to get gardeners to pay money for weeds.)
If you also find yourself pining for the pines of your youth at the expense of plant choices that reflect your current cultural conditions, there is a way to bridge the gap. Simply look for plants that share the characteristics of your long-time favorites, and your garden can continue to be a haven for treasured memories--but without the need for excessive amounts of water, fertilizers or amendments to keep it humming along. The trick is to figure out what it is about the plant that makes it special, and choose something zone-appropriate for your new home that offers the same experience.
Lilac photo by Peter Roome
For example, with our mild winters here in the West, lilac shrubs (Syringa vulgaris) do not flourish. You can still plant them--simply brace yourself for a long term commitment to extreme life support, including mulching with ice cubes to replicate winter’s chill. Or, warm-weather gardeners can consider these replacements:
If it’s the sight of vibrant violet flowers that makes you misty with memory, why not try one of the many California lilac varieties (Ceanothus sp.)? Covered with blooms in colors ranging from pale purple to the true blue seldom seen in garden flowers, Ceanothus has the added advantages of being evergreen, thriving on little to no water and attracting bees like…well…bees to California lilac.
Ceanothus Impressus 'Vandenberg', photo courtesy of J.G.
Alternately you can go lilacs one better, and opt for butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.). Just as lilacs put on a spectacular show in spring, only to lapse into slovenly ways later if not regularly groomed and pruned, by the end of the summer, butterfly bush has a deserved reputation for overpowering a garden with its large and leggy ways. But newer cultivars including those from the Buzz series sport the same over-sized blossoms on compact, well-behaved frames and bloom their hearts out from spring to first frost, long after a lilac’s flowers are a distant memory.
Buddleleja 'Buzz Lavender' available from Thompson & Morgan
Who can resist the legendary perfume of sweet-smelling lilacs? Although it blooms a bit earlier in winter, California gardeners should consider sweetbox (Sarcococca ruscifolia) a worthy alternative. Thriving in dry part-sun to shade, its shiny, dark green foliage is complemented by delicately scented white flowers in February and March. Plant it close to the front door to give visitors to your home a sweet surprise.
Another way to channel the old-fashioned charm of lilacs is to choose equally old-fashioned and deeply-scented sweet peas. To get that heady, springtime perfume, avoid six packs of newer cultivars and plant nostalgic varieties from seed. Opt for highly fragrant choices in shades of purple like ‘Mary Lou Heard’, which is available along with many other old-fashioned favorites from Renee’s Garden.
Images courtesy of Renee's Garden
If you're even more daring, go for a scent that will honor the past while creating a whole new set of memories. African blue basil blooms non-stop until first frost in mild climates, and will entice you with its intoxicating herbal aroma every time you brush past. Just remember you will be sharing the wealth with the bees. My one modest specimen continues to attract them in droves in late November--an astonishing eight months after I tucked it into a spare pot.
For the purist who must have the original
If the only way to evoke cherished memories is with the real McCoy, then at least be judicious in how you add a favorite plant to your garden. Don’t follow Oprah’s example, who chose to honor her (mid-West) grandmother’s memory by planting 100 hydrangeas in the inappropriate, inhospitable environment of her Southern California estate. Settle for just one, and plant it in a pot so that any specialized care can be easily and sustainably managed. Or better yet, do your research, as there may be a cultivar more suited to your region. Syringa meyeri ‘Palbin’ not only will bloom in the absence of a pronounced winter chill, but tops out at four or five feet tall and wide, making it a good choice for more modest-sized California gardens.
Photo by Elke Borkowski for Monrovia
I've used lilacs as an example, but similar options exist for any number of plants. If you’re intrigued by this approach to bridging the gap between the past and present, I strongly recommend you check out Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?: 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants by fellow Garden Designer Roundtable writer Andrew Keys. Andrew offers substitutes for a huge selection of garden favorites that grow in a range of USDA zones. How do I know his plant choices are good ones? Because he also thinks California lilac and butterfly bush are solid alternatives to lilacs. But you’ll have to buy the book to find out his third selection…
To read what other designers have to say about memory and plants, check out these Garden Designers Roundtable posts: