I admit that I have a little crush--the harmless schoolgirl kind--on Frank Ronan. The columns that he writes for the back page of Gardens Illustrated often leave my wheels spinning in circles... and I will always have a soft spot for a man who makes me think. In the June issue, Frank related the experience of having an (unidentified) expert visit his garden. As this guru walked around, one of his compliments sent Frank into a tailspin. To his horror, he realized that what the gentleman meant was that his garden was bitty. Bitty. You know, "A little bit of this, a little bit of that..."
Well, reading Frank's words put me into a tailspin of my own. Could my garden be bitty, too? Even thinking the word made me irritated because of its stingy connotations, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Frank had put his finger on the reason I have been largely unsatisfied with some areas of my yard. And why "thickly planted" wasn't always translating to "lush and generous" as I had wanted.
For the past couple of years, since moving to a small urban plot, my aim had been high contrast. I figured that I needed to maximize the impact of every individual plant in the yard by showing off the leaf texture, habit, and flowers of each against a foil. Some plants were repeated throughout the garden in an effort to achieve some sense of rhythm and continuity, but always they were surrounded with different, contrasting colors and textures.
After chewing on its implications for several weeks, I reread Frank's article last night and then walked around my yard. My dawning understanding that combining areas of high contrast and areas of low contrast are... well, a good contrast... made me want to make at least a few minor adjustments yet this year. I tried to think about it in terms of allowing some plant combinations to be the main attraction, and making others lead your eye to that painting--or at least serve as a complimentary mat around it.
One of the first things that I did was a relatively easy fix. The retaining block wall that I had built planting pockets into this spring had a jumble of things planted on its upper edge. The gray creeping germander and the wooly thyme are at least the same shade of gray-blue, but there was also a green sedum between the little bluestem grasses and a cascading rosemary smack dab in the middle of the wall. These greens interrupted the repetition and line of the brick wall and just kind of felt awkward and jumbled.
So I relocated the rosemary and the sedum, moved the germander over in front of the little bluestem in spit of my concerns about too much of the same color there, and filled in the rest of the space with more wooly thyme. The second picture was taken when I was midway through the project, but I think you can already tell that it is going to be an improvement.
Then I went over to the driveway bed, which I had optimistically been thinking of as "a funky riot of color, Pacific Northwest style." Yup. Definitely lots of bitty going on there. A solitary 'Brise d'Anjou' jacob's ladder was moved next to a scaly Brackler fern to echo the leaf shape, and was thus made to seem more "unique" and less "orphan." Two of my cimicifugas were sited about three feet apart, but the third was located about 8 feet down the same bed... now all three are living more closely together, with room in between for a couple of large leaf plants (maybe green brunnera or hardy begonia) of the same kind to tie them together.
As the sun started to set, I quickly pulled out all of my 'Whiskey' wax begonias for one last fix. Instead of planting them in drifts or clumps, I had used them singly to fill in empty spaces. Eek. This might have worked better with a spreading plant like petunias that would eventually give the impression of groundcover, but with wax begonias it just made the garden look... well, you know. So after they were all out and laid neatly in a row on the driveway, I went back through and found a half dozen places were I could clump 3 or 4 of them together, then replanted. You can see three of those clumps next to the fern and polemonium combination in the third picture.
There are a few more things to move, and a few more things to think about moving before I actually go at it again with a shovel. There may be things that I decide not to move at all, to keep some repetition in the garden and make sure I don't lose all of the contrast. But I have a good feeling that my efforts thus far--and just keeping in mind that I want to avoid being bitty--are going to help the garden look much better in the long run. It may take another 3 or 4 years and quite a few more mistakes, but I hope to get there.