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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

See website, design work and favorite flowering plants at  gardengurumontreal.ca

Consultation and coaching for do-it-yourselfers is provided. Occasional emailed questions are welcome and answered free of charge. Oui, je parle francais.

See my work on Pinterest at Garden Guru Montreal

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Wednesday
Feb012012

Beautiful Plants: Can There Ever Be Too Many?

Azalea gardens, from cg1ngeorgia.com

When the renowned landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme died last December, one of his pet peeves was reported frequently in various tributes to his lifetime accomplishments. Oehme abhorred Azaleas. Not only did he find them ubiquitous, but he also found their green foliage boring after the shrub stopped blooming.

 I am not comfortable with his assessment.

Azalea closeup courtesy of 123rf.com

The first time I saw azaleas, I was overwhelmed with joy. I thought I had magically stepped into a Technicolor Walt Disney movie. It happened when I first visited Rockland County, New York at the height of the blooming season; I was euphoric. 

Once, azaleas were new to me. I had never seen them growing in my area - that is until recently, after they were bred to be winter-hardy. Some might say that if I had grown up in a temperate climate, where they grow abundantly, perhaps like Mr. Oehme, I too might tire of them.  

But I doubt that would ever happen. Those of us who are moved by colorful flowers will admire them where and when we can, no matter how short the time to enjoy them.

The family, including rhododendrons, is quite versatile. Its  many varieties have proven to be visually effective even when used as foundation plants. Flowering shrubs in this group create a win-win situation for the gardener. They provide lush clouds of vivid color in late spring, followed by a proscenium of green foliage that not only enhances later blooming perennials and also camouflages the homes’ foundations. I will never tire of using them.

Understandably, it is an aspect of human nature that ubiquitous plants will annoy some gardeners and turn a few of them into horticultural elitists. They observe the same plant used so often, and in so many locations, that they cannot  bear to look at it. The question remains: - why do the rest of us continue to plant them? Because they are reliable.

Wild eupatoreum, http://www.spacecoastwildflowers.com/2009_09_01_archive.html

Endless miles of native species of eupatorium, asclepias, and achillea that I observed as a child on summer holidays left me hating these native perennials. Later in life, I would deliberately avoid using them. Then, one day, I noticed new cultivars bred from these families, growing in a neighbor’s garden; I was impressed how attractive they appeared.

That inspired me to reconsider my attitude and I began to incorporate them into my work. When they were combined with other plants to create impressive combinations, they proved to be among the more dependable specimens in my flowerbeds. Now, they are the workhorses that help make my gardens beautiful.

Hemerocallis Stella d'Oro, http://www.willowaymarketing.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/plants.plantDetail/plant_id/103349/index.htm

A similar case can be made for Hemerocallis Stella d’Oro, and Knock Out Roses. They are considered by some to be good-old-reliables; they grow anywhere, pump out endless color, and return season after season with little effort from the gardener.

Knock Out Rose, http://www.perennialfarm.com/whatdowegrow/knockoutroses.html

That they have become ubiquitous should not make us cringe upon seeing them. They are effective wherever they are used. It is fortunate that, living in unpredictable and changing climates, we can count on them to awake and rebloom each season.

In deference to the late Mr. Oehme, I understand his reaction to the seas of azaleas he discovered when he first arrived in America from Europe. Perhaps it is because he took up residence in a temperate climate that he disliked them so. Wherever endless varieties of plants grow in abundance, one has the privilege of selecting and discarding them at will. After all, there are so many from which to choose that eliminating one or several from one’s repertoire is not a serious matter.

We northerners cannot behave so cavalierly in our gardens. We work with a restricted list of plants that withstand our cold climate and short growing season. Consequently, we are appreciative of all beautiful plants. No matter how often they occur in the gardens around us, we never tire of looking at them. We are just grateful.

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Reader Comments (6)

I too appreciate the evergreen azalea. They bloom later than the rhodies and have good leaf color all year. They also can take full sun and whatever winter has to offer.

Eileen

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGatsbys Gardens

A very interesting post, Allan. You raise some good points about whether overuse of plants should mean designers avoid those plants. You make the good point that if they work, why avoid them? To not use a perfectly good plant because it is widely used may be a form of snobbery.

Wolfgang was very opinionated about plants, particularly azaleas and variegated plants ("they look sick!"). I come from the deep South where azaleas were even more ubiquitous than in the mid-Atlantic and could understand his reaction to them. They were often sheared into bizarre shapes, and the explosion of reds mixed with oranges and bubblegum pinks created a riotous scene (not in the good way).

Of course, they are great plants. One of my more interesting projects while at Oehme, van Sweden was when we won the commission to redesign ten acre Azalea Garden at the New York Botanical Garden. It was not only a challenge because of the firm's aversion to them, but we had to figure out how to use perennials to underplant and plant around several thousand azaleas. It was fascinating to figure out how to use perennials to soften, accentuate, and highlight different aspects of the azalea collection. By the end of the project, I had come around again to azaleas.

I suppose the question of whether we should snub plants because they are overused is one we will continue to (warmly) debate. You make some excellent points about this. I generally love when anyone has a strong opinion about plants--love them or snub them. When we care enough to debate, it means we are treating what we do as an art.

Best, friend!

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

1] "When we care enough to debate, it means we are treating what we do as an art" What a profound statement! It might apply to any activity.
2] How ironic that the head of a firm that disliked azaleas, received a commission to design with them. It's a sign of greatness when one rises above one's prejudices in order to do one's best.

February 8, 2012 | Registered CommenterAllan

This post touches on a few interesting subjects. I know I've mentioned a few times on my blog that there are some plants that many (especially Portlanders) consider common and mundane...but that I love. Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Sedum...I just love them. Somehow, seeing them used in Mall parking lots and practically every public planting has robbed them of their "special" or "unique" status for many. I agree with your statement, however, something does not cease to be beautiful simply because it is common. It is a strange form of snobbery, which, I feel, only hurts those doing the snubbing. The endless quest of many gardeners to find something unique and different is ultimately in vain. It's not that we don't all get excited about new things, but uniqueness for it's own sake is an empty pursuit. I think the aversion many have to Azaleas and Rhodies is the awful, awful shapes they are usually pruned in. There is a large Rhododendron display garden near my house (Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden) where most of the plants are not butchered...and are quite lovely.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott Weber

This post touches on a few interesting subjects. I know I've mentioned a few times on my blog that there are some plants that many (especially Portlanders) consider common and mundane...but that I love. Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Sedum...I just love them. Somehow, seeing them used in Mall parking lots and practically every public planting has robbed them of their "special" or "unique" status for many. I agree with your statement, however, something does not cease to be beautiful simply because it is common. It is a strange form of snobbery, which, I feel, only hurts those doing the snubbing. The endless quest of many gardeners to find something unique and different is ultimately in vain. It's not that we don't all get excited about new things, but uniqueness for it's own sake is an empty pursuit. I think the aversion many have to Azaleas and Rhodies is the awful, awful shapes they are usually pruned in. There is a large Rhododendron display garden near my house (Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden) where most of the plants are not butchered...and are quite lovely.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott Weber

This post touches on a few interesting subjects. I know I've mentioned a few times on my blog that there are some plants that many (especially Portlanders) consider common and mundane...but that I love. Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Sedum...I just love them. Somehow, seeing them used in Mall parking lots and practically every public planting has robbed them of their "special" or "unique" status for many. I agree with your statement, however, something does not cease to be beautiful simply because it is common. It is a strange form of snobbery, which, I feel, only hurts those doing the snubbing. The endless quest of many gardeners to find something unique and different is ultimately in vain. It's not that we don't all get excited about new things, but uniqueness for it's own sake is an empty pursuit. I think the aversion many have to Azaleas and Rhodies is the awful, awful shapes they are usually pruned in. There is a large Rhododendron display garden near my house (Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden) where most of the plants are not butchered...and are quite lovely.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott Weber

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