Saturday, May 7, 2011


            Tim tends to be cheap with himself. He knows it, but persists nonetheless. Here’s a classic example. In 2003, he resumed painting after Santa brought him an easel. (It was a totally inadequate easel: apparently Santa knows bupkis about easels. Regardless, it served its jump-starting purpose.) Two or three years down the road, after much soul- and catalog-searching, Tim upgraded from the dreadful easel to an okay easel. He didn’t buy the one he really wanted because, well, that one cost $400 more than the okay easel. “Why did you do that?” I asked, exasperated. “I only paint on Sundays,” he replied, as if that explained everything. In Tim-World, Sunday painters only deserve okay easels.

            He’s the same way with other art supplies, tools, clothes, books, magazine subscriptions, you name it. I just roll my eyes, knowing exhortations to kick up and treat himself fall on deaf ears. (In case you’re wondering, agonizing over my personal worthiness vis-à-vis cost is not one of my afflictions. What keeps us solvent is that, apart from books and plants, I don’t want much.)

            And he thinks I’m stubborn.

The original design for F and A's
back garden

            I open this window into the daily domestic doings of the Fitzes because I know Tim is far from alone in the self-denial department. Hard as it may be to believe, this cult of penny-wise-pound-foolish occasionally spills over into the garden.

            Direct your attention, if you will, to the representative case of Flora and Art.

            Several years ago, F and A called us for help with their backyard. Tim and I designed a little garden for the rear of their property. We put in a curved post-and-rail fence to delineate a boundary between the yard and the golf course beyond. F.Y.I., humble, inexpensive, easy-to-install post-and-rail fencing makes for landscaping magic. Although you can see right through it, the slender horizontals and verticals stop the eye. This feature allows you to guide visitors to see what you want them to. Beware of planting rampant shrubs like eleagnus (Eleagnus ebbingii) or Lady Banks rose (Rosa banksiae lutea) behind them, however: the Fitzgeralds’ diaphanous eye-stopper has morphed into a ten-foot-high tangle of Medusa-like eleagnus shoots. 

Versatile yet unobtrusive
post-and-rail fence

            F wanted color, but cost was a consideration. We planted some cast-iron things like Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), Spanish lavender (Lavendula stoechas, hands-down the best lavender for sultry climates), garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) and muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). The rest of the bed we left for F and A to fill in themselves.

            One of our regular clients lives across the street from F and A, so we see them in passing quite often. F is also a writer, so we have things so talk about other than gardens. (Her novel is being shopped around to publishers by her agent: keep a good thought!) Over the years, she’s mentioned various backyard planting ventures, most of which have come to naught. Their darlin’ next-door neighbor, Miss P, feeds the birds, the squirrels, the ducks, the raccoons… which means that Bambi and Thumper show up too. After the main course at Miss P’s, they amble over to F and A’s for dessert. While they don’t really mind, F told me that last year she had to cover her mums with laundry baskets at night to keep the rabbits from grazing them to the ground. Who knew anything ate mums?

Tough-as-nails Spanish lavender
(Lavendula stoechas,
pronounced STEE-kiss)

            On top of wildlife challenges, F is the first to admit that gardening isn’t one of her areas of breezy expertise. The back border slopes from high-and-dry on the right to low-and-damp-when-it-rains on the left. Plants on the upper end turn brown and crunchy, while 50 feet away, they drown. So far, the blaze of color F envisioned comes mainly from her unqualified success with ‘New Gold’ lantana (Lantana montevidensis ‘New Gold’).

This spring, A and F approached us for a little more help (they’re the couple whose yard T and I crawled all over feeding and pruning in “Quick Tips” on April 5). In addition to broadcasting 172 pounds of Holly-Tone and creating a trailer-load of pruning debris, we designed a planting for the back garden and for six containers for F and A to install themselves. (Remember, you can click on the pictures to make them bigger.) 

The planting plan for F and A's
back garden and containers

Then the $64,000 question: did F and A want us to obtain the plants from our friend Christine, grower extraordinaire, or would they prefer to take pot-luck at the local Lowe’s? The suspense of waiting for the answer nearly killed me because F suffers from Penny-Wise Syndrome.

 Many people cheap out when stocking a garden on their own: this is a phenomenon we experience all the time. If they rely on professionals, however, the cost seems to matter much less. Odd, but true. Left to their own devices, most folks invariably underestimate the numbers of plants needed to make a statement. This is true especially, but not exclusively, of containers. During our spring garden-center crawls, T and I see people pick out, say, a 14” pot or a 30-by-6” windowbox to fill for a little punch of color. (It gripes me when they choose cheap pots—believe me, they don’t cost much for a reason—but that’s an issue for another day.) Then they’ll grab a bag of potting soil, and pick up a six-pack of petunias and a single 4” angelonia for the pot. There! All sorted! they think, and trundle to the cash register, where they dole out a 20-dollar bill. Not too big a commitment. Tres penny-wise. Later in the season, though, they wonder why their pot hasn’t filled out quite like they’d imagined.

Well, duh.

This is an apocryphal example, of course, but very similar to what our friend F had been doing season after discouraging season.

Mexican bush sage
(Salvia leucantha),
another tough-as-nails plant

A and F took the plunge and let T and me do the buying. Last Thursday, we delivered 17 flats of annuals and perennials ranging from three inches to gallon-size along with color-coded planting plans. We set up the six 6” pink and red double impatiens, the five 4” white angelonia and the two 4” blue fan-flowers to show F how to fill her 36” hayrack. “All of those go in the hayrack?” she asked. Yup, we said. You’re gonna have to cram to get ’em all in, but they’ll go. She looked stunned for a nanosecond, then a broad smile spread across her face. Now I get it, the grin said.

We explained that the plan was not graven in stone. After setting out the plants in their pots as suggested, feel free to tweak, we told her: two-dimensional drawings rarely flow unchanged into the three dimensions of a space. F couldn’t stop smiling.

When T and I stopped in Friday morning to drop off some dripline, A and F were already out back. They'd planted most of the garden Thursday afternoon; the containers were up next. We agreed to do a succession of photographs over the season to document how the garden and the pots fare. F’s excitement and A’s interest warmed the cockles of my heart.
The moral of the story? Don’t stint on plants for a new garden. If you can’t afford to do a whole yard, choose one manageable space and make it beautiful. If you’re doing containers, cram in the plants. Annuals don’t care about crowding. Perennials will take all the room you give them, which could unbalance your design; so cram them in too. If it’s effect you’re after, penny-wise is soooo pound-foolish. If you are constitutionally incapable of buying an entire flat of impatiens to fill a single pot, hire someone like me, who will be more than happy to show you how to overcome your limitations.

Although you can't tell it from his expression here,
Tim is thrilled with his new easel
And maybe you can teach me how to overcome some of mine.

Did Tim ever get the easel of his dreams? He did  indeed, this winter. It’s a David Sorg, designed by a serious painter for serious painters. It’s beautiful. And nobody deserves it more.

Thanks for dropping by. See you next time.

P.S.—Here’s a Mother’s Day bouquet for all you moms, especially mine.

'New Dawn,' the Mother's Day rose

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