What can you learn from this picture? That ironweeds (Vernonia), golden lace (Patrinia scabiosifolia), ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod (Solidago rugosa), and Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium/Eupatoriadelphus/Eupatorium maculatum) can all thrive in the same site. And that purple, pink, and yellow can look as good together in fall as they do in spring. But you can’t tell that the Joe-Pye and the ironweed in the background are in completely separate beds, about 8 and 15 feet away, respectively. Or, that I cut back the Joe-Pye in early summer, so it’s about 2 feet shorter than it would usually be, and it’s just coming into bloom now instead of finishing up. So, if you liked this picture and wanted to try the same combination in your own garden, you might be happy with the results, or you might not.
I’ve enjoyed gardening for many different reasons – the thrill of tracking down unusual plants, the fun of harvesting homegrown edibles, the delight of sniffing great fragrances, the excitement of growing new plants from seed, and so on – but for the past few years, my main interest has been in creating and capturing what I think of as “wow moments”: in other words, pretty pictures. It’s no surprise that this interest coincides with the amount of time I’ve been blogging, because this is such a perfect place to share the results.
It’s easy to enjoy pictures of colorful flowers, but it takes a real gardener to appreciate the more subtle charm of dried stems and seedheads. [Above, orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), and ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) in mid-December]
Truly, I appreciate the many comments I get from readers who enjoy looking at the photos I post of the plantings here at Hayefield. But each time I read them, I feel a little uncomfortable, wondering if I’m doing a disservice by showing these pretty pictures without explaining them fully: how old the plants are, the specific conditions they’re growing in, the pruning techniques I used on them, and whether they’re due to chance or by design.
Would I suggest planting a daylily (in this case, Hemerocallis fulva ‘Kwanso Variegated’) in shade? Nope. Would I recommend planting Lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus) and ‘Looking Glass’ Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) in sun? Um, no. So, is it misleading for me to show you these three plants growing happily together? I don’t mean it to be, but yes, it probably is. What you don’t know is that the site they’re growing in gets sun from dawn until 1 or 2 in the afternoon (7 to 8 hours being close to the definition of full sun), and then heavy shade for the rest of the day. This combination of sun- and shade-lovers technically shouldn’t work, but it did, and it was one of my favorites for several years.
Getting into that level of detail for every image simply isn’t realistic, I suppose, and it probably wouldn’t be of interest to most readers. But for those of you who, like me, drool over gorgeous photos in print and on blogs and wish you could get the same results in your own garden, I thought it might be helpful to explain some of the tricks I’ve learned.
Don’t Try This at Home
I was very tempted to use that as the title for this post, because it perfectly sums up much of my experience trying to copy other people’s pretty pictures.
I really like the contrasts of colors and textures in this image, but I have to confess that it’s not real: I was playing around for a Bloom Day post and carrying bits of plants around to try out different combinations. From a practical standpoint, this one could happen naturally, because ‘Isla Gold’ tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and ‘Dimity’ Himalayan fleeceflower (Persicaria affine) grow fine in the same conditions. But it would also take a fair bit of luck to get an effect like this, because the tansy is normally 2 to 3 feet tall and the fleeceflower foliage barely reaches 6 inches. Also, the tansy normally blooms in summer, not in mid-November, when the fleeceflower foliage turns color. Would I suggest that you to try this combination? No, not if you were hoping to reproduce this exact effect. But I did end up putting these two plants together here, and though I haven’t seen a picture like this happen for real, I’ve found that the plants look great together in other seasons, for other reasons.
I won’t even get into the many tricks that photographers can use to “stage” or fake photos: stuffing potted plants into borders to add more color; snipping bits off of one plant and tucking them next to another plant elsewhere in the garden to create instant combinations; and, of course, using photo-manipulation software to change colors, add or remove flowers and foliage, and so on. That’s mostly an issue with catalogs, press releases, and other promotional materials, I think; at least, I’d like to believe it is.
Wow, a fall-blooming forsythia? Yep, this is a for-real shot of ‘Kumson’ forsythia (Forsythia viridissima var. koreana) in mid-October of 2008. I ended up selling it to a publication that requested it to accompany another writer’s article. If I remember correctly, the piece was about the shrub’s brightly variegated spring foliage, not its quirky habit of sporadically throwing out blooms at odd times of the year. So if you read the article and were swayed by the text to try the plant for its variegation, you’d be understandably confused by the photo showing pink leaves during what you’d reasonably assume was the spring bloom. If you realized that you were looking at flowers and fall color together and were tempted to buy ‘Kumson’ for a fall display exactly like this, there’s a chance you might see it for yourself someday, but there’s just as good a chance that you wouldn’t.
With books and magazines, you never know, but in my experience, it is (or at least, it used to be) easier and more cost-effective for publications to find existing pictures than to play around with a lot of in-house photo manipulation beyond cropping and maybe color enhancement. That doesn’t mean that “real” photos can’t be misleading, though. You have to rely on the editor and/or designer to choose images that show what you can realistically expect a plant or combination to look like, even if those images aren’t as dramatic as some “by chance” pictures. (You also have to hope that the plants were correctly labeled when acquired, that the gardener managed to remember their names, that the photographer thought to get the IDs and label the image, and that the publication got that information and conveyed it in a caption or label.)
I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that blogs are probably the best source for gardeners who want to see real pictures of home gardens, combinations, and individual plants. We bloggers want to show off our best, of course, but beyond doing some simple cropping, I can’t imagine any point in a blogger spending loads of time at a computer faking photos of his or her own garden. Much better to actually be in the garden, don’t you think?
Still, even straight-out-of-the-camera photos seldom tell the whole story. The truth is, many lovely images are purely a matter of chance: things blooming out of their normal season, tall plants sprawling onto low ones, foliage or flowers changing color depending on unusual weather conditions, and so on.
Spotting this grouping in the front garden late last September gave me a wow moment. The blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’) and ‘Floricolor Gold Ring’ coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) had been growing next to each other for months, but this bit of normally-5-foot-tall ‘Hella Lacy’ New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) just happened to keel over their way due to a storm the previous evening. So, this specific combination was purely a matter of chance, but you could likely create a very similar image simply by substituting the much lower, bushier S. dumosum ‘Sapphire’ for ‘Hella Lacy’.
If you have a lot of gardening experience, you can often spot combinations that are due to anomalies. But if you’re more of a beginner, it can be very disappointing when you put those plants together and never see anything like the image that inspired you.
How fun is that? I tried to recreate this combination of ‘Cramer’s Amazon’ spike celosia (Celosia argentea var. spicata) and ‘Mystic Spires Blue’ salvia for several years, but for whatever reason, the celosia’s spikes never did this swirly thing again.
By the way, one clue to the likeliness of combination being worth trying to copy is how much of it you can see. A close-up of one flower against a few leaves doesn’t tell you much at all.
I wish there really were a perennial with lacy yellow foliage and spiky, reddish pink flowers like these. If I had seen this photo 20-some years ago, I wouldn’t realized that it’s simply a lucky intermingling of ‘Isla Gold’ tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and ‘Taurus’ mountain fleeceflower (Persicaria amplexicaulis), and I’d have searched long and hard to figure out what it was.
A wide garden shot gives you a lot more information, but then the setting itself can make a big difference as to whether or not you can realistically replicate the effect, and the sheer number of plants can be overwhelming.)
There are at least 10 different plants in this picture. You could buy them all and plant them together in your own garden, but there’s no way you could reproduce this image exactly. You probably wouldn’t even want to, because some of them – the goldenrod and the little white aster, and yeah, the bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) too – are actually rather weedy. But maybe you’d enjoy copying the basics: the spiky ‘Taurus’ fleeceflower with mounded ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnias and/or orange mums, and with ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod instead of a weedy one.
Keep in mind that even “real” pictures can be impossible to replicate, because they’re just one second of time in one location. All of the plants may be blooming at their normal bloom time, but no matter how much you can see, you can’t tell by looking exactly what the growing conditions are like in that site, what the weather has been like, how old each plant is, how long it’s been growing in that spot, where exactly the plants are growing in relation to one another, what pruning/fertilizing/watering techniques the gardener used, or …well, you get the idea. You also can’t see what that combination looked like a week or month later.
I happened to spot this pairing – ‘Big Ears’ lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) against ‘Caradonna’ salvia with a few Knock Out (‘Radrazz’) rose blooms in the background – when I was weeding the front garden on May 27th last year. (Many sources claim that ‘Big Ears’ doesn’t produce flower spikes, but it does.) Below is same spot on June 14th: definitely not so pretty.
So, when you’re looking at pretty pictures, sure, go ahead and enjoy the captured moments for all they’re worth. If a particular image really strikes you and you want to try to reproduce it, then it’s time for some critical thinking. Do some research to learn about the individual plants: are they suited to your climate, and to the growing conditions your garden can offer? Can you find a source for them? What are their normal heights and bloom times?
It would be useful to have a Joe-Pye weed that naturally reaches 30 inches tall, but as far as I know, there aren’t any. This one planted itself here, but it would be way too tall if I left it alone (note the 7-foot J-Ps in the background), so I cut it completely to the ground in late May, and it ends up quite short in this relatively dry site.
If you can’t track down the exact plants in a picture you like, or if they’re not suited to your garden, look for substitutes that can possibly provide the effect you found so appealing: the bloom or foliage color, or the contrast of texture, or the interplay of shapes or heights.
Hmmm. That all sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?
Spotting this scene gave me a happy chill last September, but looking at the picture now also gives me a bit of a chuckle, because I didn’t actually plant any of these asters or goldenrods. The asters are self-sown seedlings of ‘Harrington’s Pink’ and ‘Hella Lacy’, and the goldenrod and the little white asters (Symphyotrichum ericoides and S. pilosum) seeded in from the meadow. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to plant the LWAs in a border, because they tend to be vigorous spreaders and self-sowers. Every spring, I pull out all of the seedlings and shoots I can find. But I always manage to miss a few, and I’m always rather glad I did, because they look great no matter where they pop up.
After giving you lots of reasons to think twice about trying to copy other gardeners’ pretty pictures, it seems only fair to share some ideas for creating your own. As usual, though, this post is already ridiculously long, so I’ll save those for another day.