Garden Life: Evolving from gardener to avid plant collector




You know you’re a gardener when the only thing you don’t have enough of in your life are plants. When someone mentions a trip to the nursery, does your energy level escalate? If you see a new plant in someone else’s garden, do you have to have it for your own? Being a gardener is just the first step to becoming a plant collector.

The variety of plants that thrive in our Southwest Washington gardens is just one reason we go crazy over new plants. The ever-expanding plant list offered by local retailers feeds that frenzy. The longer we garden, the more attuned we become to the subtle differences of plants, even those in the same family. A daisy lover learns to appreciate each variety for what it has to offer. Like a litter of new collie pups, each one reminds us of Lassie while displaying a unique personality and look all its own.

It’s a fact that many Pacific Northwest gardens are becoming known throughout the world of gardeners. Along with gardening enthusiasm, visitors notice our plant vigor and plant bounty. The nursery industry acknowledges our garden interest and fans the desire by producing more and better varieties of plants with longer bloom and more striking foliage.

For many years now, variegated foliage has been in fashion and if that variegation includes a hint of chartreuse or blue or mahogany, all the better. The family of huecheras, once limited to a selection of plum-colored leaves with distinctive veining, could now fill a 50-foot border. With names like Heuchera “Cathedral Window,” “Peach Flambé” and “Sweet Tea,” our interest piques before we even see the plant in a garden.

As in any personal interest, when the options are limitless, we need to establish our own set of guidelines. Few of us have the space or funds to actually buy every plant available to us. Besides, there is a fine line between a bountiful, flower-packed border and a jungle. It’s better to limit your palette. Consider, also, that every new plant has to join an existing family of plants in the garden.

Here is an important point to ponder when the urge strikes to add every new plant to your ever-expanding collection. Remember, every time you buy a plant, you have to go through the process of physically putting it into the ground. You have to locate the perfect planting site in the garden, dig a hole, mix in compost or planting soil and plant it. This might temper the enthusiasm of the most avid collector. Then again, it might not.

One trick I use to keep my purchases within reasonable bounds is to have a distinct, limited plant holding area in my garden that holds all my latest nursery finds. Here’s how it works, in theory. When the planting area is full, I can’t buy anything else until those plants are planted in the ground. If other plants have to be moved to fit these in the garden, those plants should be planted in their new location or given to garden friends.

With that said, I still recommend carrying a “must have despite any rules” list. We’ve all talked about the plant that got away. Currently, my list includes a replacement for a plant I once had but lost to wet winter soil, Abies Koreana “Silberlocke” with blue-green needles that curve up and in, showing white on the bottom of each needle, like snow in summer. I want the magnificent, golden variegated Aralia, with huge creamy yellow and green leaves and the chartreuse bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis “Gold Heart.”

It’s the peak of the garden year, when everything is in its glory and visitors are full of praise. But, even as they speak, we gardeners are filling the empty gaps in our mind’s eye. I’m sure there’s still room in my garden for the tiny Viola “Freckles.” Somehow I’ve never added the sublime Orienpet lilies such as “Scheherazade” and “Belladonna” that combine the beauty of Oriental lilies with the strident colors of Trumpet lilies.

In the most unlikely event that my garden should become completely filled with plants, I’ll buy another pot for the porch deck and add some annuals for color. I like the lovely yellow African daisy “Cream Symphony” with its sapphire blue eyes. I’ll add a variegated bicopa with masses of tiny white flowers with bright yellow centers all season long. Oh and there’s the brilliant chartreuse leaves of the sweet potato vine that drapes over the side of the planter and … .

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at