The Garden Life: Individual choices help to set a garden apart

By Robb Rosser, Columbian Gardening columnist

Published:

 
photoRobb Rosser

Over time, every garden develops its own character, and with that comes a unique way of welcoming each new season. If every gardener on the block planted the exact same daffodil, that plant would signal the arrival of spring to all of our gardens. It is much more likely that every neighbor will plant a different palette of spring bulbs, summer perennials and fall-foliage plants. This allows us all to have an individual display of seasonal highlights.

In my garden, the sugar maple is always the first deciduous tree to change into fall colors. By October, the show is astounding; each leaf vibrant with highlights of orange, red and yellow-green. Before the month ends, every leaf has fallen and the tree is bare. Most of the other trees and shrubs in the garden wait until late October or the first part of November to come into color. I was touched by this bit of magic put on by my sugar maple, as if its singular show happened just for me.

As autumn continues, trees and shrubs change their colors and then drop their leaves. I like to think that anyone would find this a beautiful phenomenon of nature, something to look forward to between the summer and winter seasons. The impact of this transformation on the overall look of a garden is as profound as any flower display in early spring. The difference, for those of us who garden, is that we personally choose many of these plants specifically for the show they will give us in fall.

The longer we garden, the more plants we choose for the effect they will have with a change of seasons. Before deciduous leaves drop, they will change colors, illuminating our gardens in the many shades of fall. I planted a unique variety of maple for its vibrant, solid red autumn foliage. Acer rubrum October Glory is a tall, round-headed tree that is the last to change colors in fall. Before the leaves drop in late November, this tree of mine stands boldly on its own, set off only by a backdrop of evergreen Douglas fir.

When we plant a tree or a shrub or a group of perennials, we are not just filling an empty space. Ideally, we plant our favorites in combinations that show them off at their best. A deep green Hinoki cypress looks wonderful against a natural stone wall. The distinct, horizontal branching pattern of Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum Shasta accentuates the form of a rambling ranch-style home. In shade, variegated hostas at the foot of an upright vine maple fill the space with light. A little bit of thought goes a long way. A string of thoughts, tied together and implemented in the garden is the key to successful landscape design.

Once we begin to garden, we are expanded by every other garden that we visit. When we visit local gardens in our community, we not only look for plants but we look for ideas. They come to us through the minds of fellow gardeners in the results of their own gardens. As a gardener with a large property to maintain, I find the details of gardening in a small space intriguing, especially when that gardener is quite pleased with his or her garden. How I envy them and wonder at the pleasure of having the time to focus on one tree throughout the year? But, of course, I would invariably add a plant or two or three, until that small space was wholly overgrown. That is simply how I garden and how I live my life. Each of us will have a garden as different as we are from each other.

The more we participate in the everyday life of a garden, the more rewarding it becomes. If we did not play some part in the garden's creation, it would still be beautiful -- but we might miss the connection. It's clearly our involvement that binds us emotionally. When we plant a tulip and then it emerges in the spring, we feel a definite connection to the process. If we fill an area of the garden with a berry-bearing holly, December-flowering hellebores and a mix of red-twig dogwoods, we no longer dread the onset of winter. The great allegory of gardening is that of playing a thoughtful role in the life we live. That, to me, is reason enough to choose a favorite daffodil and then plant it in my garden to welcome spring.