One of the supposed rules of gardening is to take a look at other gardens and what plants they are having success with, and then emulate them. Sorry – but I call bull s**t. That is what you do if you want to copy them, to create the same garden that everyone else in the neighborhood has. If you are looking for a low maintenance, safe garden, perhaps this is the way to go. Most gardeners do want some reassurance, especially if they think they have brown thumbs – and there is certainly some truth to this.
But don’t think that just because the local grocery store or hardware store or even nursery stocks a plant that it will actually do well in your garden. Most plants are grown by huge national nurseries that are interested in things that will do well across most of the country. Many of those plants are not well suited to our local climate or soil conditions. We live in one of the most “different” climates in the world, one that is drastically different from the majority of this country and is matched only by a few areas in the entire globe!
There are some plants that you will see growing next door – for good reason. Some plants, like Camelia, Rhododendron, Photinia and many others almost grow better here than in their native locations.
The first step I took when I first moved to my Oceanside garden was to plant a few of everything that I have loved and trusted from previous gardens. I agree that this creates a little bit of a mess of a garden – it was not planned to be permanent, it was deigned to learn what does and doesn’t do well here for myself. Some plants may have been suitable for the climate and the soil, but could not handle the grazing of the deer or the winds, others languished because the summer heat was not enough, others wanted more moisture retention than I could provide, or was prepared to provide given that I see water as a precious resource. Sure, some plants just got placed in the wrong places and I have started to move some around, trying to see if they like it better in other places.
But I also want to find out the plants that I can grow that were never possible before. Local nurseries are often not adventurous enough, and who can blame them. They are scratching out a living serving a small community, many of whom want what is growing next door. I do try and support them as much as I can, but I cannot limit myself to what they provide.
Garden tours can be great source of ideas. Of course, many of them are going to be the ones who look like all of the yards next door, but still you may get ideas about grouping, or combinations. In the Tillamook area, Jesse and I went on a tour of gardens put on by the local master gardeners. From one garden, we loved the little stories attached to the major plants they had in the garden – where they rescued it from, the back story of that particular plant. It gave the plants more meaning and showed the thought that went behind them and the history contained within the garden.
Another garden contained a few plants that I had never seen before – now that got the wheels in my mind turning. Interestingly, I think it was the only garden in the tour that was not owned by a master gardener. They had broken all the rules. At first, I wanted to acquire all the plants they had and to emulate the look and feel they had created. But then I stopped and thought about why they were being successful with those plants and what others might be possible given their success.
That led me to consider the plants of Australia and South Africa. I was familiar with some of them from exhibitions in Key Gardens in England and when I found out there was even a slim chance that I could grow some of them I knew I had to try. First step was to find out which ones might be hardy here, and then to quickly find out that almost none of them are available from any nursery in this country. They are still being “discovered” and because they haven’t been heavily hybridized yet, many of them are not considered showy enough or suitable for sufficient numbers of people in this country.
So – I was left with one alternative – find seed abroad and import them. Many of them will take years before they bloom, but I am willing to wait and then to know I will have plants in my yard that will not appear “next door.” But the hunt also shows me that there are some nurseries that really do strive to be different and attempt to bring novel plants to market. I want to give a shout out to Xera nursery in Portland. They have a small retail outlet in SE Portland and do their own growing in Sherwood. They have brought many of their own introductions to the market and have supplied me with several wonderful Grevilleas and Callistemons, as well as other interesting plants. Their online site is also very useful, but do not expect the retail outlet to contain everything they list online – they only bring them in for sale when they are in their prime – meaning they are blooming etc.