Stockbridge — The spring season abounds in plant sales and, for many gardeners, they are the equivalent of a night out on the town, filled with all sorts of treats, many of which we do not need or even have room for, but which are impossible to resist. For many years, I found myself buying rare blue forms of Pacific Northwest conifers that were marginally hardy in my area (packed into a suitcase that my ex will never forgive me for destroying). I would then watch them languish in the plant cemetery, an area at the edge of our old pea-stone driveway that was strewn with leftovers from my travels and late afternoon nursery runs. Plants that I could not resist, but, upon unpacking them from the truck or the aforementioned suitcase, I realized I had no idea of where I was planning on putting them.
On a visit to Philadelphia many years ago, I discovered my friends Jeff Jabco and Joe Henderson had an area of their driveway in Swarthmore where they set their impulse purchases, arranged as if it were a container garden and a semi-permanent installation. At least I knew I was not alone. Gardeners love plants, and we covet those that perform well for us as well as those that have no place in our gardens. I could not grow the aptly named Mertensia maritima in my rich upland Connecticut soil – the specific epithet maritima was a clue that it preferred sandy, free draining soil — but its glaucous gray foliage drew me in to a point that I could not resist purchasing it.
Like these beach-loving sea bluebells, many of the plants I bought (particularly on one trip through North Carolina that included a stop at Tony Avent’s Plant Delights Nursery) were not suited to my location, but often, I left plants in pots because I just could not decide where to place them. When I studied plant design at the Chelsea Physic Garden under Rosemary Alexander, she always stated, in a perfectly English way, that we should decide the qualities of a plant we needed in a design before selecting the plant itself, and I knew she was right, but had she not ever succumbed and made an impulse purchase at a plant sale? (For all of her English ways, I knew her to be a passionate plantswoman.) I imagine she has and that, somewhere in the back of her spectacular Kent garden, there is an area, hidden from the sight of her students, filled with whatever it is that she covets, but for which she has not yet identified a permanent home.
The plants that I purchase but that I am fairly certain will languish in my garden, I am happy to grow in containers on the edge of my driveway. But the plants that I purchase that can be grown where I live, deserve a chance to grow freely. At Monticello, Jefferson had a nursery plot (as does my friend Peter Wooster who has been the instigator of more than a few plant purchases on my part, especially on trips to the much-missed Blue Meadow Nursery). These plots are created for — and by — those of us who cannot resist plants, and who care enough for our purchases to want to give them a fighting chance. They are the wet nurses of gardening. A place for plants to be heeled in, fed, and bulked up before they take their rightful place in the border, and a place to set them while we figure out what we are to do with them.
The situation reminds me of the Baroness in The Sound of Music who, upon being asked how she would cope with the complications of the Baron von Trapp’s children and their endless needs as young ones, simply states, “Haven’t you heard of a thing called boarding school?” Really, she wanted what was best for the children. With this in mind, I am determined to take the old vegetable plot at my new house and turn it into a nursery, although I prefer to think of it as a boarding school. Here, I will heel in odd purchases, orphan plants, and unwanted children until they convince me there is a place for them in my garden.
I have always found a touch of the Countess’s coldness in my own demeanor and, while I hope all of the plants do well, will be happy to enter the nursery only to take out the ones that are thriving, healthy, mature, and ready for their adult life in the garden. I always thought that the Countess was the untold heroine of the story, and found the endless sweetness of the ex-nun played by Julie Andrews to be cloying. After all, the Countess was the one that left the Von Trapp children with their nurse Maria to grow and prosper. In my retelling, she comes back years later and takes away the best specimens to plant in her garden. To my mind, this is an ending much more satisfying than a hike over the Alps into Switzerland, only to end up running a ski lodge in Vermont and bickering with your siblings. Plants, like children, deserve a place to grow, prosper and settle in — and to show themselves off in style.
Spring plant sale special events
And don’t forget to mark down these dates for plant sales in the area (but take note of your needs and garden conditions before buying anything).
May 6th and 7th, Plants and Answers: The Be-A-Better-Gardener Plant Sale, Berkshire Botanical Garden.
May 7th, Hollister House, Broken Arrow Nursery Plant Sale, www.hollisterhousegarden.org
Trade Secrets, May 14th, Lion Rock Farm, Sharon, Conn., www.tradesecretsct.com, with garden tours on May 15th.