Making Hard Choices in the Garden

The Hardie Garden in Nutley, New Jersey.

The Hardie Garden in Nutley, New Jersey.

Some people garden to collect and grow as many plants as possible; he who dies with the most plants wins. A very good friend of mine is a passionate magnoliaphile. He has assembled a collection of some 300 cultivars of all the species and varieties that will grow in his climate. It is indeed one of the most comprehensive collections for his area. But his garden is less than three acres! I chide him often that he has one of the most impressive collections of blooming telephone poles I have ever seen. He needs to learn to edit!

I think there are two kinds of gardeners. The gardener that will sacrifice the garden to the plants, and the gardener that will sacrifice the plants to the garden.

Gardening for me is the discipline knowing, growing, and trying to use plants in a creative way. Making hard decisions about which plants to add to the garden and which plants to remove takes great discipline and courage. Why not choose the 30 best magnolias for three acres? If you want to add new trees be prepared to remove old trees.

I do not believe in keeping a plant that is in poor condition and is not making a real ‘contribution’ to the overall aesthetics of the garden. Cut it down! Dig it out! There is always something new, exciting, better, or more fabulous to replace the offender with.

I believe unbridled collecting is the lazy way to garden. Being more discerning about the plants you add to your garden takes real commitment. Research is required to make intelligent choices that will contribute to a better garden.

That is not to say that there is no room for experimentation, but all plants are not created equal. There will be poor performers or real dogs, so have the courage to get rid of them -- compost is a valuable commodity.

The most difficult choices are when it is time to remove overgrown woody plants or to thin plantings that were earlier hallmarks of impatience. I over-plant when I am faced with great expanses of fresh ground, but I am prepared to cut down trees that were intentionally planted too close. I will dig out large shrubs when they are encroaching on a preferred, shapely neighbor. That is not to say I do not miss an old and favorite plant. I love a garden scene with well grown, well-tended plants that are beautifully and intelligently composed. This means the garden will always be in a state of flux. Gardening is a process of always striving for improvement, not a static product that offers no room for change.

The best writers need the best editors. The best gardens need good editing too.

A collection of unique coleus are framed by architectural plantings, which give the space form, structure, and meaning.

A collection of unique coleus are framed by architectural plantings, which give the space form, structure, and meaning.

Richard Hartlage

Richard Hartlage is the founding principal and CEO of Land Morphology. His award-winning, innovative designs are renowned as emotive, immersive spaces that incorporate sophisticated horticulture, artful detailing, and historical knowledge that heighten the human experience of the natural world. His passion for horticulture, cultivated over fifteen years working public gardens and estates, is applied to each design from the conceptual phase through development of maintenance protocol and beyond.