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April 30, 2021

What to do with Aunt Louise’s heirloom rose

by Jay Sifford

I love gardens with stories. Actually, I believe that garden design is the perfect medium by which to hone the art of storytelling. You see, every person, every home, every parcel of land has a story to tell.

I recently met with a potential client in Dilworth who had, through the purchase of an older home, inherited a collection of Lenten roses. They were gifted to the previous owner by the wife of a pastor at the Lutheran church on Morehead Street. Fortunately, these hellebores fit in nicely with the aesthetic of the garden, so they will stay. But what do you do with that odd-but-precious plant that you inherited from a long-gone relative? Can it fit into an overall garden design, and if so, how?

The first and most obvious way to deal with Aunt Louise’s legacy is to feature it front and center — to embrace it. If the plant is small or medium in size, accentuate it by placing it in a nice, size-appropriate to slightly oversized container. Many weekend gardeners tend to undersize containers — a slightly larger than necessary container will give the plant extra emphasis in the garden. 

If the plant is too large for a container, such as a Japanese maple, consider creating a small rolling berm and inserting a boulder underneath it to underscore its value. Another idea is to borrow a concept from European gardens and surround the plant with edged gravel. Doing so can elevate a plant in importance and raise it to living-sculpture status. This is a bit risky as, if done incorrectly, it can look like a planting bed at a convenience store. To avoid that fate, choose a natural looking stone such as Tennessee River gravel, and avoid white gravel or lava rock. Perhaps widen an existing gravel path in a certain area and site the plant off-center, out of the way of garden traffic, or use it at the end of the path as an axial focal point.

A second way to incorporate an heirloom plant into a cohesive design scheme, or to knit together a disparate collection of plants, is to carpet the bed with a ground cover. Think of a room with furniture of several styles. A beautiful rug upon which all the furniture sits can go a long way in making the room feel cohesive. In a sunny situation, plants such as ‘Blue Rug’ juniper, a very low-growing cotoneaster such as ‘Streib’s Findling,’ dwarf Acorus, thyme or a low-growing ornamental grass will fit the bill. In shadier areas, dwarf mondo, strawberry begonia or shorter sedges are all fair game. Wide swaths of a single plant read as simplistic and pleasing, allowing specimen plants to bring their best to the proverbial garden plate. Please spare yourself future headaches by avoiding thuggish plants such as English ivy.

A third idea would be to employ the use of juxtaposition, or comparison-contrast. Every garden element, whether living or not, possesses four characteristics: size, shape, color and texture. By matching two of these four characteristics and varying the other two, you can create a garden vignette that has enough of a common thread to visually hold it together, but enough diversity to create and maintain interest. For example, if your heirloom plant is a conical spruce, perhaps introduce a trio of round dwarf spruces sited in front and slightly to the right or left of your heirloom. The size and shape are different, but the color and texture are similar. 

A final solution would be to simply add more similar plants. If your heirloom is a rose, purchase more and create a bed of roses. 

By following one or more of these design principles, you can create a flowing, seamless garden out of the most disparate collection of plants. And most importantly, you’ll make Aunt Louise proud. Happy gardening!  SP

Jay Sifford is a Charlotte-based landscape designer who specializes in contemporary, Asian and transitional gardens. His work has been featured in Southern Living, Country Gardens and Fine Gardening, as well as Houzz and several books.

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