I acquire plants by all sort of means, but many of my plants comes from the “scratch and dent” (thank you for the phrasing, Lisa) section at the back of many nurseries. I get great plants back there, at great prices, and I derive a lot of satisfaction from restoring them to health. Generous friends have also given me many of plants. I really love these plants. Each time I look at them, I am reminded of the people who gave them to me. This is definitely a warm and fuzzy feeling. Also, if a plant has done well in a local garden, well enough to give some away, it will probably do well in mine also, making them low-stress additions to the garden.
However, plants acquired by both of these means share one problem–the labeling is often incomplete or absent altogether. As a result, I have a lot of plants in my garden whose names are unknown to me. I can often figure out the genus, and sometimes the species, but I am really at a loss about the cultivars. And, let’s face it, there are a lot of cultivars out there these days, with many new ones being introduced every year. I can enjoy a plant without knowing what it is, but I have had a lot of visitors recently, and frankly, I feel pretty embarassed when I get asked the name of a plant and I can’t provide it. I have neighbors with a stupendous garden who know each of their more than 2,000 varieties of plants. They don’t just know the names, either, they can provide charming little thumbnail sketches about each plant’s provenance, tips about cultivation, and a history of the plant in their garden. It is really fun, and very informative, to tour their garden. Mine, much less so.
I have an additional problem, entirely of my own making, which is that while I always keep the labels that I do get, I keep them in a big pot on my potting bench. The information is there, but there is no connection with the actual plant. Recently I have started sticking the label in the soil next to its plant, but that is really pretty ugly, and if I re-work an entire bed all the little white tags start to resemble polka-dots, and are very distracting. I have also seen the jays in my garden tweak these labels out of the ground and give them a toss. I don’t know whether they are testing them for edibility, or getting an impediment out of their way, but they are assertive and persistent about it, so I still lose the information.
As a result of all of this I have been casting around for a good method of keeping track of my plants as I plant them, move them or give up on them. I spoke with Maurice Horn at the wonderful Joy Creek Nursery about this, and he said that he keeps a planting map. He is always testing new plants, both his and those given by friends and colleagues, and so needs a great deal of accuracy and has found that a map accomplishes this for him. He seems like a very organized guy, as well as very knowledgeable, so I definitely paid attention.
Then, I went to some of the Garden Conservancy Open Gardens a few weeks ago, and fell in love with one garden. It was ordinary-suburban-lot sized, in an ordinary suburban neighborhood. It was like entering a fairy-land, though. It was completely crammed with plants, many in bloom, layered from the sweet woodruff at our feet to the absolutely stunning pink beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) dripping with blossoms overhead. The paths were so narrow that two people could not pass on them, and there was a new plant at every turn. In short, this place was plant overload. So, when I wanted to know what something was (the Kolkwitzia, for instance is definitely on my to-get list), I asked Mary’s husband, who directed me to an ingenious map. On it, the garden had been divided into sectors, and there was a plant list for each sector. There were probably no more than 15 to 20 plants in each sector, so keeping track was a little easier. However, I didn’t see any markers in the garden delineating where one sector ended and another began. I assume the owner just knows it so intimately that she knows which is which. So, I am going to start mapping my garden, but I will start doing it by bed. These will be larger than Mary’s sectors, but I don’t have the density of plant material to deal with that she does. Yet.
When this map is established, it will be a reference for visitors, but also for me. I am going to try linking this map to plant notes which will help me to keep track of who is doing well, and who needs to be given a red card (I am loving watching the soccer World Cup). I can track bloom times, so that some weeks can get beefed up, and I am sure it will be helpful as names escape me. I expect that having a resource for the names will help cement them in my head better too, enabling me to become that effortless garden raconteur of my dreams.
As with many aspects of life, it isn’t having the idea which is the trick. It is the implementation and then the maintenance of the idea. As glorious as the Sistine Chapel ceiling is (especially post-restoration–those mouth-watering colors), there must have been days when Michelangelo got sick of laying on his back, when his arms got really tired, and when he thoroughly regretted taking the job. That discipline, to keep going even when it gets difficult or tedious, is sometimes a problem in my life. So maybe having to assert it in the course of doing something so important to me will help strengthen that character “muscle”. I will keep you posted.