Plants grow. Of all landscape design conundrums, this is the granddaddy. It’s the cause of most of our head scratching and indecision.
I can walk around my living room and visualize a possible leather chair over in the corner by the bookcase. I can visualize it in five years, more broken in, with a dusting of dog hair, a few nickels and chee-tos under the cushion.
But how do I picture in my mind the American hazelnut on the corner of the house by the driveway? Do I see it as the scrawny shrub, barely reaching my knee, on the day I planted it? Five years later when it’s six feet tall and wide? Ten years when it’s twelve feet tall and needs clipped a couple of times a year along the driveway side so that the car can get by? (Carefully, though, so it doesn’t look like it’s been clipped.)
How about in July, when the big hidden sticky green hazelnuts are weighing the branches down as if the shrub were filled with racoons? How about a couple of weeks after that when it’s filled with squirrels trying to get every last hazelnut before they have even had a chance to ripen – and the branches are really straining and moving now. The plant looks like it’s alive.
Maybe in fall when the branches have sprung back vertical and the whole plant looks from half a block away like it’s on fire.
How about that cute, little Japanese anenome (a white, late summer-flowering perennial) that I planted when it was about six inches tall? It’s February now, and I can see that it’s a bunch of dried up leaves and stems broken by snow. By August it will have gone from zero feet to five or six feet tall and wide (depending on how rainy the summer has been), with half a dozen new offspring nearby, growing up from its own aggressive roots.
How do we design with stuff that changes size and shape? What if your dining room table got a foot larger all the way around every year? Would you chop it up and burn it in the fireplace? Would you start to sit under it to eat dinner? What if your carefully selected artwork (maybe carefully selected out of your child’s backpack) disappeared out of the frames in the fall. Then it came back in the spring, but never quite the same as it was the year before?
I’ll tell you how we design with this stuff.
Get your mind around this idea, because if you can’t, landscape nirvana will forever elude you: landscapes/gardens evolve. That is, they change over time, and we just have to get very, very comfortable with this idea.
Some elements quickly, some slowly, but change they will, as surely as the sun sets out there past Woodfield Mall. Gardens change because plants change. A plant that seemed to be perfectly in scale with your house this year seems out of place two years from now.
Plants grow up and shade-out or out-compete other plants.
And it’s not just plants that are affected. Clay pavers in a damp shady area will start to look very different from identical pavers in the sun. Nice and dark and mossy. Tree roots will start to lift a few up here and there. A few inexplicably settle into some kind of hole. Bluestone and flagstone will develop a comfortable patina – while the granite kitchen countertop looks the same as the day it was installed.
Don’t try to visualize your landscape like an arrangement of furniture that will be there waiting for you to admire it year after year.
Maybe visualize the landscape as a movie – a movie with a lot of plot twists that you aren’t going to see coming.
Emerald ash borers, oak wilt, Japanese beetles, dry springs, wet autumns, your neighbor’s 100 foot cottonwood comes down in a storm, Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, the mailman decides to take a different shortcut from your front door to your neighbor’s, you get the dreaded sewer or water pipe replacement surgery on your front yard. (Did you know that the American chestnut was once the dominant tree east of the Mississippi? I’ve never even seen one!) Squirrels will dig up your bulbs. Nematodes, fungi, aphids, bacteria, and deer jostle for places at the landscape diner counter.
Embrace your landscape’s evolution!