Many a gardener has discovered through trial and error that getting the spacing between plants right—especially the first time—can be a challenge.
I vividly recall a visit with an avid gardener who’d asked me to consult with her about making edits to a maturing garden. She had an excellent eye for outstanding plants and her garden contained many of my all-time favorites—ones I know, love, and use in my home garden as well as client gardens.
But this story, unfortunately has a sad ending. In early days of laying out her garden, she’d planted a Stewartia pseudocamellia, Stewartia monadelpha, and several more wonderful trees and large shrubs that I can’t precisely recall from this distance, all in a small back yard. By the time I visited, they’d been in-ground for several years and were beginning to really come into their own, strutting their stuff and showing off the qualities for which they’d been chosen.
Sadly, the pair of Stewartias had been planted too close together for both to remain, and they were too big at this point to move, so one of them needed to be removed. She was heartbroken—these are slow-growing trees, and she’d invested years into growing them.
Here’s how you can avoid finding yourself in a similarly difficult spot. When I’m deciding on how much distance to leave between my slow-growing-but-eventually-awesome plants, I take into consideration their mature size and leave enough room so that my “forever” plants can remain, even when they reach maturity.
But patience is hard and I’m all for unbridled enthusiasm — gardening’s supposed to be fun, right? After I’ve properly spaced my forever plants, I’m left with some pretty wide-open spaces. Trick is, they’re not actually open, just temporarily vacant. So, now for the fun part: in those in-between bits, I play, using right-for-now plants, plants that I’ll enjoy and have fun with, but which I know full well are not part of the forever plan.
Gardens can tend to get muddled over time as plants grow, and in Pacific Northwest gardens, they grow a lot. Editing my garden is a way to bring my original vision back into focus and these edits are a lot less perplexing when I’m simply executing on my original vision. I can relax and have fun, knowing that when one of my right-for-now plants dies or needs to be removed, I can make the change without remorse. It’s all part of the plan — no failure, just the natural evolution of a garden. Within this frame, I have the confidence to make the big and small changes that make each garden unique, and have a blast doing it.
What constitutes a forever plant? Typically trees and large shrubs and other structure-making plants the create the outline of your garden, but really any plant that you’d feel bad about losing, would be difficult to move or replace, and would leave a hard-to-fill gap if absent. Bottom line: any plant that would break your heart or disrupt your garden if it were gone. There are also some plants are just darn slow to take their place in the garden but are well worth planting and waiting for.
Right For Now
Though fun-loving and life of the party, some plants can’t be counted on to stick around, but they’re great fillers while you wait for the more permanent plantings to mature. It’s a great time be loose and have fun, growing things that you won’t likely have enough room or sun for later. Other plants, such as blue fescue or lavender, are notoriously short-lived and best replaced periodically with fresh plants to keep the overall design looking good.