The Collector

How to Tame and Organize Your Gardening Impulses

By: Billy Goodnick
Goodnick-headshot

Contributing editor at Fine Garden Magazine

Billy Goodnick is a landscape architect, educator, author, and speaker living in Santa Barbara, CA. Read more about turning your…

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Multiples of each plant are massed to avoid a chaotic arrangement while yellow-green foliage unites the composition in the Thayer garden.  Photo: Billy Goodnick

Multiples of each plant are massed to avoid a chaotic arrangement while yellow-green foliage unites the composition in the Thayer garden. Photo: Billy Goodnick

What seduced you into the world of plants? A spectacular 12-inch ‘Mango Madness’ dinner plate dahlia peeking over your neighbor’s fence? Or perhaps the otherworldly foliage of Kalanchoe beharensis. As time passed, you went from a collection of a few cool plants on the deck to a yard bursting with the objects of your obsession. You became a Plant Person.

Kalanchoe beharensis Photo: Billy Goodnick

Kalanchoe beharensis Photo: Billy Goodnick

Just for a second, look out your window, or create a picture of your garden in your mind. What do you see? Plants arranged for the best growing conditions for your ever-expanding collection? Or a happenstance arrangement driven by “An empty space! I’ll stick it there!”

The colors of purple-leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera), New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium) and Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) all reside close to each other on the color wheel. Photo: Billy Goodnick

The colors of purple-leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera), New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium) and Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) all reside close to each other on the color wheel. Photo: Billy Goodnick

There’s no right or wrong when it comes to creating a garden. If you find pleasure from successfully growing plants, be they common or exotic, rejoice in it. Like many people, in my early days my yard was a random collection of whatever caught my eye at the nursery (or a cutting I could snip when nobody was looking). Others may aspire to a garden that looks “put together,” displaying an intentional design, theme, or color scheme. Me? I stuck plants in the ground anywhere I thought they might thrive, resulting in the ever-popular “buckshot” style. This wasn’t about artistry; it was about getting stuff to survive and if I was lucky, throwing off a flower.

But some folks who love plants also long for a garden where they can say, with a straight face, “I meant to do this.” If that’s you and you’re struggling with how to achieve this mysterious confluence of cool plants and show-place garden, stay with me.

My story isn’t much different than a lot of other people. Moving from apartment living as a kid in Brooklyn in the 50s to the idyllic suburbs of Los Angeles in the 60s, horticulture was not a family value. We didn’t garden; my brother and I “did chores.”

Studying bonsai with John Naka, whose work is shown here, was my gateway to Japanese gardens and started my passion for design. Photo: Billy Goodnick

Studying bonsai with John Naka, whose work is shown here, was my gateway to Japanese gardens and started my passion for design. Photo: Billy Goodnick

Although these days I identify myself as a landscape architect, author, and educator, my path to plantdom started innocuously enough in the early 70s with houseplants. Not long after, I was lured by the exquisite art of bonsai, my gateway drug to Japanese gardens and the reverence for nature they embody.

The Roman philosopher Seneca said: “While we teach, we learn.” It wasn’t until I started teaching design through adult education and local Master Gardener programs that my personal design point of view gelled.

I’d like to share my three favorite tips for helping plantspeople tame their growing collections. But first, a peek into my plant selection process. (Hint: It doesn’t start with “Ooooo, shiny!”)

I think of plants the way I think of teenagers: It’s not enough to just sit there and look cool, they need to be useful, too. Long before I arrive at the fun part of selecting plants for their form, color, and seasonal interest, I consider what they have to offer the overall landscape: trees give welcome shade in the summer, tall shrubs soften wind gusts and screen unwanted views, tenacious ground covers hold erodible slopes, and edibles are mighty tasty tossed in a stir fry. With an informed form-follows-function approach as preparation—reference knowledgeable nursery staff or look plants up in books or online— you’ll be better prepared to know where to place plants in the garden for maximum impact.

The subtle beauty of a Japanese garden is, in part, due to the restrained use of a limited plant palette.  Photo: Billy Goodnick

The subtle beauty of a Japanese garden is, in part, due to the restrained use of a limited plant palette. Photo: Billy Goodnick

Tip 1–Clarify Your Garden’s Story Line. A lot of my design work is for clients with established gardens that have gotten away from them due to a gradual but continuous addition of plants until their once-coherent design becomes confused. My first job is to help them figure out the look they’re seeking: Mediterranean, Asian, contemporary, woodland—and then get them to commit to it. You’ll be amazed how this one decision will help you figure out which plants to keep, which ones to share at the next plant sale, and which ones can come home with you on your next shopping trip.

Repeated boxwood spheres at Filoli bring order to the exuberance of the flowering border. Photo: Billy Goodnick

Repeated boxwood spheres at Filoli bring order to the exuberance of the flowering border. Photo: Billy Goodnick

Tip 2–Repeat Yourself. There’s nothing like a little repetition to pull a wide-ranging plant palette together. Tame your collection by including one or two varieties of anchor plants that reappear in multiple spots the garden. In a formal garden, it might be clipped boxwood balls rhythmically spaced as a unifying architectural element. In a casual garden consisting of many different plant species, use a distinctive plant—like repeating bursts of sensuous red fountain grass (Pennisetum rubrum)—as a uniting element.

All grasses exhibit the same form, but subtle differences in stature, foliage and flowers create visual interest. Photo: Billy Goodnick

All grasses exhibit the same form, but subtle differences in stature, foliage and flowers create visual interest. Photo: Billy Goodnick

Tip 3–Flock Birds of a Feather. A sensible voice in your head murmurs, “Never buy just one of anything.” Defensively, you reply, “Hey, I’m a collector!” This all-too-familiar impulse typically crops up at your local horticultural society’s plant sale. Well, I have good news. You can create the illusion of planting en masse by simply grouping plants with a common trait. Look at your existing garden and identify which shapes, textures, and colors tempt you the most. Perhaps you’re a big fan of silvery-gray, or a sucker for spiky foliage. Designating distinct areas in your garden for these favorite traits and grouping like-plants together lets you have the best of both worlds. Your plantings will look orderly and intentional, and yet you can still pick up a plant when the urge strikes.

My advice is to start small—old habits are hard to break. Pick a corner of your garden you’ve fallen out of love with and figure out what you’d like it to be when it grows up. Then working with the steps I’ve outlined at left, see if you don’t find your once out-of-control plant collection organizing itself into a cohesive landscape that reflects your passion.


yards, turn any outdoor space into the garden of your dreams Billy Goodnick 2013, St Lynn's Press

“Designing a great garden is an exercise in problem solving that starts with identifying opportunities and constraints, then moves on to observing, assessing, and refining your goals. … It pays to look at what you have to work with and where you want to go—and to anticipate the obstacles that could get in your way. The more you can do that up front, before you start picking out the plants and moving 
dirt, the fewer bumps you’re likely to hit down the road. Knowledge is power.”

From Yards, Turn Any Outdoor Space Into the Garden of Your Dreams copyright 2013 by 
Billy Goodnick. Published by St. Lynn’s Press.