Why You Should Plant More of the Same

The garden designer in me frequently does battle with the plant collector in me.

The designer knows that planting more of fewer varieties makes a much more impressive statement in the landscape than planting one of everything ever will. Of course, the collector is always excited about trying the next great thing, but I try to give my collecting side only certain areas of the garden to play around in.

Here at Maplehurst, I listen to both voices (and often try new plants in containers), but I have learned to listen to the designer when it comes to the choices I make in high visibility areas, like the borders around my house and those near our more public outdoor spaces around the Black Barn.

One pyramid-shaped ‘Green Mountain’ boxwood is lovely but seven lined up in a row is WOW.

Not only that, mass plantings are easy for the eye to “read.” A line of boxwood or holly suggests formality and neatness. It’s a good message for the front of a house or entertaining area. A mass planting of fluid grasses evokes a meadow, but delivers that garden message without looking weedy.


Here are some of my favorite “more of less is more” plantings:

  • A matrix of grasses: I love to cover a border with only one type of a beautiful ornamental grass (try Prairie Dropseed for sun or Japanese Forest grass for shade); in the photo above, purple Verbena Bonariensis stands out against a sea of Northern Sea Oats


  • I like to plant my small or medium-sized shrub roses in threes. Planted close together, three David Austin roses make a much bigger splash in the flower garden than they would planted singly; the eye “reads” them as one large rose


  • Plant a hedge: plant a living fence (and a beautiful green garden backdrop) with a traditional hedge of boxwood (like ‘Dee Runk’ boxwood), hornbeam, holly, yew, or arborvitae


  • One pot on the porch steps is nice, but five or fifteen packed in tightly and it suddenly looks like a garden (this is one the designer and the collector can both agree on!)

The Power of Green

This image of the trunk of my minivan may not be the prettiest picture I’ve shared, but it speaks volumes.

All this green?

This says everything about my evolution as a gardener.


I began gardening because I loved the beauty of flowers.

I will ALWAYS be smitten with flowers.

And yet, this trunk filled with green plants from a local nursery speaks to an understanding that I have only recently embraced:

Flowers need green. Gardens need green. People need green.


As professional garden designer Julie Witmer recently said, “Green signals health in the garden.”

Without enough green, gardens look a bit sickly, no matter how much we admire all that purple or variegated foliage.

While the amount of green will vary from garden to garden, and especially from climate to climate, green is a universal sign of good plant health.

It sets off the colors of flowers beautifully.

It is soothing to people, and gives our eyes and our spirits rest.


There is no ideal ratio of green to other colors, however I have found that the ratio in my own garden is steadily increasing.

I do not love flowers any less, but now I know that I need lots and lots of green in order to feel at peace in my garden and in order to better spotlight the colorful flowers I love so much.


The garden designs of Miranda Brooks are famously green.

Ten beautiful and mostly-green gardens for inspiration.

Have you heard about these new varieties of boxwood? They are supposed to be very resistant to boxwood blight!


Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Why Container Gardening?

Out of necessity, containers were my first garden.

When I first began to garden in Chicago, I had a third-floor balcony. Pots and containers and window boxes were my garden.

Here at Maplehurst, I have almost five acres at my disposal.

Why haven’t I “disposed” of containers?

With so much ground to cover and fill, why mess about watering pots?


Here are the reasons why I STILL love container gardening:


  • Containers help bridge the garden with the house: I love to create mini-gardens in pots on front steps, porches, and patios


  • Containers offer a nurturing environment for small or special plants: sometimes my mail-order roses are too small to go straight into the garden. I give them a year to grow on their own in a container before letting them duke it out with other plants in a mixed border.


  • Containers help me manage my urge to collect: I want to grow every plant I read about, but not all of these longed-for plants fit the style or color schemes of my current garden. If I really want to try growing something but don’t know where to put it, a pot is a perfect solution.


  • Containers bring the garden up close: For instance, I grow tulips and daffodils in the ground, but I love growing them in pots. When in bloom, I can feature those pots right on our outdoor table. When the blooms fade, I can tuck them out of sight.


  • Containers need watering and feeding but they don’t typically need weeding: I like growing edibles in containers because I don’t have to keep them weeded while I wait for harvest


  • Containers allow us to grow heat and cold sensitive plants year round no matter our weather: because I grow my pelargoniums in pots, I can keep them outside in summer and inside in winter. I can also protect some plants from strong sun or intense heat by moving them into shadier or more protected places. Containers give us flexibility.


Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

The Joy of Seasonal “Emblems” in our Gardens

What do I mean by a Seasonal Emblem?

Think tulips in spring.

Sunflowers in summer.

Chrysanthemums in fall,

and holly with bright red berries in winter.

Seasonal emblems can be universal, but they can also be entirely personal and place-dependent.

Here at Maplehurst, there is the pink magnolia blossom in spring, the tall trumpet lilies in summer, the dahlias in fall, and the coral berries of the ‘Wintergold’ shrubs in, yes, winter. When I lived in Florida, summer was for the bright foliage of caladiums and winter was for orange blossom.

An emblem of a season is a snapshot, an image, and a powerful distillation of the season itself. It is not the plant that blooms and blooms from spring till frost.

Emblems are more ephemeral than that.


I’ve been reading a book by Kelly Norris called New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden.

This book has been helpful for me because it emphasizes the ecological function of plants rather than their ornamental attributes.

If you are like me, you design your garden or imagine new planting possibilities by thinking of favorite blooms and much-loved colors. But Norris is challenging me–indeed my own garden has been challenging me–to think more about year-round function.

Instead of asking myself, what color flower do I want here? I am learning to ask questions like,

What plant will cover the soil and shade out weeds in this bed?

What plants will provide long-lasting structure?

What plant will shoot up quickly in spring in order to out-compete the weeds before fading away to let the summer perennials take over?

But as critical as such questions are, it is also important to ask ourselves:

What will greet me in spring when the long winter is finally over?

What says summer to me?

And what will I anticipate all summer long before it finally emerges in the fall?


In other words, in our search for plants that look great all year round, we must not neglect the “emblems” of each season.

As Norris puts it,

A garden without these seasonal pacesetters can lack rhythm and start to look more like the mass-produced landscapes of the commercial world than the kinds of lovingly crafted creations better suited for home.

What sets the pace in your garden?

What are the emblems you love best?

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Four Different Flavors of Garden Shade

Not all shade is created alike.

I used to wonder why certain shade-loving plants did not perform well for me. Over time, I discovered that garden conditions are multi-faceted and complex. They are never simply “sunny” or “shady.”

Every garden is unique just as every human is unique. It is as if every plot of soil had an individual fingerprint.

The gardener’s responsibility (and it is a wonderful responsibility) is to become the expert witness to her own bit of earth.

In this sense, gardens come in infinite flavors. However, just as we describe food with broad categories like salty and sweet, there are four categories that can help us make sense of our shade:

Full Shade:

On the spectrum of light conditions, there is “full sun” at one end and “full shade” at the other. Full shade is fairly easy to identify. Perhaps, it lies under the heavy canopy of a large tree. It might lie alongside a wall where the sun rarely reaches.

Full shade is usually defined as any area that receives less than three hours of direct sun daily. And most shade-loving plants would prefer cooler morning sun, rather than the burning sun of late day.

Impatiens, yew, climbing hydrangea vines, and bleeding heart all do well in full shade.

Dappled Shade:

This is a lighter shade where sunlight is filtered but bright.

Woodland plants generally love dappled shade. A honeylocust tree, with its feathery leaves, offers bright, dappled shade beneath its branches, while tall trees with large leaves, like the saucer magnolia in my own yard, can cast a very heavy shade.

Japanese anemones, like those pictured above, appreciate dappled shade, as do hydrangeas and hostas.

Dry Shade:

The quality of light isn’t the only thing to consider. There is also the matter of water. That tall, large-leaved tree? Chances are it blocks light and water. As a result, not every shade-loving plant will grow well in shady, dry soil.

Euphorbia, liriope, epimediums, and Dryopteris ferns all tolerate dry shade.

Damp Shade:

Damp shade tends to be less of a challenge than dry shade.

Plants that appreciate shady, damp areas of our gardens include astilbe, hosta, Brunnera, primulas, and trillium.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

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