What to make of forgotten spaces

I recently asked a distinguished garden designer what I should plant in the blank space next to my garage, and he said a wheat field. Interesting choice. But then I’ve read that “heritage grains” are fashionable in that obsolete kind of way: like landlines and pencils and romantic love.

The distinguished garden designer went on to recommend parsley as a digestive and mint for tea. And thistles, because they repel evil wizards. If I knew any homeless birds, he added, I should probably grow a birdhouse gourd, right?

Wait, did I say I consulted a distinguished garden designer? I meant to say I asked my 6-year-old son. That plant list also happens to be what we grew together last summer. After failing to make a plan, we scattered a shoe box full of orphaned seeds over the dirt. Instant garden.

Failing to make a plan: That was probably an oversight. So last week, I really did call three distinguished horticulturists and garden designers. And I asked what they would make of a neglected 10-by-10-foot space close to their homes: in suburban New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and Seattle. Almost every yard has one. A forgotten province on the far side of the driveway. A patio to nowhere. A limbo that could be heaven if you just knew what to grow there.

The garden designers also named a few places you can find some of their pet plants. But first a note about shopping for plants online: These nurseries are not Amazon, and they are not headquartered in the Amazon, either. The proprietors may hesitate to ship a half-living specimen into an arctic dead zone. A good local garden store will be able to order many plants, and they’ll know the best time to do it.

Susan Cohan

Roots: Susan Cohan Gardens is a boutique landscape-design firm in suburban New Jersey, with a semiparadoxical aesthetic. The most successful projects match the homeowner’s style so naturally, she said, that “it doesn’t really look like I’ve been there.” But Cohan, 60, is hardly invisible: She is the president of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.

And she blogs about gardens at Miss Rumphius’ Rules, with the occasional burr included: e.g., “I’m tired of the so-called ‘new’ perennial gardens with all of their blowsy grasses and prairie leanings.”

Home field: Cohan runs a game preserve in Chatham, N.J., 30 miles west of midtown Manhattan. That is to say, herds of deer loot the garden and plantings outside her tiny 1920s home, which was originally a summer cottage. The plants she trials in the yard, then, should be as appetizing as asphalt. Ideally, a little greener.

Leaf motif: The shady nook.

Ground rules: Her 10-by-10-foot void is a shaded corner with a stone wall. Her vision? A spot to read a book, drink a cup of coffee — and maybe watch the deer promenade.

The dirt: Cohan started by setting some personal boundaries. For a low hedge, she likes a “great little plant” called sweet box (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis Fragrant Valley). This tight, shiny evergreen is sort of the Shetland pony of shrubbery: It’s adorable and it won’t grow much bigger than 2 feet tall. Not only is sweet box fairly cold-hardy, she said, but: “This one blooms in March. And it’s incredibly fragrant.” (Source: Rare Find Nursery, at 732-833-0613 or rarefindnursery.com.)

Tall native grasses would overwhelm this hedge: You may as well serve a 72-ounce porterhouse steak on a spoon as an amuse-bouche. For a right-size ground cover, Cohan praised the pink pyramidal blooms (picture a Smurf’s hat) of the native foam flower (Tiarella Pink Skyrocket). “I love this plant so much I would give up all my other ground covers,” Cohan said. (Source: Digging Dog Nursery, at 707-937-1130 or diggingdog.com.)

A 6-foot-tall perennial is a big boy in a playpen. You can put a smaller plant at eye level with a booster seat — that is, a container. One of Cohan’s favorites is a Branch Tapered Hudson Pot, made in Detroit from galvanized steel. It comes in various sizes, any of which will develop a lovely patina and last practically forever. Remember, though, that your plant is going to quintuple over the growing season, and a smaller pot will need to be watered three times a day in the swelter of August. Cohan’s specifications: “Always go bigger than you think you need” — which actually sounds like a rule for living. (Source: Detroit Garden Works, at 248-335-8089 or detroitgardenworks.com.)

If you feel ambitious, you could fill your container with a new display every season. Or you could go with Cohan’s “one-time deal”: a Dixie wood fern (Dryopteris x. australis), which “makes a big statement in a pot”; and Lamium maculatum Purple Dragon, which “kind of cascades over the side,” she said. (Source: Plant Delights, at 919-772-4794 or plantdelights.com, and White Flower Farm, at 800-503-9624 or whiteflowerfarm.com.)

Setting her sights yet higher, Cohan said, “People don’t think about flowering vines for a vertical space in the shade.” A favorite is Clematis macropetala Bluebird. “It’s got graceful, nodding blooms,” she said, that remind her of little ballerinas. The vines of this tiny dancer won’t reach much more than 8 feet high. “The best thing for a small garden is it won’t eat the house.” (Source: Wayside Gardens, at 800-845-1124 or waysidegardens.com.)

On the subject of munchies, “A question I get asked all the time,” Cohan said, is “what can I grow instead of a hosta? Anyone who knows deer knows you might as well put out a jar of salad dressing!” An alternative to brighten a shade garden is Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla Silverheart). She likes this cultivar for its heart-shaped foliage and blue flowers. And “deer don’t like them.” (Source: Klehm’s Song Sparrow Nursery, at 800-553-3715 or songsparrow.com.)

Another thing no deer will nibble: a boulder. Cohan said she would surround her rock with cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum). You can find a home in the woods, she said, or you can bring a bit of the woodlands home. (Source: Moss Acres, at 866-437-6677 or mossacres.com.)

Rizaniño (Riz) Reyes

Roots: Reyes, 31, was a plantsman before he was a grown-up man: He started propagating plants on a small apartment deck during grade school. Under the name RHR Horticulture, Reyes now designs residential gardens in Seattle. “And I’ve been getting back to doing some floral work,” he said. He talks about his favorite plants (and people) on the Next Generation Gardener blog.

Leaf motif: Out-of-the-office space.

Ground rules: Reyes’ 10-by-10-foot space is the unused “urban postage stamp” front yard of an office endurance champion. It’s full sun to part shade: There’s practically nothing growing there but a plant or two for appearance’ sake and a bag of red mulch. The client’s main question, Reyes said: “How can I make this look like an awesome jungle, but I don’t really have to do anything?”

The dirt: This yard needs more than a makeover. It needs a personality transplant. “Agave parryi is a spiky, big succulent,” Reyes said. “It’s bold, it’s dramatic and it’s just very imposing.” That said, the rosette of spiny, grayish-blue leaves won’t grow much bigger than 2 feet across. Put it near the front of the bed to stare down the neighbors. They’ll stare back: “It’s something you wouldn’t normally see in the Pacific Northwest, where we’re known for the damp,” Reyes said. (Source: Cistus Nursery, at 503-621-2233 or cistus.com.)

For the agave’s big brother, Reyes likes an exhibitionist of a shrub called Arctostaphylos densiflora Sentinel. The evergreen canopy of this manzanita will form a vase shape, about 15 feet tall and 8 feet across. And the whole thing will turn pale pink when it blooms. But Reyes feels an attraction to the muscularity of the limbs and their smooth, reddish bark. “It’s like running your hand down a really tanned, buff leg.” (Source: Moosa Creek Nursery, at 760-749-3216 or moosacreeknursery.com.)

Consider posting a caution sign instead of a botanical tag for the winged thorn rose (Rosa sericea ssp. omeiensis f. pteracantha). “It’s not your classic hybrid tea rose,” Reyes said. It produces small white flowers in season, sure, he said. “But it has long, arching canes with really big thorns that are deep blood red. When the sun hits it, they kind of glow. It’s pretty stunning.” (Source: Far Reaches Farm for pickup in Seattle, at 360-390-5114 or farreachesfarm.com; or Whitman Farms, at 503-585-8728 or whitmanfarms.com.)

Having cowed the neighbors, Reyes is ready to play nice. Near the sidewalk, he likes to install “something that people will instantly recognize. And I want to throw in an edible.” His pick: a compact blueberry bush called Top Hat. One or two could fit in a container. For his part, Reyes would go bountiful, planting five or six at least. For passers-by, he said, “Give the suggestion: Hey, there’s plenty here. Help yourself to a little snack.” (Source: Raintree Nursery, at 800-391-8892 or raintreenursery.com.)

Now that the architecture is taken care of, it’s time to cover up that ghastly red mulch. Reyes favors drought-tolerant perennials and bulbs. Hellebores are “so adaptable and hardy,” he said. The Winter Jewel series produce draping blooms in January, he added, and “will continue on looking good until the end of March.” (Source: Plant Delights, at 919-772-4794 or plantdelights.com.)

Reyes doesn’t go in for drips and drabs of color. He wants a river. The right pairing for the job is Narcissus Jack Snipe and grape hyacinth (Muscari latifolium). In the Pacific Northwest and other temperate zones, these bulbs will light up the yard in spring and then linger as perennials. Twenty-five of the daffodil Jack Snipe should put on “an instant show,” he said. The grape hyacinth runs small — and the price is small enough, too. “I would get a hundred. Why not?” (Source for a late summer/fall order: Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, at 804-693-3966 or brentandbeckysbulbs.com.)

Janet Draper

Roots: For 15 years, Draper, 50, has been the lead horticulturist (and lone horticulturist) at the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, part of the Smithsonian Institution. Her little patch also happens to sit on the National Mall, where it is open to the public 24 hours a day, every day of the year. This is the opposite of a secret garden.

Home field: Draper’s third-of-an-acre garden is an exuberant encyclopedia of plants, with 800 taxa on display — and individually labeled, too. “I have a habit of overdoing color,” she said. A co-worker once claimed, “It looked like Walt Disney threw up here,” she said. “It’s a statement that has stuck with me for a long time.”

Leaf motif: Contemplation near the Capitol.

Ground rules: A weeping (and sprawling) maple and two decrepit evergreen shrubs used to occupy a kidney-bean-shaped garden bed. Seeing it newly empty, Draper said, is like having your boyfriend shave his decades-old beard: disorienting. The 36-inch-high bed forms a placid backdrop to a fountain popular with government workers on their lunch hour. “So many visitors come to escape these concrete bunkers all around,” Draper said.

The dirt: Nature is not a minimalist and neither is Draper. She credits a colleague, Rick Shilling, with helping to pare down her messthetic in favor of a few woody plants. For a start, Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus) will succeed the old weeping maple. It’s a big shrub or a small tree, depending on how you look at it. She praises the silver-gray bark and the elegant May blooms. You can buy pink, but Draper will be “trying to keep it subtle” with classic white. (Source: Rare Find Nursery, at 732-833-0613 or rarefindnursery.com.)

Not every matchmaker would set up a snowbell with a Tanyosho pine (Pinus densiflora Umbraculifera). Even with its reddish peeling bark, this evergreen looks like rough trade. You’ll often find the deep green needles of this dwarf cultivar sheared into a kind of yakuza flattop. Draper prefers a “natural-looking cloud pruning.” (Source: Forestfarm, at 541-846-7269 or forestfarm.com.)

With its thick and tight evergreen foliage, the Kingsville dwarf boxwood (Buxus microphylla) looks as if it just made a stop at the barbershop. But, in fact, you won’t need to perform any trimming at all, unless you’re planning a bonsai garden. “It is so tiny,” Draper said, “it will only get to be 1 foot tall in 50 years.” A small shrub can equal a big price, especially if you’re planting seven of them, as Draper is. You can find cheaper littleleaf boxwood, she said, but none cuter. (Source: Avant Gardens, at 508-998-8819 or avantgardensne.com.)

Gardening in a bed that’s 3 feet above the path can feel like performing on a dais. A cascading plant like Cotoneaster dammeri Streib’s Findling sits at the edge and dangles its feet above the audience. The white flowers are almost too small to be noticed; the red berries that follow are hard to miss. One or two plants will form a spider web of low, creeping branches. More than that, you have a rat’s nest. (Source: Forest Lakes Nursery, at 707-726-9371 or forestlakesnursery.com.)

Moving still lower toward the ground, Draper will be planting “an extremely dwarf mondo grass” called Ophiopogon japonicus Nana. The name sounds like one of the lesser Transformers — much lesser. Clumping at just an inch or two high, the turf may be smaller than the botanical label Draper will dutifully place next to it. (Source: Commonwealth Nurseries, at 508-755-1780 or comnur.com.)

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