High hopes


Every year, I have one eagerly anticipated plant, design element, or piece of hardscaping that’s meant to—finally—push the whole operation to the next level. Surely, we all do?

In the northerly zones at least, this is the time of those great expectations. As tulips peak and decline, many of us are planting perennials, trees, and shrubs we’ve bought via mail order or from nurseries, as threats of a late freeze cease to terrify. Others are building—a pond, an arbor, a new planting area or raised bed. (I have a friend who has a cantina in the works.)

In the area of perennials or large-scale plants, immediate gratification isn’t really possible (but let’s face it, we want it anyway). Those hopes play out over a long period, and I have to admit I see far more ghosts of disastrous plantings than thriving success stories. In the early years, I was a total sucker for mail-order porn, particularly in the area of roses. I truly believed that the images in the catalog would become reality in my garden that season. (Maybe I ignored the fine print.) But I don’t think I’m alone here, and the desire for everything to look great right away is probably another piece of the puzzle of anti-gardening sentiment we’ve been putting together in a number of Garden Rant threads. Would-be gardeners set themselves up for disappointment in so many ways—by mail ordering small plants for big spaces, by buying huge root-bound annuals that decline early in the season, and by believing overly optimistic zone prediction or sun/shade advisories on labels.

Clearly, the industry does not help us here. I rarely see labels that urge patience, or caution that without four-six hours of sun a certain plant simply will not thrive. What I do see are amazing seed carpets, “first-year bloom” wisteria, and “ever-blooming” roses.

Having said all this, I’ll admit that I do expect some measure of instant gratification and I get it. A few years ago, I began a love affair with old-fashioned and/or lesser-known annuals—like white heliotrope, various nicotianas, and the more interesting foliage plants. They must be purchased every year, but they truly never fail. They really do bloom (or spread) non-stop and require a minimal amount of maintenance. Also, I change them every year, adding some excitement to the repeat performances I expect from my perennials. I’ve also gotten into the habit of using tropical plants as annuals. Experienced gardeners know how to hedge their bets (sorry), but I’m not surprised if newbies are giving up. What are your great expectations this season?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. First, I love your ‘pie in the sky’! As you stated, every year brings with it a new challenge. I’m planning a new shrub border, the kind that is ‘best from far away’ or at least as good from far away. I dream that it will have some resemblance to the gardens of Adrian Bloom who wrote the great book, ‘Gardening with Conifers’. I am hoping to keep the deer at bay! Gardeners are the best kind of dreamers aren’t we?

  2. I have 60+ tomato seedlings in my driveway.

    I don’t think I need to say any more – but I will blame Jules DerVaes/Path to Freedom for my particular pie-in-the-sky aspirations.

  3. Sorry. I get distracted.

    What I meant to write was:

    EVERYONE wants instant gratification. That’s the human condition. But it is also what makes DELAYED GRATIFICATION so good.

    And I’m with you about some interesting annuals. I used to try to “focus” on perennials. And I did. And I have. And I they are still in play (obviously). But it is nice to throw in some annuals… especially from seed. I love sowing seeds late at night, in a seed tray, with music and a watery bourbon. Extreme focus.

  4. I planted a crap-zillion zinnia seeds in all the bare spots in my garden to bring butterlflies for my toddler girl to enjoy. That’s what I’m looking forward to.

  5. I’m planning to grow Ipomoea purpurea ‘Kniola’s Black’ up into my bright yellow/orange < aref="Stunning deep velvety purple-black 2 inch wide flowers, with a rosy throat and a white eye. Unique. Absolutely the deepest, darkest morning glory we have ever seen, they actually appear black when they first open in the morning light. ">Fremontodendron californicum.

    JL Hudson describes the Kniola’s Black thusly, “Stunning deep velvety purple-black 2 inch wide flowers, with a rosy throat and a white eye. Unique. Absolutely the deepest, darkest morning glory we have ever seen, they actually appear black when they first open in the morning light.”

    I’m hoping the black, rosy throated morning glory flowers opening in the thinned out Fremontia with its bright yellow flowers will be…interesting.

    I planted the morning glory in a pot next to the Fremontodendron, so if it’s a bust, it’s outta there and noone needs to know…

  6. We are by turns an impatient and extremely patient group, aren’t we? We want results now, but we’re willing to keep plugging away at the garden every year to make it better, knowing that many more years of work lie ahead. At least the work is fun!

    My great expectation this year is a shed/greenhouse facelift, but it will take some professional help, which I’m still scoping out.

  7. After a few years hiatus, I’m back to starting annuals from seed, including some that are hard to find as transplants (which is what always draws me to seeds!). I have Nicotiana alata, which has neat green flowers, a pile of orange and yellow cosmos, lots of Nigella and California poppies, Pincushion flower, sunflowers in delicious shades (including one called Chocolate Cherry from Renee’s Garden) cerinthe and Flower of an Hour from seed i saved, and of course anagallis and heliotrope, neither of which I can do without.

    Every year I try some new perennials too, and if they die…well, there’s either try again next year or just put in something else!

  8. Trailing nasturtiums are among my favorites for instant gratification. Just stuff the seeds into any sunny spot where things are looking mingy, and by mid-summer, there are great vines with plate-like blue leaves and hot-colored flowers crawling over the whole scene.

    I’m also a huge fan of summer-flowering bulbs, tubers and corms, such as lilies and dahlias. It doesn’t take years for them to be impressive.

  9. ah, remember when heinz’s tagline was “good things come to those who wait”? and they had all those ads with people sitting patiently, bottle gently canted over burger. we are all products of our society, and i can’t think of any similar campaign in recent memory. everything shouts go and everyone is trying to have their cake and eat it too. we go to movies to escape reality and pretend we live in other times and places; can we market gardening as a similar departure? make it about the patience and about the experience rather than the payoff? thank you for the recent thoughtful columns… i think you’re doing a great job trying to divine where that line might be.

  10. Another thought-provoking post, Eliz. This one has me putting “How to Grow an Instant Garden” on my list of articles to write – all about shrubs and small trees, of course. People just need *guidance.*
    Now how about some more guidance on great annuals? Which foliage annuals do you like?
    And on the subject of growing from seed, I once sent away for all the perennial seeds that will bloom in the first year and – well, they bloomed but only because the plants they bloom on are so pathetic. With the exception of purple coneflower, which turned out to look great en masse from the second year forward.

  11. Persian Shield or strobilanthes whatever. It is a showstopper that is only recently available via retail. And though they are common, I love coleus–there are amazing varieties via mail order–garden centers only have a few kinds. the amaranths from seed are certainly something to see, foliage-wise.

    For flowers: White heliotrope–beautiful scent, blooms forever. Miles and miles above the garden center type. All the species nicotianas–they are so sculptural–mine are 5-6′ tall usually. Never seen in a garden center. Verbena boniarensis (might be perennial for you). I love zinnias and nasturtiums too. African foxglove-another tall one. Climbing petunia. Great scent.

    Sorry–I didn’t bother with the latin for most of these.

  12. I just had a slice of pie.

    Caramel Apple. Fresh baked.

    I would not have done so had I not visited here earlier.

    Thank you.

    Now I can think about plants again.

    Thank you.

  13. I expect to get to know every square inch of a new piece of land intimately. I expect to listen and observe. I expect to plan on paper how my dreams will fit comfortably and with minimal impact on the natural lay of the land. I expect to do a lot of clearing of underbrush and weeds. I expect a crash course in temperate plant ID.

    The crazy gardeners up above may have other expectations since my gravel drive will take out part of a berm that surrounds the vegetable garden and is covered in daylilies, iris and assorted wildflowers and they can’t bear the thought of losing a single one in the multitude of millions.

    Perhaps there is a holding bed in the shape of a pie in my future.

  14. Great post — really resonates with me, because everything I planted last year looks either like sticks poked in the ground or might-be-weeds. I have another 40 perennials coming for areas that were prepared but not planted last year. The roses I ordered arrived this morning, a bunch of bare-naked canes with plastic-bagged roots. The garden will be really underwhelming for another season.

    By July I’ll be grateful for the perennial bed volunteers like oxalis and campanula, and even the occasional dandelion poking out of the grass. There are bunches of clover in the (otherwise bare) raised beds and I caught myself wondering if I could transplant them somewhere because they look so green and healthy!

    The raised beds will be the focal point. All annuals, so they’ll bloom like wildfire, and I’ll be able to at least pretend to be patient about the rest.

    Given everything I have ordered and still have to plant this spring, I think my wish list will be restricted to getting it all into the ground without spraining anything.

  15. Chinese foxglove, tobacco jasmine, mexican sunflowers (and all of the other wonderful sunflowers), cleome, red and yellow and orange zinnias – and the old-fashioned climbing marigolds – and all of the wonderful annual vines (morning glories – all of the Ipomoeas and Cobaeas really). For us in the south they bloom when all of the perennials have stopped blooming – there’s nothing like a bed of tall zinnias blooming in late July and August!

  16. I like CC in HI’s response: “I expect to get to know every square inch of a new piece of land intimately.” I’m in my 9th day of retirement & I’ve probably spent more time in my garden in the last 9 days than I typically do in the course of an entire summer. By summer’s end I expect to know my garden intimately, and I hope to learn if gardening will be a passion for me or simply a pleasant daily or weekly task.

    More important, I recommend the following to County Clerk and any others with 20 mins to spare:
    Fill an uncooked pastry shell (for a 1-crust pie) w/ 5-7 sliced large tart apples. Mix 1/4 cup sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon together, then sprinkle mixture onto applies. Mix 1/2 cup sugar and 3/4 cup flour. Add 1/3 cup butter cut into small pieces. Work the mixture into crumbs and sprinkle it over the apples. Bake in a 450 preheated oven for 10 mins, reduce temp to 350 and bake another 40-60 mins. [This is Susan Harris’s mother’s unbeatable recipe. It makes the perfect apple pie. It’s so addictive, however, that in the fall of 2001 I had a manic episode in which I made 22 pies in a 6-wk period.]

  17. Thank you Pam; your recipe is beautiful. I have but one thing to add: I always make my own crust. In my view–and my late mother’s–it is the flaky crust that is the essential quality of a great apple pie. it’s all in the hands. I use a 4-1 butter/crisco(or better, lard) mixture with ice water, and as little handling as possible.

  18. Pam, thank you so much for the recipe. But you should know something about me:

    If a waiter didn’t bring it, I won’t be eating it. (Not neccesarily a fancy waiter mind you.)

    I do not cook or prepare food, though I periodically buy milk. I don’t think I have ANY food in this house. I’m certain I don’t have measuring cups.

  19. Not to get off the subject of pie (I love a good pie…) but … We’ve noticed (here at Blithewold – a public garden in the Ocean State/the Biggest Little) that come September, a lot of visitors comment that they are completely surprised that the gardens are so colorful and abundant and gorgeous. I think people must start out in the spring with good intentions and then lose interest as the cool weather annuals (the first ones people *spring* for) croak in the heat. Here, we love our tender perennials like cupheas and salvias (not to mention dahlias) because once they get going they don’t stop for anything (except a killing frost). They might be on the expensive side (we propagate our own from cuttings) but for how much bloom you get for the buck, we think – cha-ching! It’s worth it!!

  20. My focus this year (other than the fence, which I am currently working and saving up for) is fabulous containers. I have a few plans:

    In the large, dark urn, I’m mixing the dusky foliage of ‘Black Knight’ canna with (bronze) carex flagellifera, ‘Gage’s Shadow’ perilla, ‘Royal Glissade’ coleus, and either ‘Silver Falls’ dichondra or a trailing nasturtium.

    In the trio of large terracotta pots, I am planting two of my ‘honey melon’ salvia eleagans and one burgundy pennisetum. Around them will be planted peachy-red portulaca and more of that ‘Silver Falls’ dichondra. (Can you tell I love that stuff?!)

    In my birdbath, which I seem to not be able to bother to clean regularly, I’m going to plant yellow creeping jenny and some of the black mondo grass divisions from my side bed.

    I already have one pot started for the shady front porch, too. It’s a dark green ceramic pot with black speckles featuring a large, dark-purple leaf rex begonia (with lighter purple markings) surrounded by yellow creeping jenny. More electric than my usual, but what the heck…

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