Guest Rant: Can an Ornamental Get a Little Love?



Y'all please welcome Tom Fischer, an editor at Timber Press who is also an author and a delightful person to hang out with. I told him that we encourage nudity and adult situations in our guest rants, but he decided to go with a photo of him wearing actual clothes. Each to his own.

Tom is the author of a new book called Perennial Companions:  100 Dazzling Plant Combinations for Every Season.  Stick around and find out how to win a copy at the end of this post.

In case you’ve been on Mars for the last few years, let me
be the first to break the news: your neighbors, your boss, your mom, the
Obamas, and everyone on your bowling team is starting a vegetable garden. I
hope they all have a wonderful time and harvest tons of vegetables. And I hope
the nice people who sell vegetable seeds make a fortune. Me, I’m sticking to
the ornamentals.

OK, not totally. I have an herb
garden, because I like to cook and it steams the hell out of me to pay $2.99
for a bunch of basil. And I have one small fig tree and two pineapple guavas,
because, you know, fresh figs and guavas. But that’s as far as it’s going. My
yard isn’t that big, so space is at a premium. The soil is decent and well
drained, and most areas get a nice amount of sun. I’m sure tomatoes would do
well, if I planted some. But do you know what also does well? Delphiniums and
lavender and clematis and lilies and crocosmias and coppery sedges and adorable
small shrubs and lots and lots of other things. I can buy beautiful tomatoes at
our farmer’s market; a mature ceanothus in full bloom, not so much.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be
either/or. Maybe I could mingle edible crops among the ornamentals. But I’ve
noticed that most edible crops don’t look so hot once they’ve finished bearing.
I face design challenges enough without having to worry about what to put in
the gap left by the broccoli raab.

            Also, I
worry that, in the rush to reap our own arugula, we may be neglecting those
heroic plantspeople who scour the globe in search of botanical gems. They
deserve our support as much as the admirable folks who have preserved
open-pollinated heirloom kohlrabi varieties. So the seedlings under my
grow-lights this spring include Chinese gentians from Mojmir Pavelka, western irises from Ron
Ratko (you can request his seedlist by e-mailing
), rare Andean alpines from Jim and
Jenny Archibald
. The motto on the Chiltern Seeds
catalog is “Grow something new from seed.” I say, grow lots of new somethings from seed, and make sure some of them have
nice flowers.

Yes, we need to encourage more
people to garden. Gardening is good, whether you’re raising roses or rutabagas.
And I love a plateful of cavolo nero braised in extra-virgin olive oil with
green garlic tops as much as the next red-blooded American. But my fellow
gardeners, let us not forget that we need to feed the soul as well as the body.

Make an impassioned defense of some perennial combination you can't live without and win a copy of Tom's new book. As always, extra points for rhyme, literary references, offers of free drinks or other forms of bribery, or suggestive photos of you enjoying the companionship of your perennials, with or without red high heels.


  1. Hurray! Huzzah! Me too! I actually thought about jumping on the veg garden bandwagon because – well, everybody’s doin’ it. But it’s not for me. Sure a tomato or two and for sure some ornamental peppers and other pretty edibles (cabbage!) but it’s perennials – like my fave lavender, which goes with everything – and annuals – like zinnias and nicotiana, which go with everything – that I love to see in my garden.

  2. Hey Tom, Excellent rant. Especially about the ceonothus in full bloom. Point taken. BTW, I have the new book: its a gem. I love the combos and the way its laid out by season.

  3. I was wondering if the edible gardening craze would translate to better sales in ornamentals. People are backwards on their home loans, and have no plans of moving anytime soon. Would they decide to feather that nest?

    In my nursery we are seeing that. Yes, the edible craze is leading the gardening charge but I believe it can translate to ornamentals. Time to turn that house into a home. Plants and flowers are symbols of hope and better times ahead. How can people not feel the pull to invest their time in an activity that provides peace of mind and a solid return on time invested.

  4. Tom, that was lovely. Thanks. I’m the incorrigible vegetable gardener among the Ranters. I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years and get more and more beautiful food out of my garden for less and less work every year.

    But I, too, hope that more than mere food growing comes out of the current backyard farming craze. It’s time to rethink the ugly-assed American yard. In this land-rich suburban nation, it’s criminal that most of us settle for nothing more than a flat plane of grass interrupted only by few unhappy evergreens in a sea of red mulch–a landscaping scheme that feeds no one and inspires no one except certain chemical concerns.

    I don’t care what’s being produced in it, masses of flowers or Tuscan kale. Productive is beautiful! Anyone who owns a piece of God’s green earth is a lucky person, indeed. Our landscape ought to reflect that sense of happy gratitude.

  5. Trey – thanks for that – I have been finding it hard to put into words as I attempt to explain to my husband WHY I spend so much time (and $$) on making my flower beds beautiful. We are long-term renters and that is the most important thing to me – making my house into a home and the peace I feel when I am elbow deep into the soil and compost – he doesn’t have to “get it” because I do.

  6. Thank you Thank you Thank you for this post! (And the tip on Tom’s new book.) I believe we must plant and tend according to what our souls need and desire, and for some of us — our first love is ornamentals, not edibles. …That’s certainly true for me, and I’ve felt a little guilty about that in recent month. But thanks to Tom and the GR community, I can see there’s no need for my guilt. Thanks for having my back.

  7. Hear! Hear! Vegetable gardening is indeed rewarding and worthwhile, but I worry that this current fad is just that–a passing craze that will fade once the economy gets better and fairweather gardeners lose their motivation. But ornamental gardeners have a perennial interest (pun very much intended). We will continue to care about the quality of our soil as well as the diversity, beauty, and general health of our landscapes because our passion comes back every year, sometimes in unexpected places. I certainly hope that Americans will significantly and permanently change their outlook in regards to the landscape because of the vegetable gardening craze; I want my fad theory to be proved completely and utterly wrong. But until then, I’ll take my Canadian columbine dangling over my peonies followed by insatiable salvia nemorosa rambling beneath my spotted Joe-Pye weed!

  8. Plant more ornamentals….

    for the bees, please. Bees see yellow and blue flowers.

    for the butterflies, please. Butterflies see yellow and red flowers.

    for the bats, please. Bats like plants that flower at night.

  9. Clusters of sweet, tangy orange cherry tomatoes dangling from lanky green stems: yes, how terribly ugly. There is certainly nothing pretty about a glaucus-purple Jarradale ripening in the corner of your garden. The fragrant flowers of Vicia faba? Hate them. Snap peas growing up a trellis, maybe even interplanted with ancient ‘Cupani’? WHY?! A zucchini bush putting out big yellow flowers and black fruit in front of pink-flowering Cestrum elegans? Oh, bad clash. Blueberry bushes with a vivid clematis wending its way through? That would look so ewwww in fall with the poofy clematis heads next to the bright red blueberry leaves. A prickly wand bearing clusters of raspberries and russet foliage? A ridiculous thing to put in a flower arrangement. Artichokes? Plant three of them around Cotinus coggygria, and you will make me throw up. A potato tower makes a ridiculous vertical element in a small garden.

  10. “Artichokes? Plant three of them around Cotinus coggygria.” And with some Cuphea pinetorum as a filler? Truly a sickening perennial combination.

  11. I heart ornamentals so much. Flowers, foliage, and forms cultivated for the express purpose of beauty? I can’t think of a better incarnation of celebration.

    That said, as an apartment-dwelling twenty-something on a budget, I am ecstatic about my vegetable garden this year. The national buzz about growing food is thrilling, and I love that things are going in that direction.

    Once I settle into a house with an actual yard and planting beds, I’m sure my opinion will shift…

  12. In the ‘Morning Light’ I see
    Ample blessings for me
    Being land rich and dirt poor
    There is quality time to explore
    To collect the wild plant seeds
    And still time left over
    For ornamental garden chores

    Plenty blue Chicorium intybus was sown
    And planted as companion
    For silvery white wisps of grass
    From one small Miscanthus sinensis purchased
    A waving hedge of ‘Morning Light’ will grow
    Interspersed with sky blue orbs
    Division and seed sowing is often the way to go

    This ornamental organized prelude
    To a wild meadow of dazzling blooms
    Surrounds a tended patch
    Of vegetables I have room for too

    It’s a little early to get nekkid
    A winter storm of near eight inches
    Has slowed the burgeoning green
    That protects the family roadside vegetables
    As the neighbors pass slowly by
    Eyeing the creative, perhaps unusual changes
    To their old time bucolic scene

  13. If I send you a photo of Tom in a bathing suit do I win his book ?
    You just always have to be on the look out when traveling with a group of “Hortisexuals” who are armed and dangerous with their cameras in Indonesia.

    Favorite perennial combination ? Tough call, too many to list.
    But I love pairing up a cascading plant such as the silver leaf Dicondra Silver Falls with a tall spiky plant such as the lovely deep burgundy Cordyline Dark Star and fill out the planting with a bevy of large textural succulent leaves such as Cotyledon. – Big, Bold and in your face fantastic !

  14. There once was a dormouse who lived in a bed
    Of delphiniums, blue, and geraniums, red.
    And all the day long, he looked at the view
    Of geraniums, red, and Delphinums, blue
    (I know geraniums aren’t perennial, but I love A.A. Milne. I love ornamentals, too.)

  15. I don’t know much about rhyming or making an empassioned plea, but I gotta say — my choice for my favorite combo of ornamentals is big, white bearded iris planted behind a cluster of common chives. They always bloom at the same time for me and I love the white and lavendar colors together.

  16. Yes! And even if your focus is on growing edibles you should grow plenty of ornamentals for those very reasons you listed, and because many perennials/ornamentals attract beneficial insects to help the veggies and fruit grow.

    My personal favorite ornamental perennial is brugmansia (any) and I like growing it with annual moonflower vine. Once the bat house gets put up, I hope it makes a good set up for them.

  17. Your two comments are great. I actually do have an artichoke planted strictly for ornamental reasons. I don’t think one artichoke is going to provide much good eatin’…but it sets off the armillary that holds a clematis and a raspberry it’s next to so nicely. Probably won’t fare too well this summer though…sadly.

  18. Wow! I have the same combo, except with ‘black’ bearded iris. The two colors are really striking.

    The best thing is it was here when I got here, so I was able to enjoy it when most of the garden was just leaves and sticks!

  19. My first garden when I moved out of my parents’ house in ’04 was a mixed vegetable and flower garden. I’ve continued with that since, learning that so many flowers are also useful. Elders and roses, for instance. And then as I grew a bit, I realized the opportunity there was in beautiful seasonal foliage. As chuck b. already pointed out, blueberry leaves do phenomenal things in autumn, as do aronia. And upon growing a little more, I learned about the value of companion planting. Following that approach to food gardening, I’ve filled my back yard with ornamental perennials mixed with perennial fruits and vegetables, herbs, ongoing patches of lettuce, and reserved “annual areas” for seasonal vegetables. Since I’ve only been at my house since May ’08, some of the vegetable areas may get overtaken by perennials as the years go on. But for now, the short-lived edibles are a great way to enjoy my garden, (which is becoming quite stunning quite quickly) in a variety of ways. And I believe the food in my garden is going to grow so much better as a result of the ornamentals.

  20. Ode to Fennel

    Of the feathery fennel
    I sing my praises.
    It compliments all
    That the gardener raises.
    Fennel and daisies.
    Fennel and mums.
    Fennel and salvias,
    All are good chums.
    If that’s not enough
    Get ready to to pounce.
    I note that fennel pollen
    Sells for 25 bucks an ounce!
    A flavorful herb
    Grown easily from seed.
    Try fennel in combination
    With those colors in ‘need’.

  21. The management disavows all knowledge of any such photos, and furthermore states its intent to cut down on carbs.
    Michelle, I share your enthusiasm for Dichondra Silver Falls–last summer I had it in two big brick planters in front of our house along with blue-leaved senecio and two different glaucous cacti. I like the idea of adding something burgundy.

  22. I have that too Pat, but I also have a false indigo next to them that blooms blue at the same time. Gorgeous.

  23. I enjoy the best of edible and ornamental worlds!

    My container vignette features “Little Prince” eggplant with sedum “Angelina” (great chartreuse and lavender combo), andartichoke with sempervivum.

    Perennials I can’t and won’t give up Any succulent, salvia or other mediterranean plant.

  24. I’m with Tom. Unless you count the peas my daughter is growing, my garden is given over to ornamentals, with basil added in because it’s too expensive at the grocery store. The veggie fad is passing me by. My heart’s not in it. Give me more agaves, grasses, salvias, and roses!

  25. I’m thinking…and thinking…
    I can’t remember ever seeing a vegetable garden where there weren’t any “ornamentals”–as well.

    I really don’t understand your worry…if anything, the last few decades have seen a large number American gardeners forget all about their parent’s or grandparent’s vegetable gardens while shopping for the “new” and the “rare” from Plant Delights, Heronswood, or other purveyors of introductions from plant hunters/propagators–and costing mucho buckos. And–I’m extremely frustrated to add–sometimes those new introductions have not matched the hype and expectations (even from the so-called “big name” plant guys)…in other words…in my experience, there can be lots of disappointments and “ugliness” when growing “ornamentals” as well. (The only exception to this is Scott Kunst…Absolutely everything I’ve purchased from him has turned out to be every bit as fabulous as he says it will be in his catalogs/talks)

    I can buy really wonderful tomatoes from my farmer’s market, too…and the same $12 for 2-3 days worth of delicious eating, would buy me several plants that would give me an entire tomato season of abundance and variety. And, there is a wonderful sense of accomplishment when I’ve grown enough to “can”…and then open and eat in mid-winter.

    I used to grow mostly veg with a smaller “ornamental” garden, and spent far less money on plants and supplies than I have the past few years after being seduced into the lust for “ornamentals.”

    Like I said at the top: I cannot remember seeing a garden that has loads of veggies that does not have your pretty “non-edibles” too. It doesn’t have to be either/or…and in my neck of the woods (rural, but very close to NYC) never was either/or.

  26. Thank you, amen amen! Though I really enjoyed our veggie garden last year (the first year I was able to have a real garden instead of just containers bursting with herbs and flowers on my apartment balconies), “ornamentals” are dear to my heart. I’m as happy to see a yard bursting with flowers and green leafy things as I am a big (or small) veg garden. Honestly, it seems a bit snide to call the non-edibles “ornamental”, as if they’re the garden equivalent of a dizzy supermodel good for nothing but her looks. Not only are they lovely, they attract and feed all sorts of beneficial bugs.

    We’re trying to mix edibles with the “just beautifuls” this year in our garden. Tomato and pepper plants and our apple trees are lovely and give us food (well, the trees are a bit young yet…), but we also really enjoy our roses, peonies, zinnias, clematis, and marigolds.

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