Is that all there is?


Not for me, alas. 

Plants don’t bring out the five-year-old in me any more. I
was looking at the newest and hottest offerings of 2010, according to the
Garden Center Magazine, and the first thing I saw was an image of “Hot Lava” echinacea.
 Then there was the “Jersey
Earlybird Cardinal” hemerocallis, and then the heuchera “Berry Smoothie” caught
my eye. (Some of the new heuchera foliage is brighter than most flowers.)  

I don’t mean to pick on these plants in particular—a lot of them are really cool—but every
year I seem more able to resist them. Once I yearned for these delightful  rarities; now I tend to pass them by.

There seem to be five or more stages of plant geekdom. They
vary from gardener to gardener, but here were mine, as a partial to full shade

Stage one:  All
I wanted was huge swathes of constantly blooming flowers. Most of them were
pink. Or blue. Or one of the latest, greatest, new introductions.

Stage two: Those flowers, most of which required the exact
opposite conditions of what exists on my property, died.  I wised up, just a bit, and looked for
plants that would survive in my conditions, but still with flowers the primary

Stage three: I began to focus on groundcovers and bulbs,
which seemed to provide as close to a win/win as I would get. I entered bulb
geekdom, learning about the species and the ephemerals.

Stage four:  Finally I begin to collect more interesting shade perennials
that flower in spring. I had ignored these in the past because spring here
barely exists—we move right into summer. Nonetheless, I got into hellebores,

Stage five: I have now “collected” as many interesting
plants as I can, and can barely shoehorn in one more hellebore or epimedium—not
even a tiny erythronium tuber. I am seriously considering pulling out a couple
beds and doing the whole thing over again, resisting the urge to collect, using
more of the same plants, and thinking more astutely about design issues.

There is probably a full-sun version of this. I’m guessing many of you have your own versions. Is there a lesson to be learned from it all?

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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 regularly 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


  1. I’ve been there. I’m there now: The five stages of grieving (that I don’t have a full sun, moist, fertile garden), starting with Denial (aka Ignorance) and ending with Acceptance.

    There’s even Bargaining in the middle. Like: if I plant those moisture-lovers, I do promise to water them. Or: delphs might work – part-shade is also part-sun, right? Ha! And, ha! again. Hopefully, I’ve killed my last plant with that kind of thinking.

    When I see those new introductions, the devil on my shoulder will have to content herself with getting other people to buy them.

  2. great topic! I agree most gardeners start with focussing only on flowers, then we move on to foliage and hopefully, larger plants that provide structure, something to look at every day of the year.

    Here I go pushing shrubs again.

  3. When I was a beginning gardener, my friend Gerald, who was in his 60’s, confessed to me, “After 30 years of gardening, I’m not really interested in flowers any more.”

    Back then, I was shocked. Now I understand what he means.

  4. I appear to be in stage 4. I still lament the sunny space things I’d love to grow but I’ve finally gotten a grip on the good stuff that can happen in shade. All I need is a bigger plant budget so I can reach fancy plant fatigue.

  5. I want my lesson to be “embrace all of the stages.” I’m tired of beating myself up for still being in stage X when the people who know better are telling me to focus on stage [X+3]. Gardening wisdom and advice are wonderful things, and I’m glad I have access to them for when I’m ready to move on or have learned how to see the structure possibilities. But just like during my teen years, just because I can see the wisdom of the eventualities doesn’t mean I don’t want to go all-out in the experimentation that it takes to acquire that wisdom firsthand, rather than from accepting it from someone else.

  6. Wow, my wife and I went the opposite route. We started with shrubs, groundcover, and other basic foundation stuff. The flowers just didn’t appeal to me, since I like watching things grow larger and larger with each passing year.

    Still, this year we’re starting to get more into the flowers, since there’s only so much you can do with shrubbery.

  7. Yup, got over my delphinium obsession (kind of), I am on to shrubs. I love shrubs, and the epimediums (my current favourites), Hellebores (increasing my collection now). Thank goodness I moved last summer so I could start with a clean slate in my maturing plant tastes. I can freely indulge in the plants I want, except my daughters are already complaining that I didn’t leave enough grass to play on….sigh. It’s just a stage, they will grow up. They do like to have a steady stream of flowers though, they pick them and decorate the shrubs.

  8. Can I be in more than one stage at once? With structural plants (shrubs, small trees, etc) in the back yard, flowers, flowers everywhere in the front and an experimental try-the-new-rarity bed in the side yard?

    I don’t see these stages as either a progression or necessarily separate (like grieving – people can skip stages, go backwards, jump around). Embrace the stage(s) you’re in and enjoy your garden.

  9. One January, I looked out back at the “dead” roses and asked my husband if he cared whether I took them out and planted trees and conifers. Next thing I knew he was out cheerfully pulling up roses. I guess the answer was yes. And we’ve never looked back!

  10. I’m somewhere in the 3rd stage of a sun garden, which is Embrace the Grasses and Shrubs. Of course, at any given time, in some part of the yard I am in Stage 5: Do Over! After 15 years of self-taught screwing around in the garden, I definitely feel that I’m maturing into a more design-aware person. Unfortunately my garden is pretty well full of mistakes; maybe it’s time to sell the house?!

  11. As a landless gardener, I’ve only had community gardens and balconies in the past, I have longed for what I couldn’t have. But then I have always worked at a garden center or public garden and I got my fill of planting annual displays and keeping the water features clean. I’m on to being excited about low maintance beauty. It makes my job easier and hopefully shows people gardening doesn’t have to involve huge seasonal display changes.

  12. I recognize these stages, though I seem to have been in more than one at any given time. I’m bridging Stages Four & Five now – is this “gardening maturity” ?

  13. Well, I was in Stage 4 and celebrating the fact that I was finally accepting the shade. That was before the winds and the rain came yesterday and crashed a couple of huge branches to the ground (with more to come on Wednesday and Thursday). That means more light and some changes in my garden for sure. Am I back to Stage 1? I hope not!

  14. I’m following Susan Harris’ stages. I’ve been in the shrub stage for a while. In addition to providing structure, well chosen shrubs are less maintanence for an aging baby boomer.
    Last summer my sister asked what was blooming in my garden. I felt rather embarrassed, because I was afraid I sounded like a snob when I told her mine isn’t really a flower garden.

  15. The only thing that’s mature about growing shrubs instead of flowers is knowing that old age is right around the corner and I’m not going to be able to do all the work that perennial flower upkeep requires at some point. If I had my way, I’d grow primarily flowers (and large, shrub-like salvias, cestrums, abutilons) forever. I’m all about the keeping the bees, butterflies and hummers happy in my garden. Is that really a sign of being an immature gardener? If so, I’m all for staying in my teen phase as long as I can. On the other hand, I’m learning more about shrubs that will attract birds and my knees and feet are keeping me informed about my real age on a daily basis. I garden to be happy and I’ll continue to plant whatever gives me joy.

  16. For years I have been in the “picante sauce” phase. My trademarked Danny’s Law Of Gardening is as follows:

    Garden advice is like picante sauce — neither one should come from New York City!

    This stage heavily embraces native prairie plants because that is what works so well for me here in the heart of the Midwest.

    I am NOT a native plant purist … just someone who has realized the folly of following recommendations developed from locales with entirely different conditions.

  17. Oh yes–there are the stages. But even the time-worn gardener experiences the heady irrational youth of the process at least briefly over the early spring months. A garden center visit or new catalog connects us to that touchstone–the inner delight that began our journeys as gardeners.

  18. P.S. Just wanted to throw in that I’ve been loving plants for many years, so I’m not a newbie. I blame my perpetual teenagedom on having a small yard, limited sun and endless curiosity. It’s my precious sun areas that are flower filled. I’ve planted shrubs in the the dry shade parts of my garden. However,I have to laugh at some of the plant choices offered in books/magazines for dry shade. These people have obviously never gardened in California, where dry means it hasn’t rained in 6 months. I’m experimenting with coffeeberry and Ribes sanguinium right now. Oakleaf hydrangea, euphorbias, cuphea and hellebores have passed the test.

  19. I’m not in any of those stages. I want any cool new plant that will work in my conditions. I’m started to move toward stage 5 though, as I finally begin to realize that there just isn’t a whole lot of space left for anything new. Except for containers. Lots more containers…

  20. At my age, I’ve been through a lot of gardening stages, too. I’m now in my sustainable gardening phase. When we had two weeks of freezing weather here in northern Florida that ended last week, it probably wiped out many of my more tender plants and I’ll be left with what can make it in this environment. Too bad I didn’t buy tulips this year–it was probably cold enough for long enough that they might actually have been successful. Also I’m much less excited by new cultivars, except for heat-loving edibles, and purchase plants that fit into the overall plan.

    Great discussion.

  21. I’m with you. In March, when it is cooler, and the winter rains start. Then I will take cuttings of all the things that ARE happy, and spread them around the ‘that’s not dead, it’s resting …’

  22. You left out phase 6, When you have gone to shrubs and ground covers and embraced foliage and realize you need a little color and you gasp! rediscover annuals. And buy flats of those things you turned your nose up at (marigolds, impatiens) because they give you color all summer and set off your foliage plants so nice. And you start interesting annuals from seed because now you are an empty nester and can use the spare bedroom for this purpose because you can shut the door and keep the cats out. Said cats having prevented seed starting in the past.

  23. Have you tried moving your garden into the house? That’s what sustains me during the winter, and when I feel overwhelmed by the outdoor garden (every July). But then, I’m a sucker for plants whether they’re in the house or outside.

  24. I have to concur with those who say the stages get combined and you can progress backwards. I just don’t see an all-shrub and groundcover garden in my future, but I totally agree about annuals.

  25. I’m growing a lot of species rhododendrons. Species rhododendrons come in everything from trees to groundcovers. The leaves come in every shape and size, even different colors like silver and blue (there’s also a red leafed hybrid that somehow snuck in to my garden). There are rhododendrons you would never guess were rhododendrons. Some rhododendrons bloom as early as January and other as late as July. Some are fabulously fragrant. There are rhodies for almost every climate from alpine to tropical. If you are only familiar with the hybrids check out

  26. I am currently in stages one through four with a brand new garden that will take years to fill. I want huge swaths of flowers and shade perennials that will survive in the sun and shade conditions I have to fill in space while the trees, shrubs, groundcovers and bulbs have time to mature, take over more room and crowd out the flowers. The over riding concept is the right plant in the right place the first time. That should minimize the inevitable rearranging.

  27. Stage 6: Move!

    I, like someone else above, started with shrubs. Boring, low maintenance, shrubs. I’m moving more and more towards flowers and edibles.

    Perhaps I am now somewhere in the middle of the stages 3-4 as I have become focused on growing my own vegetables mixed in with my annuals and perennials.

  28. For me the lesson is “Live and Learn”. That is what gardening is all about. Sometimes you learn you like bright flowers. Sometimes you learn that you want to chuck the whole thing.

  29. For me it’s a bit like over eating. I got “fed up” and had to stop with the gluttony and take a fresh look at what was already here, and realize that I was surrounded with a lot of cool plants that were doing well. For the places where things were not so swell…I, too am now loving shrubs (for the same reasons re less labor mentioned by others) and containers and those bright annuals.

  30. Cats and seeds? No problem here, as long as you provide a separate heat mat for the cat so that she won’t push the seedlings to the floor in order to install her fat self..

    I dunno what stage I’m in — is there one called “confusion”?

  31. I wish I could be in any of those stages, but growing conditions are so rough that my selections are restricted to what grows on 3 to 6 inches of strongly alkaline soil over caliche, tolerates two straight months of 100 degree temps without rain in full sun followed by tons of rain and then below average temp freezes (10 degrees). I’ll take any plant, any color, even weeds, that can handle this.

  32. As far as flower gardening goes, I have gone through many stages as well. I first began trying to collect the most exotic, crazy-looking (and non-native, BIG mistake) flowers I could find. After my front yard started looking like the Sanford & Son’s of gardens, I switched to butterfly gardening.

    Now I just use plants that are easy to maintain (and yes, boring). I mostly plant Stella D’Oro Dayliilles, maybe Gerbera Daisies, and tulips – nothing fancy. When the squirrels are digging up the bulbs, that is.

  33. I’m in the ” I need more land phase”.
    Left with not having anymore ground to plant in I have started growing plants on vertical surfaces such as on the trunks of my palm trees and wall surfaces.
    No surface is safe.

  34. For me stage 1 was vegetables. Feed the family was the goal. Stage 2 was ” What’s free from friends”? This stage is perfect for the gardener on a tight budget.I still have many of those plants now. Stage 3 was a total fascination with herbs. I highly reccomend this stages. Your meals will never be the same! Stage 4: flowers, shrubs anything that will attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Stage 5: I keep the best from all the previous stages and add a few new plants when I feel like it. Stage 6 will probably be a few pots on the windowsill. I plan to stay in stage 5 for a long time!

  35. In the majority of my garden I am at stage 5. I know what will work and what won’t and only have room to replace things lost in the freeze. Now I have a new fruit and vegetable garden going in part of my backyard. I am starting at stage one all over again(though I am trying to be more aware). It is like having a new puppy, all I want to do is play with it and spoil it rotten. 🙂
    It should be interesting to see what comes out of it this year, and next, as I progress through the stages again.

    PS- Does anyone have a good source for tuscan garden designs. I want to turn the rest of my backyard into a non-fussy tuscan villa garden(on a smaller scale) and am having a heck of a time finding much info.

  36. I’m just digging on the Peggy Lee tune (and hoping to do a little better with seed experiments this year-veggies, annuals, and perennials).

  37. The “stages” paradigm is just that. People involved in death and bereavement know people go back and forth in the process. We work towards “acceptance” and that’s good advice for our gardens too. The stages model raises another question- how long are these stages supposed to be? As long as they need to be. We get attached in different ways and for different reasons. I think some “groups” of people will never “grow out of” the marigold and petunia phase. All the better!!

  38. I’ve been going through a “title oddity” stage for awhile now. An example would be an area where a “Bela Lugosi” daylily is planted not too far from an iris named “Count Dracula”…

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