DO PLANTS HAVE a personality? Hell, yes, says Laura Crockett in a Fine Gardening article. She classifies plants according to the way they look—relaxed, charismatic, reliable and edgy.
‘Relaxed plants typically feature arching stems and an open, branching structure. Their leaves are often smooth or formed into simple shapes with sleek edges, which are part of an overall downward pattern that leads to the ground and reminds us to come down and rest. They do not display sharp or arresting colour variations. It’s always a bonus if their flowers release a fragrance that provides an aromatherapeutic effect. A mix of mainly relaxed plants is often a welcome addition to private gardens near a bedroom, study, or dining room.’ Think of the bougainvillea arching over your study window or winding its way over your hedge.
Then you have the charismatic personalities—Dahlia, Canna, Holyoke, Bismarckia, Chinese Fan. She says, ‘charismatic plants add punch to the garden with their robust, striking habits that surge upward from the earth.’ Think of the stiff spokes of the Bismarckia, or the Chinese Fan plants. ‘Look at me’—shouts the Dahlia. While some are rigid in habit, others like the Holyoke like to sway and dance in the breeze. You can make a statement with these plants either in your driveway or on your balconies and terraces. My Bismarckia on the terrace is like a queen in a stiff ball gown. Striking.
Like in real life, the most important plants in the garden, especially for those of us who have container gardens, are the reliable ones. The per square foot space cannot be wasted. As Crockett points out, ‘sometimes all we need is some solid plants that will get the job done. Reliable plants are generally unchanging and well grounded, with dense or tightly grouped leaves and insignificant flowers. They provide calm assurance that all is right with the world and that there will be no surprises.’ Like a well-dressed and polite guest at a dinner party who can be depended upon to say the right things and to soothe ruffled feathers. These plants, she says, are the real aristocrats of the plant world and work well in formal or conservative settings, in places with a lot of traffic, and grouped either together or combined with the more flamboyant personalities. They don’t crave the limelight. And they indicate that the garden is under control and properly in order. I would put the winter flowering plants like marigold, alyssum, impatiens and salvia in this category though their flowers are far from insignificant.
Plants, like people, can have hybrid personalities too. The fabulously scented sweet pea is not reliable unless it becomes established. In its seed and seedling stage, the sweet pea belongs to the diva-hypochondriac genre. Once it takes root though, it is a very prolific and reliable flowerer filling many a tub and vase with scented blooms. The more you pick, the more it blooms. Last year, though, I was not successful with my sweet pea—the seeds didn’t germinate. May try and find seedlings this year (though it is usually only available as seed) and see if they work when planted in a trough.
Here is advice from my guru: Alick Percy-Lancaster (the superintendent of Sunder Nursery in the late 1940s and early 1950s) who wrote this in 1949 (A Sahib’s Manual for the Mali). Alick recommends giving the seedling adequate support with bamboo sticks, and once you do it, the plant’s tendrils will do their job. He also says that once given adequate support, all tendrils should be removed to allow the plant to have more strength to produce flowers. I didn’t know that. Will try it this time.
Then you have the category of a supporting cast, which includes plants with an edge. Think of a party with a handful of eccentrics who may refuse to speak or when they do, say something weird and offensive. Elephant ears, large cactus, agave, yucca are all the eccentrics of the gardening world. I would temper these with the gregarious plants—nepeta, alyssum, maidenhead ferns and begonia.
Amongst these personalities, you also have some who symbolise a season. For me winter (the first crisp morning arrived on November 30) in Delhi begins with the first bloom of a petunia, impatiens and chrysanthemums. For me, damask roses symbolise summer, not winter, though the blooms of all roses grow larger in the cold.
I have decided to stick to the reliable variety this winter. Carnations, petunias, impatiens, nasturtiums (planted in shallow round bowls) and ranunculus (planted in ceramic pots) are reliable re-flowerers. I was surprised to find alyssum returning to bloom in the pots I had planted them in last winter and had removed. Its seeds had hibernated in the summer and were back producing gorgeous fresh green leaves with sparkling white blooms. Lots of butterflies and bees have been gorging on their nectar. A perennial that does well in winter is the Beloperone guttata—the deep maroon variety is better than the yellow one. I noticed something interesting about it—the hybrid variety looks great in summer because its leaves are a bright green, but in winter, with the change in the light, it is the original Beloperone that outshines the hybrid. Its darker green leaves and gorgeous maroon bracts that look like jumbo shrimps waving in the crisp winter air. Interesting how nature’s tapestry takes account of the change in sunlight.
In its seed and seedling state, the sweet pea belongs to the Diva-Hypochondriac genre. Once it takes root though, it is a very prolific and reliable flowerer
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Let me tell you about some unreliable plants. Well, they proved unreliable in my garden. Last winter, I bought a handful of blue flower seeds of lupin but they did not germinate! Total waste. Another miss were the poppies. Total waste of pot space. The California poppies did not flower. Well, a single flower does not count, and the foliage resembled a bunch of weeds stuck together. This year, I have planted only three poppies, one each in a 12-inch bowl. They seem to be growing. Won’t say anything until I see the first flower. May use it as an accent pot.
If you have planted alyssum in the pots and in the garden, pinch the flower heads (i.e. pluck them or cut them) before the formation of seed so that new flowers will be produced, says Alick. That, by the way, is the advice one should follow for marigolds, dahlias and roses but NOT for chrysanthemums (blooming now onwards) and cineraria (which will bloom from late January onwards). Following his advice, last spring I got a Hamelia patens (Mexican fire bush) whose leaves have now turned a delightful bronze as the temperatures dipped.
Also, he recommends pruning the summer flowering Lagerstroemia indica (crepe myrtle) and the November blooming Hibiscus mutabilis in December as both become deciduous. And please do not overwater. Just keep the soil moist, that’s all. Overwatering, he says, will delay the flowering of petunia, phlox, salvia, linaria, verbena, alyssum and candytuft. As the temperatures dip in early December, Dahlias, nasturtiums, ageratum and salvias are very susceptible to the cold and should be either protected or washed with tepid water in the morning before the sun rises. I won’t be doing either—have decided follow the Darwinian approach to gardening. Thrive or perish—that’s my response to all my plants.
For the chrysanthemum lovers, Alick says beware of the ‘green fly’. Spray a nicotine decoction—chop up a couple of pounds of tobacco leaves, soak them in a bucket of water in which an ounce of powdered alum has been dissolved and spray this solution on the plants.
As cold foggy mornings and days appear on the horizon, I have decided to go grey in my colour scheme in one corner of the garden, to intensify the wintery feel. Grey foliaged plants—lavender, nepeta, Texas sage—can be used as a foil for sparks of crimson, soft pink and mauve flowers. The container can transform the personality of a plant. A reliable plant like a petunia can also become charismatic if planted in a spectacular container.
The trick is to first create height by using a wire and creating a structure staked properly in the pot. Then you line it with the green baize cloth that you use to shade your plants in summer. Then fill it with the potting mix, cut holes along the side of the tower and plant a petunia seedling at intervals. These will spread as they grow and soon you will have a gorgeous cascade of petunias. Or, using the thriller (anything that grows tall and upright), filler (anything that tends to spread horizontally) and spiller (anything that spills over the sides of the pot), you can also create a charismatic container. Just doing one or two of these will add drama and verve to your garden. So go ahead and experiment.