The Gestalt Gardener: Artificial plants have their place in gardening

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I have a suggestion for one type of plant that is most likely to hold up in our gardens at this time of year. Warning: you might be appalled.

Keep in mind that I just returned from my second home in the north of England, during which I reported on the brand new Royal Horticultural Society garden named Bridgenorth, and wandered around in countless villages and home gardens full of plants that love their cool climate.

Small, well-bordered lawns, lush flower beds, strongly contrasting clutter of shrubs, hanging baskets and other containers are especially stunning, for several reasons.

First, British gardeners stick to what they can do well in England. Their botanical gardens are testing grounds, flower shows get the message across, and garden centers have full-fledged exhibition gardens that show how to use them. In short, they focus on discovering, and then realizing, what makes sense in their climate.

They can’t understand why we’re so stubbornly trying to force attractive but hard-to-function Florida, Midwestern, or British plants into Mississippi.

This doesn’t mean that their roses and hydrangeas don’t have leaf spots, or that their weeds are easier to treat. They are simply less likely to “change their panties” because of cosmetic issues. And if something isn’t right at all, they just replace it and move on, like they have for centuries. If a tree dies, they plant vines on it or sprout the stump to create a small naturalistic focal point. And yes, they distract from perfection by over-accessorizing themselves with gnomes.

Anyway, when I got back to Jackson it only took half an hour to remember what I missed. The first clue was to get off the plane, to be slapped in the face by hot, humid air. By the time I trudged up my garden path and noticed the faded magnolia tree on my year-old state flag hanging listlessly in the heavy evening air, I was also weakening.

But almost all of my shrubs, flowers, and even potted plants have done very well, as over the years I have gone for the ones that can take months of abject neglect. My overcrowded cottage garden is never watered or sprayed and needs very little pruning because my life is too short to fool with capricious flowers. Those that fail are composted.

So, after half a century of professional ornamental horticulture, I’m embracing new native, heirloom, and proven plants, including everything MSU’s Gary Bachman has verified for us. I have a free listing, if you email me.

But, in the spirit of full disclosure – and please don’t be overly critical, especially if you’re wearing lipstick – a few of my flowers are unnatural. Synthetic, false. False. The Latin name could be Plastica silkfolia tackysanthemum.

You actually have to touch some of them to realize that they are sham. But consider how most of us already come to terms with some unnatural garden features, including gnomes, fairies, saints, poisonous mushrooms, rocks carried hundreds of miles away, flower flags, and even little ones. water gardens which are just false ponds.

Likewise, in very difficult environments, artificial plants (from the ancient Latin artificium meaning “artistic”) have their place; in addition, modern materials are much more realistic, much even with detailed defects, than older plastic ones.

In a nasty prank, I recently posted an unsubtitled photo to Mississippi Gardening’s Facebook site of a fabulous English planter overflowing with lush blooms. It had dozens of likes, oohs and ahhs, until someone noticed the flowers are silk.

But it has certainly shown that when the need arises, even the best garden designers can give in to practicality.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi writer, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Send your gardening questions to [email protected]


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