Each plant is a living testimonial proving that the universe likes contrasts. Like Gilligan and the Skipper, or Carlos and the flying nun, plants play off each other with light and color, shape and texture. The flower show is outstanding in its field!
Today we were pressing cider on the farm after days of gathering apples on ladders. I took a break for a short walk through the fields and observed the following: Long paw paw leaves against the rough bark of the black walnut tree. Orange-red hazelberts with golden yellow Jerusalem artichoke flowers in front of them. The earthy winding form of the kiwi vine up the straight grey rough wooden beams of the arbor. Each of these by themselves would look pretty good but contrasted against each other they jump out and shake you and seem to say, “Hey, wake up, we are amazing beings and we are transforming into our autumn dance right before your eyes!”
Whenever I am deciding where to plant a shrub or a tree, I consider what is behind it or in front of it or to the side. This new planting could easily be swallowed up by everything else growing wild or planted on this hill. But it is the very difference between the new plant and its neighbors that will give it its uniqueness and help it to really have its place. Some of my preferred highlights to date that have really worked are red or pink roses to the south and in front of native white evergreen cedars. Black currant bushes along a white fence. Yellow Jerusalem artichoke flowers to the south and in front of orange-red hazelberts in early October. I remind myself to stop and see the contrasts.
I am sure that the success of many plants is due to their diversity within themselves. On my walk I noticed a “Hansa” fragrant clove scented hardy rose in full blossom in the fall highlighted against its dark green leaves. Any pollinator will not only smell but also see this standout. Animals or people will later see the red rose hip that develops after the flower is gone and can harvest them or eat them, and in doing so, their seeds get dispersed and more of their species gets spread around the countryside.
One can also forecast the height a tree or shrub will attain and use this information to create a mélange of plant levels so you have waves of color and texture and not straight lines. Low native cranberries and Swedish lingonberries under and to the south of blueberry bushes are an example of this, along with a row of ten-foot hazelberts to the south and underneath forty foot butternut and nut pine trees. Aroniaberry bushes grow about five to six feet tall and can be planted to the south and below Juneberry trees which grow to about 15 feet. By themselves, you have a row of a native plant. Together, you have a symphony of color contrasts and fruiting seasons. A lot of songbirds will be dancing and praising your thoughtful selections, too.
I am not sure why people think they have to plant a line or group of the same thing on their land. In nature, everything is sprouting up in a conflux of swirling interesting blends. Let’s see if we can observe and celebrate the soft distinguishing characteristics among the plants in our world and on our palettes. Combining short or tall, reserved or daring, each plant has its spot in the heart of the hillside. Celebrate the differences, explore combinations, and don’t forget to stop and take in the exoticness of your local botanic diversity at its potent best.
David Fried runs Elmore Roots fruit tree and berry nursery in Elmore, Vermont.