"It's like paying a nickel to see the bearded lady," explained Carol Reece. "We're attracted to the unusual."
Reece, a specialist in ornamental horticultural with the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service, talked about the appeal of the aberrant recently at the West Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association's conference.
Reece is a great speaker with progressive ideas based on years of practical experience. And she's the kind of woman you want to sit with on her front porch and just listen to her Southern drawl as she describes the plants in her garden. She told the group of landscapers to be the "Frank Zappa" of gardening: Be solid in your knowledge, as Zappa was a solid musician, but be a little wild. Try different plants in their landscape plans.
"If you're just doing the same old landscape, you won't cut it," she said.
Reece is a proponent of need-based design, starting with a family interview to assess things like if the wife likes to grow herbs, if there are kids who need a play space, if there are dogs, if Dad likes to watch wildlife.
She told a funny story about her own garden: She has a special bird-attracting bed outside of her bathroom window, and on the inside of the window she has binoculars on a hook and a bird book right inside the window. "I'm gonna sit there every morning, anyway. Why not make it interesting?"
Garden designers used to say variegated and gold-leaved plants should be used with discretion, but now they are used more often, Reece said. She suggested using Cornus sericea "Hedgerow's Gold," which is a hedge dogwood. The bright green leaves are boldly margined with an irregular pattern in golden yellow, with burgundy red stems. After leaves drop in autumn, you still have those beautiful red stems. It's vigorous, forming a thicket that quickly reaches 6 feet tall by 6 feet wide and is best with regular water, good light and protection from the hot afternoon sun.
One important point Reece made is that a garden needs to have a strong symmetry of structural form. With good "bones," you can use the wild and unusual plants without looking too wild and unusual.
Reece said, "On this side of the Mississippi, we're a bit afraid of color. We're too afraid of being called 'tacky!'" But her suggestions appealed to me, as I love color and want to try many of her suggestions. Maybe I just like tacky.
Terra Nova Nursery has a great line of echinaceas that are all named after foods. Three that might go into my garden this summer are "Mac 'n' Cheese," "Coconut Lime," and "Tomato Soup." Greenbrier Nurseries in Beckley and Groundworks Nursery in Hinton both carry Terra Nova plants.
Another beautiful plant Reece suggested is the Salix elaeagnos "Angustifolia" (also known as S. elaeagnos var. "rosmarinifolia"), commonly known as rosemary willow. It's a silvery shrub that has dark brown new growth with long, thin leaves that resemble a rosemary plant. It can be trimmed to a formal style and it responds to vigorous pruning.