Garden Designers Roundtable – Memory and Plants

We all tend to collect our memories somewhere – scrapbooks, journals, photo albums, memory quilts, recipes or family movies (just to name a few).  But for many of us, our gardens are what carry us through the years, bringing back fond memories through sight, scent, touch and taste.

Personally, I can’t help but think of my grandmother whenever I see a towering delphinium.  And the sound of palm fronds ‘clapping’ in the wind instantly transports me to one of my favorite beaches in Hawaii.  In fact, just last week I was at a client’s garden, picking some of her Concord grapes to overnight to my father who just had knee surgery.  Whenever he tastes a Concord grape, he reminisces about his grandmother’s garden and the summers he spent with her, plucking the inky black grapes that hung from her arbor.  I had hoped the familiar taste would give him a moment of joy in his painful recovery, which (I’m happy to say) it did.

One thing I love most about my job and designing gardens for others, is creating something that has the power to transport them to someplace special.  I’ve seen many ways in which people incorporate memories into their gardens, and plants are – hands down – at the top of the list.  Rare is the client who doesn’t have at least one plant they’d like to see incorporated into the design for whatever sentimental reason.  And it’s always my honor to do so.

The topic for this month’s Garden Design Roundtable, is Memory and Plants, which is right up my ally.  My own garden is one giant memory bank, and as I walk around I can’t help but notice all the ways in which my past is woven throughout…

A hot Greek island comes to mind every time my red poppies are in bloom.  Smuggled home from a trip to Greece, were a few seeds from the zillions of poppies that were blooming on every hillside.  And each spring, I’m reminded again of that wonderful country.

One of my favorite hydrangeas is an unnamed variety that blooms white, then fades to beautiful antique shade of rose.

My ex-husband gave it to me after our divorce, having dug it out of our original garden before selling our home.  We’ve always had two things in common – our daughter and gardening, which, I’m happy to say, have been strong enough bonds to strengthen our friendship through the years.  The hydrangea, planted outside my front door, is a reminder of the healing power of plants.

My daughter is reminded of her childhood every time she plucks a leaf from the Pineapple Sage growing in the garden.  Ever since she could walk, she’s loved snacking on the fruity leaves of this perennial herb.

After my divorce, I tried to make the transition as easy as possible for my daughter, by planting some of her favorite plants from our previous garden.  13 years later, I can still find her standing next to the towering salvia, picking a leaf or two to munch.Feverfew re-seed throughout my garden with wild abandon and represent some of my happiest memories of all – my grandparents’ home at Lake Tahoe.   Without fail, each spring brings me predictable excitement once I spot the first leaves emerge.  Gently crushing a few leaves between my fingers and deeply inhaling their peppery fragrance, transports me back to my childhood, even if just for a moment.

And thanks to their prolific re-seeding I always end up with more than I need.  More often than not, I try to incorporate them into the gardens of my clients in hopes of spreading the joy these little troopers bring throughout the long, hot months of Summer.  Once my clients hear the story of where the little plants originally came from, they love them just about as much as I do.Since I’ve always lived in mild-climate California, as has my family, it’s been fairly easy for me to re-create these memories in my garden.  It’s not always easy, though, when someone comes from another part of the country, which seems to be the case with so many of my clients.

I’m asked time and time again to ‘please plant lilacs (or peonies, for that matter) to remind me of home‘, and I’m always so sad to inform them that in our temperate Zone 9, these plants will barely bloom.  Luckily, there’s so many alternatives that are, at least, somewhat similar (see post here).  While the alternatives won’t give you the exact scent or precise look of your original memory-plant, they can be pretty darn close.  And sometimes close is good enough!One of our Roundtablers, Andrew Keys, has written a fantastic book on this very topic, called Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?  I’ve read this book cover to cover, and can’t wait to share with you an interview that Susan Morrison and I had with Andy last week (coming soon!!)  Suffice it to say, that after reading this book, I now have an entire page of notes filled with plant alternatives that I can’t wait to try.  For example, for my clients who request their gardens be filled with the lilacs of their Eastern memories, I might instead suggest Korean spice viburnum, ceanothus (conveniently nicknamed California Lilac) or the Chaste tree (like in this photo).

Andy’s witty comparisons of hum-drum plants and their superstar alternatives  has been an absolute joy to read.Thanks for stopping by!  And don’t forget to stop by the other members of the Roundtable today, to read their thoughts on Plants and Memory:

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

Rochelle Greayer : Studio ‘g’ : Boston, MA

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  • Thanks for sharing some of yourself and your family in this post, Rebecca! I love learning more about clients’ histories via their sentimental must-have plants. Sometimes they want to bring in a new plant to remind them of their ancestral home, or to recreate the “feel” of another climate — arid southwest or lush India — using plants hardy to New England. I’m always sad when I have to break it to someone from DC that azaleas just aren’t going to be as satisfying here as they are down south. But like you, I’m pleased when I *can* find a way to fill that plant-shaped hole in someone’s heart. Kudos to Andy for writing a book to make that process easier!

  • Memories and plants – oh I could write quite a bit on that – those plants and memories are very distinct and vivid. Thanks for your post – it was lovely to read.

  • You are right – lilacs seem to be the memory flower of choice for this particular month’s posts! Lovely article, as always. I’m not much of a hydrangea fan, but the rich, mulberry color of yours, particularly against the fall leaves, just might change my mind…

    • Yeah, that’s a pretty awesome combo isn’t it, Susan? I wish I knew the cultivar!!!

  • Dear Rebecca, this is a thoughtful essay-thanks for the time it took to create it. Your idea that a garden can provoke memories-your photographs make that clear. Your idea that a garden can enchant, heal, enthrall and energize-love that. Thanks again, Deborah

    • Thank you, Deborah. I’m glad my article resonated with you and appreciate your kind words.

  • Hi Rebecca, For years I’ve been trying to find the name of my lovely hydrangea and here it’s -” no name” (Thanks for that), but I still love it! And the lilac, being born in Europe I really miss it here in Sydney. I’ve got some cutting, given to me, I put ice cubes all the time, cross fingers, I’d grow. Oh, memoris, memoris!
    Regards to all gardeners, who, crazy, like me, love gardenning Rossie

    • Ha – so sorry, Rossie! I wish I knew the name of that cultivar, too. I think we should name it ourselves, don’t you think? Maybe Rossie-Becca?

      • DONE! I like it! I’m going to put a label today & send you a pic. Please, let me know where to send it to, I’m not on facebook though. Now it’s in full bloom, unfortunately, the other day I had 35+ temp, I was out, couldn’t covered it & it got burnt out, just a a bit, but it’s still beautiful. Still green, with blue dots.

  • Excellent!! And HUGE thanks for the plug! If ‘Miss Kim’ lilac blooms for you guys, I wonder if ‘Palibin’ would too? I like it even better than Kim.

    Pam, I miss sasanquas too! They’re my absolute favorites.

    • You’re so welcome, Andy! I rarely plant ‘Miss Kim’ only because the 10 days in which they bloom isn’t worth the pale somewhat snoozy color. I might give Palibin a try, though. Thanks for the suggestion!!

  • How nice to read about the memory plants in your garden, Rebecca. One of my biggies is Sasanqua camellia, which sadly is not well adapted to Austin’s alkaline soils and dry spells. I’m not sure a substitute would do, though, so I think it will have to remain in memory only until I have a chance to revisit the Southeast in winter, when those camellias bloom.

    • Hi Pam – I love the smell of camellias (they’re like beets, aren’t they?) and would be lost without at least a few of them planted in my garden. I wish they held up a little better otherwise I’d mail you a few!

  • It WAS a lovely post, Rebecca. I particularly appreciate the honesty of it. I had a woman pull me aside this month after one of my speeches and tell me a bit misty-eyed, “Gardens save people. They get people through the hard times when nothing else will.” It really stuck with me.

    How our lives get interlaced with our little plots just makes both that much fuller.

    • That woman was so wise, Thomas. My garden definitely pulled me out of a dark hole or two. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading it!

  • Lovely post. I have few plants I planted because of my grandmothers, orange calendula and wild violas in particular. If I close my eyes I can be immediately transported to my maternal grandmother’s garden with the scent of the violas in early spring. I recently bought a Chimonanthus praecox, or Wintersweet, because I wanted the intoxicating scent to remind me of my grandmother, who used to give me branches of this plant in the winter months to enjoy inside. I am happy to report that the flower buds are there waiting to burst open. Now I have to find a place for it not too far from the house.

    I always wanted to plant liliacs, glad I read this post or I would be really disappointed. I would love to get the book you mentioned, it sounds really helpful

    The sense of smell is so primordial and so connected with our emotions.

    Are you going to add the links later?

    Have a great week!

    • Thanks for reminding me to post the links, Laura! Re: the lilac – if you simply MUSt have one, try the ‘Miss Kim’. It’ll bloom in our area, but the colors are very pale, icy blue in comparison to the deep hues of the ones back east. The scent is decent, though. The Wintersweet is a new one to me and I’m so glad you mentioned it. I just looked it up and I have the perfect spot for it in my garden! The article I read even recommends growing a smaller clematis on it during its somewhat boring summer months, which I happen to have sitting in a pot here. Ha! It was meant to be! Once I find a wintersweet, I’ll forever think of you when I see/smell it! 🙂 Here’s the article I found if anyone is interested:

      • Thanks for the article! I might have found a place for it, next to the house, where I can enjoy the winter flowers. I hope you find one and will report back once you get to smell it the first time.


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