“Plant for foliage!” is a term you have probably heard a great deal over the last few years.  But then you’ve probably also heard “Plant for pollinators!” and more than likely you’ve heard both slogans here (though I do try and stay away from the excessive use of exclamation marks in my proselytizing). But if you’ve got a small to average-sized garden, you’re probably trying to figure out how you can do both things at once, or even if you should.

Let me answer the second part of that question first.

I feel very strongly that you should do whatever you want to do in your own garden (after all, that’s the premise of my book).


foliage, flower, begonia grandis


It’s your garden. Not mine, not your mother’s and not Martha Stewart’s.  If you were to put me in charge of your garden, I’d throw out all your gnomes, remove the scabby leylands and dig up anything magenta. If you put Martha in charge, she’d throw you out and hire a designer.

But I ask you – is that a way to live?  Under the thumb of someone else? Even somebody with taste as good as mine? My husband would tell you that this is not an enviable place to be.  No, better you garden your piece of paradise in the ways that bring you joy – even if those ways involve using the GN-word.

So this brings us to the first part of the question:  Can you have a pollinator-friendly garden that wows with foliage at the same time?  Going a bit further, must you only plant natives these days, or can you enjoy the pleasures of exotic plants?  Can you tell anyone about it if you do?

No flowers in the early spring, but the Black Swallowtails love the ligularia flowers in the summer. (Ligularia dentata ‘Othello’ with autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora))

The answer(s)?  In my opinion, absolutely.

There are plenty of strong foliage plants that sport beautiful flowers – rodgersia, ligularia, hosta, canna, begonia, cyclamen, weigela, and hydrangea (to name just a few) and a host of foliage plants – such as grasses – that provide habitat for pollinators and other forms of wildlife.

And as for mixing exotics and natives?  Well, my canna and monarda were doing things together in the barn garden this year that made my heart skip (not to mention the hearts of neighboring hummingbirds).

But there are those who might not feel similarly, and thus I will amend my answer.

Absolutely. As long as you aren’t too zealously committed to whatever you’re supposed to be zealously committed to at the moment; and if you have the inner strength to be peaceful with your own choices even in the face of dissenting opinion.

Zealots are rarely happy people. If your mantra is ‘pollinators or perish,’ you’re going to feel guilty adding plants that add a lot of panache to the garden, but nothing in the pollen or nectar department, such as the hardy banana, Musa basjoo.

Thus you must avert your gaze from the obviously eye-catching specimen in the garden of a friend (and refuse her offer of a pup) in order to keep the inner-flame alive. That can’t feel good. After all, it seriously would have set off the Rudbeckia maxima you just planted.

Conversely, if you have fully rid yourself of the time-heavy constraints of flower gardening, or feel yourself ‘above all that flower nonsense’ as you magically pair ‘Silver Lining’ Pyracantha with a plum colored ninebark, you may not wish for a single bloom to spoil your dramatic foliage-first garden.

Therefore, wandering a friend’s meadow and contemplating the addition of a bit of bee-laded veronicastrum to go with all that fine foliage of yours is right out.

That’s gotta chafe a little bit too.  Think what it would have done against that ninebark.

We are rarely happy when we think of a garden in terms of absolutes.

Years ago a fellow tour-goer and I stood in front of a stunning display of ‘Andrea Atkinson’ Japanese anemones in a September garden and contemplated the remarkable amount of insects coming and going amongst the hundreds of pure white blooms.  At a time when the fall colors of surrounding trees and shrubs had begun to materialize yet many other perennials were in decline, the scene was memorable.

Equally memorable were my companion’s words.

“How very beautiful.” she said quietly, and I agreed, just as softly.    But less than five seconds later, her tone sharpened. “What a pity they aren’t native.” she said and turned on her heel – no doubt to fawn over the mildewed monarda foliage laying flattened on the other end of the garden.

I stood amazed.  But this type of thinking is not unusual.  Only a few weeks ago I was wandering through a public garden with a group, and was troubled to hear one of them look out on a meadow and woodland teeming with life and abundance in its many forms, yet express how angry it made her feel to spy invasive plants in the mix.

This is the second time I have heard this sentiment in the same type of setting.  I am certainly not overjoyed to see honeysuckle and multiflora rose taking over areas that I have previously cleared of them, but to feel anger is beyond me.

When I take a walk through the woods there is only one thing I feel angry about – the person before me who has littered the way with trash.  Spying a stand of Hemerocallis fulva in full bloom doesn’t quite provoke the same reaction.


Can’t quite access the fury on this one. 


I am more often than not humbled by the resiliency of plant life on this planet – particularly when I am in a highly urbanized environment and observe something like Johnson grass re-greening an abused, compacted and abandoned lot.  Invasive plants are, for all their faults, living organisms with the same agenda as the plants we cosset and curate – they just happen to be better at it.

Sometimes we’re not necessarily this ideologically committed, but loud voices around us make us feel we should be. We think we have to plant certain things because that’s what everyone else is doing or what we are currently being told to do.  We don’t want to stand against the current, nor do we want to be called names, and it’s easier to go with the flow.

Be brave.  Take time to do your research; but be brave. And be yourself in your own garden regardless of the latest trends. The late New York Times columnist Allen Lacy made no bones about the fact that he had no desire to plant for winter interest, despite the shaming words of great gardeners before him – or indeed, great gardeners of his day.

“As for winter itself” he said early on in his epistolary book with Nancy Goodwin, “I dislike it, and the longer it goes on, the more I dislike it.” For those of you who have read A Year in Our Gardens, or know a little bit about the splendor that is Nancy Goodwin’s garden at Montrose from late October throughout the wicked windy months of winter, you can appreciate how bold a statement this was.

But Goodwin was not harsh with him, nor dismissive.  In her own effusive way, she instead described acres of snowdrops and cyclamen, and told him of the joy she felt in doing a Christmas day walk around Montrose every year to tally the many species blooming.  Her aim was to persuade, not chastise.  There was no zealotry there. It had its effect on Lacy, who touted the splendors of winters at Montrose in his writing throughout his later years.

I feel similarly persuaded when I tour the garden of a friend in Braddock Heights who has put together a rich assortment of some of our best native plants and presents it with a gentle smile and a desire to educate (as well as a few seedlings!).  Her example is inspiring.  I’m not saying I’ll give up my cannas, but I’m definitely putting in a scarlet buckeye next year.

If you’re a thoughtful gardener with a steward’s heart, you are more likely than not doing some wonderful things out there and people are watching you. Persuasion, not coercion is the key.  Fanatically mouthing catchphrases will not make us better gardeners or stewards of this beautiful Earth. But gentle example in our own gardens and for other gardeners will.


Reprinted with kind permission from the Frederick News Post