A Method to My Madness

By Cheryl Whalen, Head Gardener

Gardening season in Connecticut begins in February. Outside my window, the ice-crusted snow still blankets the sleeping garden beds. Maybe it’s too early to garden in the earth, but at my desk, gardens are in full bloom.

Creating a garden design is like putting together a puzzle. You need to figure out how separate pieces best fit together to develop a whole picture. A jigsaw puzzle has one right answer but a garden design can have many. I needed an easy way to visualize the possible solutions to my garden design puzzles. I got crafty and started collaging.

list of flora candidates
Whalen’s garden designs often begin as a list of flora candidates.

My garden designs often begin as a list of flora candidates. While some are new arrivals, most are plants we offer already, and I try to find new ways to showcase them. Next to each plant name on my list, I jot down words to describe its attributes including height, width, and bloom time. When I add a picture to my resource list, the plants begin to come to life. I can easily see the size, shape, and color pattern of a plant’s leaf. I know if its bloom is a fiery red, a warm buttery yellow, or a cool-toned blue.

This time of year sources for plant portraits are abundant. I sit at my desk surrounded by a dozen gardening catalogs, each vying for my attention and inviting me in with a kaleidoscopic cover. With a pair of scissors in my right hand, I get to work. Flipping through the pages, I clip out the pictures I need and make a check mark next to the name on my roster. I must confess that I have skeletonized many a garden catalog over the years with no remorse.

garden collage tools
With scissors and drafting tape, Whalen gets to work.

I make a grid of my pictures on a white sheet of paper. Drafting tape is my preferred method of adhesion. It’s less sticky than other tapes, allowing me to neatly peel up a picture and restick it elsewhere. Peel and stick happens a lot as I move into the most creative and fun phase of my design.

I begin with a picture of a plant that’s an absolute must-have in the garden. This time I choose Dahlia ‘Melody Allegro.’ Dahlias are great garden plants. They begin blooming in June and carry on right until frost. ‘Melody Allegro’ reaches up just above my knees and adorns herself with 3” blooms happily clad in peachy orange, rosy pink, and sunny yellow. She’s pretty all by herself, but if I can pair her up with the proper partners, she can really shine.

I scan my picture grid and my eye stops on the flowers of Cleome ‘Senorita Rosalita.’ The cluster of flower petals reminds me of a cloud of butterflies. Importantly, the shade of pink perfectly matches the color of the Dahlia’s petal tips as she unfurls. I snatch the Cleome off the grid and place it slightly to the front of my Dahlia picture, overlapping the corners.

Scanning the grid once again, Zinnia ‘Profusion Orange’ catches my attention. The shape of the solid orange bloom mimics that of the Dahlia, but it’s half the size. The peachy tones of the Dahlia petals are set off by the steamy orange Zinnia. Without hesitation, I decide this is the plant to complete my tantalizing trio. And so it goes from there. Next I add the airy Helenium ‘Dakota Gold’ to the mix, placing it at the feet of the Zinnia. The color ties in nicely as it echoes the yellow rays of the Dahlia. I grab hold of the burgundy-hued, strappy-leaved Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ to back up the whole presentation.

finished garden collage
The finished collage includes Zinnia ‘Profusion Orange,’ Dahlia ‘Melody Allegro,’ Cleome ‘Senorita Rosalita,’ Helenium ‘Dakota Gold,’ and Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum.’ This new combo will be planted in the gardens this spring at White Flower Farm, and, come summer, we’ll post pictures of the finished product!

I step back to evaluate my paper garden, and I smile. I do believe I’ve created quite a successful plant community. The plants all work together to bring out the best in each other.