Gardening with the Future in Mind

Too often as gardeners we forget that part of our job is planning for the future of the plants we care for. We are pressured by a culture of instant gratification. Landscape companies are under the gun to produce spectacular displays overnight. We often forget that part of why we garden is the pleasure of watching a little seedling mature into a magnificent specimen that our children’s children will enjoy in years to come.

This revelation came to me while reading an article titled “A Thousand Years” in the horticulture trade journal Greenhouse Grower. The author, Dr. Will Carlson, was impressed when he toured the265-acre Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. The Arboretum was established in 1883 and has a thousand year lease with the city of Boston for one dollar a year, and the option to renew for another thousand years at the end of that period.  The manager Thomas Ward is in charge of thousands of specimens. He knows where every tree is located, and when it became part of the collection. Thomas said “there is still a lot of work to be done and I only have 13 gardeners, but every night when I go home I can sleep well because I know we have 760 years to make the garden perfect!”

The Arboretum houses an extensive bonsai collection. The oldest bonsai tree in the collection is over 240 years old. When training their bonsai, the gardeners sketch what they want a tree to look like in five years, and trim and wire branches accordingly.  “Talk about long range planning!” remarked Dr. Carlson. It’s estimated that over the lifetime of one of the older bonsai trees a succession of 6 to 10 different gardeners will be responsible for keeping it healthy and growing.

Here at Selby, we plan our gardens carefully, and when placing plants in the gardens we have to consider their maximum growth potential. Many times people ask why some of our plant material is planted away from paths and spaced far apart. We have to explain that those little plants will some day, with a great deal of care and patience will be a towering tree or massive specimen.

The Selby Gardens Horticulture Department owes a huge debt to the gardeners that have come before us. When the large banyans that sit in front of the Selby House were originally planted, I’m sure these trees didn’t look like much. Marie Selby had an appreciation for what magnificent specimens that they would eventually be. Mrs. Selby’s Gardener Grover Yancey planted and tended these trees most of his adult life. He was still working here in the early 1990’s.

When we as gardeners plant a garden, we need to think not only about the garden’s appearance in the short term, but what the fully realized display will look like when it matures. Long range planning is critical in botanical garden display. Here at Selby Gardens, we have a horticulture staff that is dedicated to the care of our collections and producing superior displays, and our successors will continue to do so.