Delusions of Grandeur?

What’s your reaction when you see fake plantation-style columns in front of a fairly modest home, or a circular driveway in front of a house on a quarter acre lot? Do a bit of eye-rolling, perhaps? Then I must tell you that when I saw the grand sweep of Salvia (known as the River of Salvia) at Chicago’s Lurie garden, I was seized by the absurd desire to imitate this vision.

Lurie Garden Salvia
Lurie Garden’s River of Salvia.

Absurd because I garden on a slightly larger than average city lot. What I did was pull out the Wild Geranium (G. maculatum) that grew in a roughly 3’x8′ sweep along my sidewalk border, and replace it with a mix of Salvia xsylvestris ‘Blue Hill’ and ‘May Night’. This was last spring, and the first summer it looked like this. I like to refer to it as my Puddle of Salvia.

My Puddle of Salvia, 2012.

I knew I needed some perennials planted behind the Salvias, and settled on Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’. These really came into their own this year, making this part of the border look like this.

Puddle of Salvia with Penstemon.
Puddle of Salvia with Penstemon, 2013

This makes for a nice contrast I think, in habit and foliage color, as well as flower shape and color. However, no one would mistake it for Lurie’s River of Salvia.

So is this the horticultural equivalent of fake plantation columns on a Chicago bungalow? I don’t think so. We can be inspired by an element of a garden far grander than our own, then translate that inspiration into something beautiful, genuine, and appropriate to place. In this case, a much smaller mass of Salvia is still beautiful in a city lot garden, especially if it is integrated into the whole and the scale is proportional.


One practical matter I should mention, though. I’ve been bothered the tendency ‘May Night’ has (and ‘Blue Hill’ as well, to a lesser extent) to sprawl and open up in the middle. It happened last year and as a result I cut back both Salvias in early May – but they sprawled again anyway. I’ve resorted to placing 9″ sticks in an X formation along the sidewalk to prop the plants up. This has worked OK without being visible.

Salvia 'Caradonna'
Salvia ‘Caradonna’

To echo the Puddle of Salvia, I’ve put clumps of Salvia in some other beds near the sidewalk. However, I am using mostly Salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’, which is purple but also seems more upright.

Have you ever tried to translate something you saw at a famous garden in your own, successfully or not?

61 Comments on “Delusions of Grandeur?”

  1. I think we are always consciously or unconsciously influenced by what other gardeners do. It probably doesn’t work if we copy exactly, we always need to adapt to our specific context. I love the idea of a purple rivulet, never seen it before. I think your sidewalk border looks beautiful.

  2. I share the urge to replicate a botanical garden installation in a small suburban plot — I try to do it all the time, with frustrating results. Your puddle of salvia looks great, even if it isn’t Lurie-sized.

    May Night and Husker’s Red are two of my favorites and I have them together in a bunch of clumps in a small garden — I’m glad to see how you’ve used them here.

  3. Hah! I constantly try to imitate what I see in my own garden, I’m rarely as successful but it keeps things from getting stagnant…. And every now and then it works out to be something new and all my own!
    For the floppy salvias I sometimes surround them with butterfly bush trimmings in early spring. They grow over and hide the twiggyness within a couple weeks but it’s enough support to keep them up.

  4. Yup, but it started with a photograph of Dalmation Bellflower cascading over a wall at Stonecrop Gardens, in Cold Spring New York, rather than an actual visit. Same impulse though. Search for Dalmation Bellflower on my blog (or use the index) to see what I mean.

  5. It’s wonderful…and you know what they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! I think the most valuable thing about large public plantings like that is that we can take inspiration and to use in our own gardens…even if not on quite such a grand scale. I think Piet would be pleased 😉

  6. I love Salvia and the insects do as well. That is the best reason for mass planting I think. While inspirational, the grand application at Lurie Garden is one to be admired. It is the same with the red poppies one sees in fields. It can not be matched on a small scale, but gives one the inspiration needed to do more than a small planting. Many folks rarely do more than single plantings of certain plants but seeing them in numbers can change minds for their own landscapes.

  7. I like your puddle. My salvias sprawl too. I figured it was becasue I don’t have full sun where they are located. Is yours in full sun? I also like the contrast of the huskers in the back. Nice planting.

  8. Most people get their divine inspiration by looking at other gardens and nature, I think you did a great job with your plantings. Living in suburbia myself I know how hard it is to create something on a smaller scale.

  9. Your choices are just right. 😉 Seriously, first of all, you are happy with the Salvia as you have it, and second, waves of Salvia–no matter where they are–are classy, lovely, and heavenly. (Can you tell I like Salvia?) Oh, and the pollinators love it! It’s perhaps the best early (and continuous, with deadheading) companion plant I have in my potager garden. Early in the summer the bees were going crazy over it, and soon after the Tomatoes and Cucumbers started to appear and bolt! Apparently, the monarch butterflies like it, too, although I haven’t seen many in my garden this year.

  10. Beautiful indeed Jason! Your translation is absolutely wonderful! I love how you paired the salvia with the penstemon! I have “dark towers” in the front and salvia in the back but you have inspired me to pair them together!

  11. Hello Jason, that salvia planted en masse like that does look amazing. In my tiny garden it’s difficult to take anything of even normal size and squeeze it down into something that would fit, so I’ve ended up with my own take on things, which is more akin to doing a jigsaw puzzle. You keep putting more and more plants in and when you spot gaps, look for plants that will “fit” and put them in. Rinse and repeat.

  12. Hi Jason, I’m glad you’ve been asking such question to yourself, as I didin the past too with my garden. I took a lot of ideas, in particular from Oudolf’s projects indeed, and translated them into an inspired translation-interpretation of the original. I think the very important thing is always taking account of where we took inspiration from and never ever assuming we did the same thing as the original.
    Doing so, I guess even the original designer would be glad to know that other people are taking inspiration from his works: it means his message has been passed through.

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