A New Use for an Old Adage

Written by Lynn Merrill

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue — every bride has probably heard this saying. There’s a reason it resists getting passé. When those items are combined, they bring together a pleasing and meaningful composite both to the psyche and to the eye. But the adage is not just for brides anymore. Experiment in the garden, and you’ll find that the old adage is a winning formula for gardeners, too.

There is a touch of history when bringing something old into your garden. Old is defined as tried and true plants that have been mainstays of gardens since Shakespeare’s time. “A rose is just a rose” becomes a link with the past, as well as a connection to the future. There are a number of “old” roses that can add a wonderful dimension to your garden. Roses evoke an element of romance, especially those introduced before the first hybrid tea rose was developed in 1867. These have survived because of their own toughness, without human interventions such as the use of pesticides. Old roses have a variety of different shapes and sizes. While they come in fewer colors, they have something that’s missing in the newer roses — their strong fragrance!

The majority of the old roses existed before the yellow rose from China, so colors are limited. Old roses bloom all at once in late spring, with no need to deadhead — a plus. The spent blooms make attractive rosehips that feed wildlife. They are undemanding and pleasant in every other way. Old roses have a gracefulness, charm, and delicacy rarely found in modern plants. These vintage charmers should have a place in the modern garden. The one drawback is they are not usually found in your local nursery. Instead, most are sold through websites by small growers. 

“Something new” conjures up thoughts of going out to your local nursery to see just what is on the shelves for the 2011 season. It has always puzzled me how the nurserymen/women come up with the names of new varieties. Take these, for example:

  • Pretty Petticoat Penstemon, Cassian Fountain Grass, Double Trouble
  • Helenium, Mr. Goodbud Sedum, Just Plum Happy Daylily, Freckle
  • Face Candy Lily, and Bonbini Lily to name a few.

Hybridizers are always coming up with new varieties to impress gardeners. If you find you like a certain plant in your garden, it may have a new strain at the nursery this year. Let’s say you like the way hollyhocks look and grow in your garden. Well, there is now a new one called Mars Magic that is truly a perennial plant. This “something new” has brilliant red flowers.

For your shade garden, you may wish to try the Uvularia. It’s a North American native that brings a bright yellow hanging flower from emerging green plants. It’s easy to grow and a long lived perennial for under trees or the edge of woodlands. Or you could always try a Thunder and Lightning Knautia. It produces rich ruby red double flowers above light green and cream foliage. If you like a more familiar-sounding plant, how about the Geranium Striatum? It’s a hardy geranium with lots of salmon flowers with rosy ink highlights. It makes a neat mound in a container or can serve as a ground cover. It’s always a treat to try something new so that your garden never becomes static or tiresomely commonplace.     

Something borrowed may require further explanation. Gardeners everywhere love to share a particular favorite plant in their gardens with friends, relatives, and special people. They know those people will give that shared plant tender loving care. The borrowing comes into play when the first gardener’s favorite plant is spent or no longer appears, and the friend with whom she shared the plant returns the favor. It’s a custom that revolves around taking cuttings, separating offshoots, dividing root systems, and other methods of division and propagation. As far as gift giving is concerned, these are the treasures that remind us of the gift giver each time the plant reappears.

My own experience involves a dear friend who had shared with me a slip of her “chocolate soldier” begonia. It had a beautiful red flower — unusual for a begonia, I thought. The same year her husband passed away, she lost her begonia. At that time, mine had tripled in size and I was able to return to her an offspring of her own plant. There is a certain reward in returning a borrowed gift. Information about the proper way of “sharing” through division can be found if you Google that particular plant or research it at your local library.

Something blue! Gardeners could talk about blue flowers until they were blue in the face! The problem with blue flowers is that they are limited in selection, especially the “true blues.” For a flower to be truly blue, it should not have any hint of pink or purple in it. There are many common terms used to describe blue flowers, such as baby blue, light blue, powder blue, sky blue, flax blue, forget-me-not-blue, gentian blue, and cornflower blue. So there are many tones and hues of blues. One of my favorite blues is the Amsonia tabernaemontana, a hardy herbaceous perennial. It comes in several varieties and shades of blue — some almost ice blue, while there is also a navy blue. This is a plant that is non-demanding and will return year after year as beautiful as the first year.

While the Amsonia is less formal in a garden, the Lily of the Nile or Agapanthus is anything but informal. It is usually found in containers because of its distinctive, showy appearance. It requires large containers with good drainage to support the development of its fleshy tuberous roots. The genus name is Greek for “love flower.”

Some of the first blue flowers to appear in spring are the muscari or grape hyacinths. Scilla bifolia var. taurica is a deeper blue. Then there is Delphinium ‘Summer Skies’ which tends to be more blue-violet. Another blue that is close to a true blue is Plumbago auriculata (cape leadwort). It has the distinct feature of leaving beautiful dark pods in the fall that make a soothing clicking sound in the wind. Still another blue flower is the hydrangea, most popular

in the PeeGee variety. Echinops exaltus (Russian globe thistle), Eryngium alpinum ‘Blue Star’ (Sea Holly), and Allium beesianum all have a common round shape and similar blue color.

A list of blue flowers would not be complete without including Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ or Gentiana andrewsii. The salvia is the darkest of blues, while the gentian is closer to a true blue. Blue flowers should be incorporated in every garden because the color plays off other colors, especially yellows and reds. Try some combinations with blue flowers and you’ll see for yourself.