Would someone please tell me what to think?

I think I’m past the plant snobbery phase.  You kind of have to let it go when you observe yourself starting to really enjoy plants again that you once dismissed, and so accept what you’ve suspected for some time – that your opinions are highly unstable, and you may as well just adopt a default setting of more of less enjoying everything.

Of course there’s plants that stand high above all others, but in my current phase, I’d happily try and integrate virtually any plant into a planting scheme – even (I shudder as I say it) golden diosma and that rotten dwarf nandina (by which I refer to ‘Nana’, not ‘Moon Bay’). I’ve written about my chequered past re: these two here if you’re interested. I’m of the opinion that any plant can be made to sing (or at least support a neighbor in full song) if its put in the right company.

Or, perhaps in the right context.  And that brings me to petunias.  There was a time when I wouldn’t have considered growing them, but then I got over that and started using them regularly in mixed pots over summer.  Clearly they’re going to look ridiculous in the same view as far more sophisticated plantings of perennials and grasses (I could tie myself up in knots here, as much of the more sophisticated planting I refer to is made up of simpler, closer-to-species plants, which you could then argue were at least from a breeding point of view less sophisticated, or less improved, than the petunias) but planted with other stuff in pots in key places, they work well.  They’re also incredibly generous and outrageously tough, which are at the same time the reasons why we should be grateful for them, and the reasons they’re in danger of being dismissed.

This year I bought several punnets of white petunias, and also a couple of a double purple petunia.  Frankly, the latter sounded from the description, and looked (in the pic) revolting, but in my default phase of enjoying everything I shoved ‘em in.  For me, one of the saving graces of the otherwise common suburban petunia is that incurved funnel shape, giving the flowers both depth and an opportunity to be side-lit as if lit from within.  Clearly the double, which looked like a loose pom-pom, couldn’t provide this, but I pressed on, nevertheless.


Both have the benefit of company.  The white have been invaded by a nearby Helichrysum petiolare which is one of the very best ‘weedlers’ in the plant kingdom, wriggling its way amongst it neighbours and invariably adding value.  The purple are planted with the silver Senecio cineraria, with which they’re out of all balance numbers-wise, but at least from certain angles (and if you squint a bit), the senecio helps leaven the otherwise solid block of purple.


As it turns out, the double purples are not as revolting as they might have been.  And what I’ve come to appreciate is the phenomenal power of their scent.  The blues/purples always have more scent than the white, which is partly why I grow them, but these doubles seen to be double in scent as well.  The perfume is warm, spicy and viscous, and isn’t just restricted to the evenings, though its most noticeable then.

Does this mark the end of all discernment?  It’s like when you’ve been to the US or France for a few weeks, drinking their appalling coffee, and then hit near-ecstasy with an Australian airport flat white.  You can’t tell if its the best coffee you’ve ever tasted or if you’ve just lost your reference palette while away.

But purple pom-pom petunias?  I can’t help but think that my horticultural reference palette’s been hacked.


  1. I wouldn’t dare tell you what to think Michael… but am happy to add to the conversation!

    After being heavily influenced recently by a (dare I say it) rant by Simon Rickard about the horrors of bedding annuals (something along the lines of “they just sit there screaming ‘I am COLOUR'”), I have been consumed by an ongoing internal dialogue about just what I should put in the few pots I have un-artfully scattered around the place. Visiting my mum’s garden to give it some much-needed water while they were away recently I was overwhelmed by her white petunias, and my internal dialogue has been re-ignited. I’m not so sure that I’ll go so far as purple pom-pom petunias, but my disdain for the humble white ones is weakening… And don’t get me started on pansies.

    1. The horrors of bedding annuals is surely what we do with them, rather than any inherent horror in the plant itself..

  2. Quite right Michael. Surely one of the side benefits of living long enough to acquire dodgy knees is also acquiring the distance on previous passions, both positive and negative, that enables you to understand that anything once hated will one day be loved, and that therefore all plant material should be admired non-judgementally. Even as I write that, images of despised plants still come to mind…I have to remember that striped flowers once seemed the height of naff to me, now those Delbard roses and stripy dahlias have me oohing.

    1. I’ve never lost the pleasure in those stripes. Maybe I’ll yet lose it, and then regain it.

  3. To me petunias are, and always have been,the smell of summer, along with tomatoes.. I plant big tubs of ’em ,unashamedly, every year and relish their brassiness and generosity until April. And then replace them with pansies or violas.. So uncool……

    1. I know! The last two summers have been so bad for tomato production that the only pleasure they’ve given me, which is not inconsiderable, is that magic summer smell they give off when bruised, or weeded around.

  4. Hi, Michael,
    You mentioned reference palette. By word association, perhaps, it occurred to me that our plant choices appear to be very strongly determined by what we could call a Palate Conditioning: we get used to having certain likes and dislikes, and tend to label them good taste or bad taste. Also I would say that our urge to make declarations about the perceived subtlety of our palate may be in direct correlation with our egos.
    You have reached a mature middle age, haven’t you? Congratulations on having “downgraded” your gardening palate to embrace some common tastes and on having tamed your ego well enough to be able to confess the shift.
    P.S. I could still query your wisdom of publicly admitting you don’t like French coffee… Some people might be tempted to suggest that your culinary palate would benefit from a bit of … upgrading. 🙂

    1. I’ll go further and declare it in caps
      FRENCH COFFEE IS STUPENDOUSLY, ALMOST SPECTACULARLY BAD. You’ve got to dash over to Italy every day or two for a fix.
      Maybe after I turn 50 next month I’ll downgrade that palate as well

  5. I think you hit the nail on the head, Michael, suggesting it’s what we do with these plants that matters. I have to speak up for the poor old dwarf nandina. Whilst, yes, they can be a bore , I have quite a few here and there, in shade, so they don’t go red but are great fillers. In my garden of almost an acre I need these things. The diosmas I hate are the big ones that get too leggy but again that little splash of colour on the dwarf ones can be useful.
    I have relied on the the helichrysum petiolare, both silver and limelight in separate areas as a great ground cover and colour and dare I say it , I put in a viburnum tinus now waist high hedge which is being kept to a shape and provides a good visual edge to a certain area. Another nana plant, I know.
    I think of my garden as an opera with arias and choruses and I have plenty of stars that provide a wow factor.

    Love your blog , by the way, and the way you say what you think!

    1. I put a Viburnum tinus hedge in as well! My wife, who worries more than I do about my steady loss of discernment, waggled her finger and warned that no one would take me seriously as a garden designer if I used that thing. I just laughed and planted it anyway.
      Re: the nandina, it’s not so much that its boring (in fact, the colour is anything but boring), it’s just the way those leaves curl in, as if infested with a mould or under insect attack.

  6. P.S. There’s only one petunia I can’t resist and that’s the purple and white spinnaker- but then I have a passion for stripes!

  7. I hate petunias. But two years ago I discovered wild (native) white petunias growing on the beaches of Uruguay (with confirmation from a reliable Uruguayan source that they are indeed native). So I’m rethinking, but still a plant snob.

    1. It’s incredible – the power (effect, rather) of seeing a plant in the wild. I remember screaming for the bus to stop, having spotted what I (correctly) thought were yellow erythroniums sticking through the snow in Canada, and my heart skipped a beat many times when I was in your neck of the woods last year, and several times spotted trilliums and Sanguinaria out of the coach. But they’re all special plants only made more special by the wild spotting, so don’t match your experience.
      The closest thing I’d have is noting a sulfury-citrus fuzz on the very fringe of where bare rock merged into coastal scrub, just above the tide-line in Cornwall. Turned out to be a wild brassica, and I’ve had a soft spot for bolted cabbages ever since. Such a unique colour.
      I can feel your condemnation of petunias weakening, even as you write…

  8. I think with the weather the way it has been whatever works in your own garden to green it up and create colour is OK by me. Yes, I would like to have alot of other plants in my garden that I much prefer but realistically this is not going to happen. The bigger your garden gets the more you have to go with what looks healthy and is greening up your own garden and is colourful. I personally go for shrub colour and shape of leaves. I don’t have anywhere near the choice, available in nurserys/on-line, that I would like to use but find what I can that works. I use perennials in amoungst other plants for a splash of colour in the different season. Annuals I don’t bother much with for summer as I was not as lucky as yourself this season and my petunias didn’t stand up well to give the display I wanted. I do plant up annuals for other seasons with success. 46 Deg or 40+heat daily was just to much this year. Even with daily watering of pots and regular feeds.
    I even use geraniums and succulents. Whatever creates interest to the eye and makes the garden look as lush as possible in the harsh dry climate I live in. We also have to deal with frosts and occasional black frost.
    I say Go back to your own garden, plant snobs. But having said that we will enjoy your garden and all the exotics and natives we others can’t grow. It will give us alot of pleasure. We personally will not have to replace plants constantly that are looking crappy in our garden and not performing. Every garden is different and every gardener is different. Lets just love gardening and our gardens. Encourage others to find the joy in gardening that we discovered a long time ago.
    June Geaghan

  9. Love reading your posts.
    Getting back to purple pom pom petunias. If it works for you in a large garden, gives colour and people pleasure, Go for It.
    From an average gardener who loves gardening and loves viewing open gardens.

  10. Hi Michael, I love reading your blogs, but this is my first reply. When I started to read I thought to myself that the only two plants that I wouldn’t grow were dwarf nandina’s and petunias! Guess we’re on the same wavlength. However I loved the photos of your white ones and I have told myself never to say never about plants. I don’t think though that I would use them in the ground – only in pots.

    1. You’re absolutely right. Never say never. You might say ‘not yet’ for years to come, but never ‘never’. (Unless, like me, you’re unafraid of the mockery that the public retraction may cause. I’m over that as well)

  11. Umm,didn’t Roberto Burle Marx say there was no such thing as an ugly plant,you just havnt seen it in the right place. Maybe I’ve muddled it a bit but I think he was right,I sometimes have to admit i was wrong about a plant when i see it healthy and growing splendidly in someone elses garden except for crotons,all crotons.

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