The ladies at the IMA Greenhouse are wild about Irvin. “Listen,” one tells me, “that man is talented. Best garden colorist I have ever seen.” Evidently, Irvin deploys a wicked wit when he starts dishing out the planting tips. Most well-brought-up volunteers would be shocked, I’m made to understand, but a few of them … well, they get it.
The IMA Horticulture Department knows how to put on a show: See it daily from dawn until dusk. Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road.
Irvin Etienne is a degreed expert and horticulture display guy at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I had to talk to him. The first thing I learned is that if you’re at all cool, you call shrubs and bushes “woodies.” And that generally there are two kinds of folks: Shrub People and Perennial People. (Irvin prefers a healthy mix of both, with greater up-front investment in the woodies.) Shrub people “just like to mow.” Irvin went on to make it pretty clear that I wouldn’t get away with my usual garden snobbery around him. “Shouldn’t we tell folks that hostas are boring, and that one purpley-pink color just isn’t natural?” I prodded. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with hostas, Irvin replied. In fact, the museum horticulturists accomplish most of their spectacular displays using the most common Indiana plants. When it comes to color, “the more obscene the better.” Why, Irvin just finished putting purple celosia, lime coleus and fuschia-colored rose moss together in the same bed. Scandalous. But shouldn’t such wild experimentation be left to the professionals? No way, Irvin says. “It’s their garden, and everyone should do what they want.” Irvin did admit to a few personal prejudices. People who support proliferation of the geranium, spike and vinca pot should be firebombed, evidently. And Irvin recommends that we do not buy “mixed color” flats, but plant annuals in masses of one color, then another. Then it was on to tropicals. Tropicals are hot-hot-hot these days, and Irvin knows all about them. It turns out anyone can use these equator-zoned plants for a more dramatic garden. You just have to bring them inside for winter. So what’s a tropical? Well, cannas are. So are elephant ears. And you’ve probably seen coleus and caladiums around. The nurseries are carrying more of each these days. But if you really want to do the tropical thing, Irvin says, think houseplants. That cute little palm on your windowsill is growing 12 feet tall in someone’s backyard in Miami. You can pick up a few $6 houseplants at Marsh and do the same in your yard. Then when the humidity spikes in July, you’ll think you really are in Florida. Of course, tropicals aren’t quite as stoic as our sinewy Indiana perennials; they’ll want some fertilizer. Yes, you will have to pull them up, over-winter them in the basement or garage and water them occasionally till it’s spring again. But tropicals need only survive the winter, not thrive during it. Irvin and his cohorts swear that the rewards of these fast-growing varieties are well worth it. What they don’t tell you is that the world of banana trees and jungle flowers is — extremely — seductive. You may think you can stop at one or two focal points. But soon you’ll be hooked like Irvin, and trying crazy things like a hedge made of mother-in-law’s tongue. Anyway … trial and error is one way to create a more satisfying garden. Another is to steal ideas from super-talented gardeners like Irvin and the gang at the IMA. Take a stroll through the grounds with a notebook: The plants are clearly marked and brilliantly combined. Or talk to someone out there. Just don’t be shocked when they give you advice like this: • It’s OK to buy your plants at the big box stores; in fact, you can get some great deals there. “All you gotta do is get there before they kill them,” Irvin says. The plants you buy at the IMA Greenhouse, on the other hand, are lovingly nurtured and may never again look as good as the day you got them. • When putting plants together, remember it‘s not about the bloom, it’s about foliage color, texture and proportion. • Your garden doesn‘t have to be historically accurate to the period or style of your house. Worry more about getting the scale right. • Obviously, Irvin’s big on breaking the rules. But break them one or two at a time, he advises. “You don’t want to throw all the rules out at once.”