Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish and a Huge Thank You

     The first recorded use of the phrase penny-wise and pound-foolish was by Joseph Addison in his daily publication The Spectator (1712): “I think a woman who will give up herself to a man in marriage, where there is the least room for such an apprehension, and trust her person to one whom she will not rely on for the common necessities of life, may very properly be accused (in the phrase of a homely proverb) of being ‘penny wise and pound foolish’” ( By today’s account, the saying refers to “being extremely careful with smaller, inconsequential amounts of money, but you lose any gains you might receive from those savings on extravagant larger purchases. In other words, you are stingy with smaller amounts, and you are wasteful with larger amounts” ( I have always related the saying to people who buy inexpensive plant material, only to replace it later, based on substandard quality and size. Larger plants can seem less expensive for a reason… they grow fast and often outgrow your areas. But my favorite quote, relating to plant material and price, was a locution written on a landscaper’s truck who is a very good friend of mine. “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”

     This past spring, I was approached by a woman who had succumb to low price plant material offered at an end of year clearance sale. Connected by a mutual friend and existing customer, compassionate to her plight, her referral alone was enough to qualify me. Her candor was not only welcome, it was genuine, kind and refreshing. Absolute in the fact that her gardening abilities, thus far, were a struggle and that the money spent on her landscape left her far from inspired. Again her probity about traveling far to a notorious “discount plant bazaar” left her with many plants inappropriate for her property. Her “laundry list” of large trees with undersized rootballs, chlorotic plant material and plants poorly sited for her lighting conditions was staggering. Again, she said, “I spent over $1,000 dollars and none of this is working… I need your help.”

     Incredulous as to how someone could advise placing a Deodar or Himalayan Cedar, Cedrus deodara, 2 feet off the front corner of the house simply astounded me. A tree that can easily grow larger than 50 feet tall with an equal width, I have known some to exceed 100 feet. Not to mention the fact that this is a zone 7 tree and we live in zone 6. I could see and feel her frustration and respected her receptivity to new thoughts and bigger ideas. Not in her element, this woman had complete faith in me, my ideas and our company. So much trust so fast is certainly welcome, but seldom received. Repurposing plants, manipulating one by intense pruning and grasping the idea of “mass planting” were important to her design. Lopping off a strong appendage of her weeping Norway spruce, Picea abies ‘Pendula’ and moving a weeping Redbud, planted much too close to her house, took some persuasiveness. Transplanting the redbud closer to her lamp post and embedding it with the likes of Stella de Oro Daylily, Hemerocallis x ‘Stella de Oro’ and a perennial meadow sage, Salvia x sylvestris ‘May Night’ helped punctuate the burgundy leaves of her redbud. Adding a small garden conifer type, Japanese Plum Yew, Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Hedgehog’ proved to be a useful evergreen, that is deer resistant, with unique texture. These plum yews, not yews, helped delineate the raised bed from the severe drop off to her driveway.

     The backyard was more of the same. Repurposing what we could and sweeping the entire backyard with a repeat flowering hydrangea, helped “tighten up” the landscape, providing an easy, colorful plant to enjoy while swimming in their pool. Knowing soil content, lighting conditions and staying within the confines of the geography are always paramount to good design. Suggesting to do away with an anemic Tricolor European Beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Tricolor’, in a 12-inch patio container (way too big a tree for that) and transplanting a lilac to give it more room were “no-brainers”. Finally, suggesting that a series of Leyland Cypress and Green Giant Arborvitae be removed, as they were 4 feet apart from each other, in shade, may take a little more convincing? Fortunately, time and lack of sunlight will help convince and echo this suggestion.

     In the end, the homeowner was thrilled with the results. So much trust, early on, and a willingness to embrace something new, abandoning her previous attempt was bold and brave. Finally, her forthrightness and sincere appreciation, texting me throughout the project, was not only heartfelt, it was a gesture that will stay with me for years to come.