The day it all changed

I am fascinated by the mundane. I want to know what each and everyone of you eats for lunch each day and how you came to that decision. I want to know what you are doing at 7:30 on a Tuesday evening. I want to know why you don’t chew gum or drink beer. I want to know the specific order you follow each morning when showering, making coffee, eating and taking the dog out. I want to know if you sleep on your side or on your stomach. I want to understand why you don’t like cheese.

On a personal level, I manage a mental log of all of the days that have had a profound impact on my future life. Without fail, each of those days appeared no different from any other at the time. Upon waking up, there was no big intro announcing this was the day I was going to cross paths with my future wife. There was no pump-me-up music as I crawled out of bed. No higher being sent me a sign that the day was going to be like no other.

Because of that, I find myself walking though each day curious if this is going to be one of “those” days. Not that I’m anticipating tragedy or winning the lottery or anything like that. It is way more subtle. Will tonight be the last night I carry my ten year old daughter on my back up to bed? Not because anything specific occurred, but maybe tomorrow night she just walks upstairs on her own and that becomes the new normal. Will I remember that last night ten years from now? Or will the memory fade and get mixed in with one of the other 10,168 days?

With that in mind, I am going to leaf through the archives of my mind and dedicate a few posts to “those”days. The day I knew that my wife was different from the others and I just wanted to hang with her. The day I rediscovered writing while watching “Lost” after a way too long hiatus. And for today’s purposes (because it is warming up and the garden is starting to kick into gear)I wanted to write about the day that I discovered the perennial that completely changed my outlook on what a garden should and can be.

I started gardening back in 1997. I started out like your prototypical spring gardener we all see at Home Depot on a Saturday morning in April. Buy a bunch of flowers that look pretty, stick them in the ground in some bloody awful symmetrical pattern, fertilize the shit out of them and then be done with it. I am a gardener.

I slowly evolved from that gardener to one who was stealing plant labels at the nursery and bringing them home as part of plant recon. Then I was buying books or checking them out of the library on a weekly basis. That led to the discovery of “The Well Tended Perennial Garden” which elevated my gardening game to a whole new level. I was buying perennials and pinching them and experimenting with different combos and becoming obsessed.

But my plant palette was still limited. The only plants in my purview were those that I could find at my local nursery or that I easily recognized when shopping online. The concept of native plants was still foreign to me.

But then in 2004 we moved out to rural New Jersey, in the “country”. We were owners of a 2+ acre lot that was completely devoid of plant life, let alone a garden. I worked my ass off for 3-4 years trying to create a garden and bombed with the best of them. I still regret that I didn’t capture any photos of my ridiculous efforts and even worse results.

By spring of 2008, I was determined to attack the outdoors in a somewhat intelligent and well thought out way. I ordered plants in bulk but small in size. I had a better feel for my new digs, specifically how my new digs fit into the larger landscape of my town and my county. That thinking led to the recognition and understanding of the native plant. I did my research and I observed those landscapes that seemed to “fit in” and look natural. That then led to the discovery of the “native plant sale”.

It’s Mother’s Day 2008 and the plan is to make mom breakfast in bed and then head out for the day so mom could also enjoy some peace and quiet. The kids are 5 and 2 so you get it. That weekend also happened to be the opening of the native plant sale at Bowman’s Hill in Bucks County, PA. We’ll go out to breakfast, hit up the plant sale and then hit the playground before heading back home.

In preparation for the trip, I studied what was available for purchase at the plant sale and for the first time, understood the important details as to what plant made sense for my garden. It had to be deer resistant, it had to handle full sun and it had to be wet tolerant with our high water table. I compiled my list and had it in the back pocket of my shorts.

Upon arriving at the plant sale, the plants were all laid out in alphabetical order. Admittedly, 85% of the plants on my list I had never heard of before. I made it a point to talk to no one for fear of having to say the names out loud. I kept my head down and tried to hide my list under my sleeve.

I’ll skip the drama and let you know that the first name on my list – Amsonia – was the first plant I found and I threw three of them in my box without even evaluating its looks. And to make a long story short, that perennial is still to this day my personal favorite in my always expanding collection. I had no idea at the time as I just shoved plants in my box and tried to escape without being noticed, but that day changed everything. I discovered native plants, went on to read all I could about the benefit of native plants and haven’t looked back since.

I’ve written quite a bit in the past about Amsonia, which you can read through the following links:

Amsonia tabernaemontana

The Many Faces of Amsonia

Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ 

So let me add just one more thing.

I’ve realized over time that I want four things out of my plants, specifically my perennials, and they are as follows.

Anticipation – after a long and cold winter, I want the jolt from a newly emerging plant and it should look cool and exciting and give me a sense of great anticipation. Exhibit A:

amsonia flower


Explosion – that plant should have its moment where it shines and becomes the focal point in the garden, even if it is short lived. Exhibit B:



Sustained presence – the plant should hold up well through the various seasons, even if it fades a bit into the background. Summer destruction can ruin the entire garden. Exhibit C:

amsonia obedient


Go out with a bang – autumn color should be phenomenal and breath taking and make one last statement. Exhibit D:

amsonia fall 2



I continue to add Amsonia to my garden each and every spring and will not stop any time soon. It is literally indestructible. And I still think back to that Mother’s Day trek and my quick in and out at the plant sale and realize how much that day changed my entire perception of the garden and gardening.

That is the day when my hobby transformed into an obsession.

6 thoughts on “The day it all changed

  1. suz

    great post – will enjoy seeing replies from other folks. these are the ones that especially bring me joy/got me hooked, from beginning to end of a season: epimedium; amsonia blue ice; tall phlox (franz schubert for fragrance and blue paradise for beauty, mildew notwithstanding); and tricyrtis (blue wonder is my fave so far, and i’m trying a fifth variety this year). –suz in ohio

    1. jmarkowski Post author

      Suz – I wish I could say the same for phlox but it does me in each July/August with browning leaves. I haven’t tried tricyrtis yet but now you’ve got me thinking about it. Thanks for the feedback!

    1. jmarkowski Post author

      Glory – What zone are you in? Just curious to compare to what has been said online about its zone reach.

  2. Deborah

    John, have you noticed any reseeding of your Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’?
    I just spotted a small patch to come up about a foot away from my main plant recently. I’m thrilled!!

    1. jmarkowski Post author

      Deborah – I have not but I am super excited hearing that yours have reseeded. Cannot have enough of this plant!!!

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