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It's sometimes OK to break the rules

How far apart should you place plants when you plant them? An easy answer, according to plant books. But plants don't read books.

Colorful annuals look better when they're planted closer than books recommend. Results are scattered across the metro area at apartment complexes and businesses - masses of stuffed, colorful blooms. The immediate results are easy to see and easy to copy, and most of us do.

But how far apart should you plant your bushes and trees? Stuffing them together like annuals won't work. Even that has an exception.

Many years ago at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a new garden area was funded and feted. The funding and planting were straightforward, but the fete created the dire exception. When a donor gives a significant amount of money for a landscape, and pays for a party to celebrate the new landscape, that donor deserves to see what they paid for. Plants of significant size were chosen and planted side by side by side. Instant landscape for the party, but what of the future?

The future was planned into the planting. A percentage of the plants would be removed as growth progressed. Experienced gardeners know this process, but if you're just learning about gardening you might think that is how you are supposed to plant and wonder why things are too crowded in a few years.

How long you're going to stay in your home often dictates how close you will place your shrubs and trees. If you're staying seven or more years, you should space plantings according to our state Extension Service's guidelines. But if the time-frame is shorter, consider placing the plants closer together and in greater quantity. It's what the professionals do and one of the reasons their landscapes look more polished and complete than what the average homeowner installs.

In addition to the length of time you will be staying in your home, consider the size of plants you initially install. If you'll be staying under seven years, you should use 3-gallon plants or larger. The larger size makes the effort of soil preparation, digging holes and spreading mulch worthwhile. You'll see results before you move.

Sometimes, even though you will stay in your home a long time, odd situations arise. I have clients putting in a swimming pool this summer. Their backyard has iron fencing and limited privacy. Evergreen shrubs and trees will provide privacy, but it's needed now, not in a decade. The solution is to plant closer together and in greater quantity than books recommend. The trade-off is you'll get privacy sooner, but you'll have to remove a percentage of plants later.

When I visit Callaway Gardens and their extensive woodlands, I'm always amused with magnolia trees sprouting at the base of pine trees. Imagine, Mother Nature repeatedly planting magnolia trees inches from the trunk of a pine tree.

Is it a law of bird cuisine to sit and poop, or plant, from a pine tree after eating a magnolia seed? Birds are just as bodacious as plants; they don't read books either.

Stone Mountain resident Tara Dillard designs, installs and writes about gardens. Her most recent books include "Garden Paths and Stepping Stones" and "Perennials for Georgia." E-mail her at TaraDillard@agardenview.biz or visit www.AGardenView.biz.