Last weekend, I opened my garden to the public. I’d agreed to share my large, albeit imperfect, sanctuary, because I’d wanted to help people be social again and get things back to “normal.” But that simple yes meant months of weeding, digging, transplanting, and all else. Lots of hauling. I also stressed every night about the garden looking tidy and cheery for visitors. All this while my back slowly tightened and my body created a fiery pain I’ve never experienced before.
In the end, the tour went well. Hundreds of visitors came through and I even sold a good number of my books, including my newest, Leaf Your Troubles Behind. I got to chat about gardening all day, helping people discover cool plants while meeting plant aficionados. It was lovely. I went to bed relieved and tired.
A couple friends who couldn’t make it asked me to post photos online. So here’s how the garden looked in June of 2022.
The 3B’s Island Bed
I have a flame-shaped island bed near the house that gets full sun. A long time ago, I planted a spine of shrubs down the middle for winter structure. Then I planted perennials and low shrubs along the spine.
Each plant I chose to attract bees, butterflies, or birds. These include butterfly bush (buddleia), blue-leaf rose (rosa glauca), smokebush (cotinus), escallonia, spiraea, weigela, false indigo (baptisia), coneflower (echinacea), sage (salvia), crocosmia, and more.
I also have a border that gets shade from an oak in the morning and a blast of hot afternoon sun. At first, this area plagued me as I tried plants that I thought would work but didn’t. It was either too sunny or too shady. So I tried hardy fuchsias. They thrived without much help from me at all.
Then, to play off those deep purple and magenta tones, I planted blue star junipers (juniperus) and blue surprise false cypress (chamaecyparis). I contrasted these with a purple-leafed hyndrangea (Hydrangea ‘Plum Passion’), purple coral bells (heuchera), and fringe flowers (loropetalum). Finally, I filled in with crocosmia, Japanese forest grasses, and hostas. A gold variegated dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Summer Gold’), pictured above in background, anchors the whole thing.
My most prized plant is my Chilean fire tree (embothrium coccineum). It’s native to the mountains of Chile and blooms in bold orange flowers. Hummingbirds love them!
My front border is mostly shady and I’ve had decent success with it outside of when the deer find my one large hosta. It’s a mix of aucuba, hydrangea, fuchsia, heucheras, and rhododendrons.
Oftentimes, when people visit my yard, they ask about my favorite hosta in the whole world. It’s not only blue, gold, and chartreuse, it’s also slug-resistant since it has corrugated leaves. It’s hosta ‘June,’ a low-maintenance hosta that needs shade, water, and not much else to look stunning.
Now, that the tour is over, I’ve been relaxing on my patio and enjoying the tidy garden. I realized that sharing it inspired a lot of folks. Several people, with sparks in their eyes, told me they were ready to dig into a new design or seek out the unusual plants they’d seen. Their excitement makes my long hours of backbreaking work worth it.
When I peruse my bookshelf, I often gravitate toward the same old cluster of gardening books. They’re by the most prominent British horticulturalists of the 19th and 20th centuries. The designers who built the most spectacular estates in England. They experimented with the concepts of outdoor rooms, mixed borders, and designing with focal points or natural features. While classic European gardens featured the formality of hedges and geometric patterns, these British visionaries broke away from that formality. They created a new, inventive, naturalistic art.
The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll
Gertrude Jekyll was the original garden designer. Born in 1843, she was a student of Arts and Crafts artist William Morris. Influenced by the integration of various crafts and art (tapestry, painting, woodwork, etc.), Jekyll became one of the first gardeners to consider color palette, sculpture, architecture and natural cues in her designs. She created the garden of her home Munstead Wood as well as many commissioned designs. She also published books and articles. But really she is most remembered for seeing gardening as an artistic endeavor. This book discusses her philosophy of practicality while laying out her vision in illustrations of design plans and photos. I love this book.
Gardening at Sissinghurst
Perhaps, the most famous English garden is at Sissinghurst Castle. Vita Sackville-West bought a ramshackle estate owned by her ancestors and renovated it in the 1930s. She established a sweeping, multi-faceted property. She and her husband Harold Nicolson installed a lake, a tower, countless “rooms,” and borders. Each room focused on one theme or element.
For example, can you imagine planting a giant border layered only with purple, blue, violet, and indigo plants? They did. This book outlines the history of Sissinghurst and its spaces. There’s the Cottage Garden, The Nuttery, The Lime Walk, the Herb Garden, and on and on. But it not only talks about the ideas behind these spaces but the plants currently in it, with illustrated plans. This book is “Downtown Abbey” meets gardening. Dreamy.
Rosemary Verey created the gardens at her home, Barnsley House, in the 1950s, which won awards for her expertise in plant combinations and year-round structure and color. In Good Planting, Verey advises on how to use texture and shape to create lovely spaces whose personality changes throughout the seasons in pleasing ways. I learned a lot about mixing deciduous and evergreen plants together from this book, a ton about color. There’s a great discussion of layering and contrast too. This is a wonderful practical guide by one of England’s 20th Century treasures.
Beth Chatto’s Green Tapestry
Beth Chatto may be my personal favorite. I think so much of her. She teaches readers about the nitty gritty of gardening. How to figure out your soil conditions. What to plant in a damp area. How to space plants. She’s maybe most famously known for the concept of “right plant, right place.” The concept says if you learn a plant’s natural habitat, then recreate those conditions in your garden, the plant will thrive. It won’t suffer disease or weak growth. This approach was an outgrowth of her property being located in a drier area of England. That challenged her to grow plants in Mediterranean conditions as well as shady groves and wet areas. Still alive in her 90s, Beth Chatto is a gift to the United Kingdom and the world. My dream is to visit the Beth Chatto Gardens.
Succession Planting for Year-Round Pleasure
The home and property of Great Dixter had been purchased by Nathaniel Lloyd in the early 1900s. But it was his son Christopher Lloyd who turned the estate into a gardening showcase in the mid-20th Century. He and gardener Fergus Garrett wrote this book in the early 2000s. It focused on how to create a garden that had year-round interest. They discuss in detail which plants to plant for a spring rise in excitement, then a summer spectacular display, and a blast of fall interest. They also discuss plants that offer ongoing color and how to plan for blank spaces. Hint: seasonal annuals regularly fill in for pops of personality. It’s a great guide as Lloyd says, “to keep the show going” in your garden.