Master Gardener

By
From the August 2010 edition

A visitor strolls past an herb garden banked on a small hillside along the driveway, onto a small patio adorned with potted zinnias in riots of yellow and orange, then past a Connecticut-style picket fence that safeguards the vegetable garden’s raised beds of brussels sprouts, Chinese green beans and tender squash blossoms. At the end of the walk, and just beyond massive hydrangeas, it’s difficult to imagine what waits ahead.

With the same dramatic flair, walking beyond the summery hydrangeas reveals an enormous garden, seemingly plucked from the sprawling grounds of an English castle. Luxuriant perennial beds overflow with a thousand shades of green—silvery pale borders of stachys byzantina, also known as lamb’s ear; green-flowered Echinacea; forest-green thrusts of mugo pine; rattlesnake master’s viridian-tinged silver stalks, and variegated green-and-yellow needles of dragon’s eye pine. Added to the mixture are perennial gladiolus, purple knots of bonariensis, and waves of whitish-green hydrangeas. Mature woods embrace the rear of the property and sweep into the left corner of this rectangular lawn to create a shady woodland garden teeming with hostas and equisetum, and offering cool respite from the summer sun.

This New Albany master gardener has immersed herself in the art. She served for six years as a board member of the American Horticultural Society, has been on staff for a year at the New York Botanical Garden, enjoys longstanding membership in the Little Garden Club of Columbus, has founded a chapter of the Herb Society of America, which installed and endowed the thyme garden at Inniswood Metro Gardens in Westerville, and has achieved status as a national flower judge and award-winning flower arranger. In addition, her focus on flower arranging has been enhanced with her complete book collections by world-famous flower arranger Sheila Macqueen and high-society florist Leonard Tharp.

The goal was simple enough when the woman who’d lived much of her life in Bexley decided to move her family to New Albany in 1995. The move was not only for the neighborhood opportunities it afforded her daughters, but the possibility of designing a garden from scratch on well over an acre. With the help of friend and noted garden designer Carolyn Marsh Lindsay, a nearly endless supply of lush florals, reedy textures and variegated greenery for year-round flower arranging was created.

“I’m blessed,” the gardener says. “I can have a playground.”

Her overall goal has been accomplished. “Anybody’s garden looks good in May with peonies and roses,” she says. “The trick is to have it great-looking all the time.”

The design of this garden took well over a year of collaboration as the homeowner chose many of the plants. Lindsay, a former president of the American Horticultural Society, sketched plans for the brickwork and boxwood hedges. Landscape designer Ken Helmlinger created the woodlands garden, with its gravel paths and stepping stone walkways. But the strongest influence was exerted by Macqueen, who has been one of the royal family’s floral designers and who has done the flowers for two royal weddings. Years ago, while this New Albany gardener was touring England, she visited Macqueen, who hosted a tour of her home and garden, followed by a flower-arranging lesson. In a subsequent visit to the United Kingdom, this homeowner enjoyed a week of classes taught by Macqueen at a quaint country inn.

One of the British gardener’s favorites—the hellebore—is at the top of the list for the New Albany master gardener. “I have a weakness for them,” she explains. “They bloom early, and there’s a large range of colors. Plus they’re deer-resistant. So wherever they land, they can stay.”

Despite all the careful planning and expertise behind the garden design, it’s still a process of experimentation and evolution. “These days I’m much more particular about what goes in. There are fewer perennials and more shrubs. And no plants that creep—like apricot mums or anemone. I figured that out about five years ago,” she says. “Plus, the foliage must be attractive after the blooms fade.”

The masterful gardener welcomes constructive criticism. Two years ago when members of the Perennial Plant Association toured her garden in early August as a featured part of a week-long symposium, she had a request. “I left index cards for them to make suggestions. ‘Don’t just say it’s a great garden. Tell me what I can change,’ ” she recalls telling them. A few hinted that there might be a bit too much white, with the hydrangeas at their peak, so she resolved to introduce more color in future plantings.

With a full-time job as the president of a family business, the homeowner considers herself more “garden management,” she confesses, “instead of being depressed about how much work there is to do.” A landscaping service is contracted for the season to cut the grass and maintain the edging, while a weed puller/gardener is paid by the hour. Finding knowledgeable garden help has been difficult and frustrating, though. “They don’t know what to weed—they pulled the good stuff,” she says, remembering some of her help. “Like my perennial begonias that come up late and self-sow. I wanted to save them, but they pulled out the new ones. Plus the [weedkiller] they sprayed on the bricks splashed on some of the nearby plants and killed them.”

And then there are the deer. “That’s probably my biggest challenge,” the gardener says. “We’ve tried fishing line. We’ve tried spray, but if the new growth is not sprayed, they’ll eat it.” Most of her property is fenced, but where one side adjoins the neighbor, there’s only thuja plicata—giant arborvitae—which they don’t eat. Still, the deer squeeze through the plants to dine on the more appetizing selections. “We even tried to hide things, like the phlox, among plants they don’t eat. They’d go right past them to get the phlox,” she laments.

As she surveys the vegetable garden and the backdrop of cypress and privet hedge from a second-floor vantage point, she pauses to appreciate the color schematic. “I’ve always been connected to the natural world,” she explains. “I grew up with a big backyard and garden, with peach blossoms, violets and caterpillars.”

Her days as a teacher—she has degrees in philosophy, arts and teaching, and a doctorate in staff development and education—were enhanced by using the outdoors as a classroom. She fondly recalls her Montessori students and their delight in using cardboard paper towel rolls to focus on specific parts of the nature walk. “It’s a challenge to keep today’s children in touch with nature—they’re on the computer,” she says.

This homeowner is as much student as teacher, learning from flower-arranging lectures and workshops that she has participated in around the globe. She has also studied extensively in Columbus with Soko Cox, master of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana at Franklin Park Conservatory. The deliberate placement of elements in Ikebana, the minimalism and the spiritual component contrast sharply with the philosophy of another of her master teachers, florist Leonard Tharp.

“If you think you have enough in the arrangement, add twice as much,” she recalls as his mantra. She studied with Tharp 20 years ago at the headquarters for the American Horticultural Society, just outside of Washington, D.C. One of the top floral designers in the 1980s, Tharp was known for his imaginative artistic design and love of voluptuous materials, and often lent his touch to events at the Reagan White House.

“Yes, I’m compulsive,” the New Albany gardener says, laughing, as she stops to grab a handful of weeds she spots in the middle of a flower bed. “But if I don’t pull the weeds when I see them, it can be a month before I’m back around, it’s such a big garden.” While she might pass over an intruder like milkweed and let it stay, knotweed is too invasive and gets yanked out. “I have to be relaxed when we have guests,” she adds. “I have to turn it off.”

Rhonda Koulermos is a freelance writer.