A year-round garden in Bexley

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
The Bexley home of Jim Elliott and John Behal includes multiple gardens that provide year-round enjoyment.

Stroll by Jim Elliot and John Behal's Bexley home any day of the year, and there's always something in the garden that stands out. On frosty February days, hellebores hang like pink and chartreuse lampshades beneath large fan-shaped leaves. In March and April, cheery yellow daffodils and purple creeping phlox bring color to their home's visible corner lot. The show continues through the summer months with daylilies, roses and lavender. During autumn, red and golden Japanese maples enhance the view and during winter months, evergreen conifers and fruit-filled hollies punctuate the landscape.

Such a non-stop, year-round color palette may be elusive for many Central Ohio gardeners, but not Elliott, this garden's primary planner and caretaker. (He shares hardscaping projects with his architect partner, Behal.) Elliott says he has gardened since his childhood and can fully indulge his passion now that he's retired from a career in textbook publishing.

"I think of the garden as a painting, and you fill in different colors," says Elliott, a fine arts and botany major in college. He started gardening with his grandmother at her large garden in Alton, just west of Columbus. "As payment, she gave me plants," he says.

At his childhood home in West Jefferson, Elliott says he would go into the woods and bring wildflowers home to plant. This gardening passion flourished through his adult life. In German Village, he tended a shady garden at a house he shared with Behal.

When the two bought this Bexley home 16 years ago, Elliott was delighted to gain some sunny locations for all the plants he says he "coveted" but couldn't grow in his shady German Village garden. The stone home they purchased in Bexley, built in 1912, offered plenty of charming curb appeal and great views of the outdoors from the living room, dining room and sunroom.

The couple's first project was a stone retaining wall along the front of the house. "It was one of those slopes where grass wouldn't grow, and the space got all weedy," says Elliott.

The two studied stone walls while vacationing in Connecticut. There, they photographed several ideas and eventually decided on a wall using fieldstone with plenty of lichens and discoloration to complement the character of the home's aged stone exterior. Once the retaining wall was finished, Elliott filled the terraced area behind it with a mix of perennial plants. In the space's early years, he added annuals until the perennials filled the space. Now, he makes room for annuals to bring ongoing color to the landscape, in addition to adding a perennial border in front of the stone wall.

Over the years, the traveling couple found plenty of gardening inspiration while touring English gardens such as Sissinghurst Castle Garden. The celebrated landscaping there is known for its hedged garden rooms filled with cottage style plantings. From these English garden tours, Elliott borrowed several ideas, such as intermixing plants and repeating plant colors like chartreuse Lady's Mantle for design impact.

"I repeat anchor plants, so the beds don't look so chaotic," Elliott says. Still, he encourages some disorder like the dainty corydalis plants that voluntarily pop up throughout the flower beds each spring.Elliott turns to gardening books for more ideas. Two of his favorites are "The Natural Shade Garden" by Ken Druse and "Colour in the Garden" by Penelope Hobhouse.

In the backyard, the couple added a bluestone patio and expanded the back porch into the shade of an old crabapple tree. Behal added his expertise with a custom-designed fence featuring an arched gate and corbels. He also dressed up the back porch with a trio of columns and two trellis panels. Along the property line, they enhanced a row of junipers with viburnums, holly and a red beech to create a lush privacy screen. Elliott filled the patio's surrounding beds with shade-loving perennials including brunnera, corydalis, lungwort, hostas, ferns, wild ginger and hellebores.

"I like when a garden has elements you don't see at first glance," says Elliott as he points out the diminutive white bell-shaped blooms secretly suspended beneath the fronds of Solomon's Seal.

To the west of the porch, a mature magnolia tree provides shade to a bed framed with boxwoods and filled with oakleaf hydrangeas and English ivy. Virginia creeper vines climb the side of the garage, softening the wall alongside the patio. Near the driveway, flowering forsythia and quince shrubs shine in spring with gold and salmon blooms. A bubbling stone fountain completes the backyard space with its soothing sounds. It also provides a gathering spot for the area's songbirds.

Over the years, Elliott says the property's clay soil has been a challenge, but he's amended it with leaf mulch from fall cleanups and bags of mushroom compost applied in the spring. However, when it comes to mulch, he is not a fan. "I don't believe in mulch," he says. "If you space plants close enough, you don't need mulch. Others spend on mulch what I spend on plants."

Besides his perennial garden, Elliott also tends a vegetable plot at a community garden he shares with a friend at the Franklin Park Conservatory, where they grow tomatoes, lettuce, kale, herbs, beans, carrots and beets.

Whether at his home or the community garden, this incessant gardener confesses the work is intensive during the growing season. But soon enough, he'll be tucked away in his warm sunroom admiring the snow on the conifers or watching birds steal berries from the holly.

If you're looking for a plan to create a four-season garden, Jim Elliott suggests the following plants:


?Shade perennials: corydalis, brunnera, lungwort, wild ginger and foam flower

?Sun perennials: lady's mantle, penstemon, spiderwort and evening primrose

?Bulbs: daffodils

?Flowering trees and shrubs: magnolia, serviceberry, viburnum, forsythia, quince, rhododendron and mahonia (Oregon grape)


?Perennials: day lilies, bear's breeches, artemisia, honeysuckle vine, clematis, salvia, phlox, hardy geranium, lavender, catmint, bee balm and roses

?Annuals: begonias, zinnias, lantana, ageratum and alyssum

?Flowering shrubs: hydrangea

?Foliage favorites: hostas and ferns


?Shade perennials: barrenwort and ferns

?Sun perennials: Japanese anemone and sedum

?Colorful trees and shrubs: Japanese maples, barberry and oakleaf hydrangea


?Evergreens: pine trees, holly, boxwood, junipers and taxus

?Fruiting shrubs: winterberry and cotoneaster