Donald Boerger's Fresh Take On Cottage Gardening

A Marysville preservationist plants a year-round garden at his vintage home.

Teresa Woodard
Donald Boerger and his cottage garden in Marysville

Cars slow and pedestrians linger as they pass the colorful cottage gardens surrounding Donald Boerger's century-old home in historic uptown Marysville. Compliments come via notes from people in Texas, South Carolina and Oregon, making Boerger happy to know that he is inspiring visitors from 1,000 miles away.

“I plant for my enjoyment, but the biggest reason I plant is to see the joy it brings other people,” says Boerger, 32, who is a Marysville City Council member.

This summer, Boerger has cheerfully filled his front beds with dozens of sunflowers, drifts of bright pink petunias, towering lilies and an abundance of nostalgic daisies. He’s no newcomer to gardening or his other passion, historic preservation. In fact, he planted crocus, daffodils and tulips when he first moved into his home at age 10 with his parents and twin sisters. And, that same year, he spoke at Marysville City Council about the value of preserving historic homes and community identity.

Lilies in Donald Boerger's garden

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Forever the history buff, today Boerger loves to share the backstory of his home. He explains it was built in 1901 by builder John Adams as a show home and sold to the McIlroy family. In 1941, his great-grandparents bought the place as a retirement residence. And, in 1999, his family inherited the home from his great-grandmother’s estate.

When Boerger, his parents and twin sisters moved in, much of the landscape was overgrown with evergreen shrubs, myrtle vine, English ivy and multiplying resurrection lilies. Still, the family treasured two Eastern White pines Donald’s father planted when he was in Future Farmers of America and a saucer magnolia planted by Boerger’s grandfather when he returned home from WWII as a house-warming gift for Boerger’s great-grandparents. He cherishes an old newspaper photo of his grandmother with the tree and recently posted it on Instagram along with a current one of himself in the same position by the tree.

“The magnolia has a history. It has memories. And it has shade,” says Boerger affectionately. “I’ll cry if I ever lose it.”

By age 14, Boerger had expanded beyond spring bulbs and planted quite a showplace. He was even invited to be a part of the Union County Garden Tour and was featured in a Columbus Dispatch article previewing the tour. “Overgrown evergreen shrubs once shrouded part of the front porch where cascades of miniature petunias now make spectacles of themselves in hanging pots,” described Michael Leach, the reporter who wrote the piece.

The home's vintage charm is enhanced with tulips and other spring bulbs. Eventually, the property transitions into a colorful garden display with daisies and more, providing a delightful show through the fall.

Boerger went on to pursue a degree in city and regional planning from Ohio State University and landed a job promoting the region for Union County’s Chamber of Commerce. Two years ago, he ran for city council and continues to serve there now.

“Community identity, uniqueness, character and preservation are all things I value,” says Boerger. “I try to walk the talk.”

He volunteers with the Union County Historical Society and created “This Place Matters” signs to display at 80 structures during Historic Preservation Month in May. As a preservation champion, Boerger appreciates the value a community’s historic character brings in attracting a younger generation.

“Young preservationists want to live in unique areas that they can’t find anywhere else,” says Boerger. “Old homes have souls, and every house has a different character like an individual.”

Boerger’s cottage style gardens are the perfect fit to reinforce his home’s cottage architecture. Introduced in the late 1880s by English gardener Gertrude Jekyll, cottage gardens are known for their informal, blowsy plant borders. Jekyll tired of the formal plantings of the Victorian times and instead advocated for a more natural look with plants arranged by color, height and flowering season.

As Boerger created his gardens over the years, he followed Jekyll’s mantra.

“I wanted cottage beds and color all year long,” he says. The passion for color led him to learn about flowers and their different bloom times.

Two chairs at the edge of a flowerbed in Donald Boerger's garden

In spring, his garden shines with an abundance of yellow and white daffodils, pink and purple tulips and a crocus mix he purchased from Marysville wholesaler Berbee Bulbs at their Dutch Mill Greenhouse garden center. For Easter, he even hangs pastel-colored plastic eggs from his paperbark maple tree and fills containers with pansies and sprigs of pussy willow stems. A flowering crabapple tree steals the show in the front, while his grandmother’s flowering magnolia is the spring highlight in the backyard.

“The blooms are giant,” says Boerger, “and they’re so fragrant in the evening.”

For summer, Boerger grows trays of annuals from seed for plants such as orange zinnias and golden sunflowers. These fill vacant spaces in his perennial beds. He also purchases the latest annuals like Profusion zinnias and angelonia from Scheiderer Farms Greenhouse, where he works seasonally. He plants the annuals along the edges of his perennial borders for ongoing summer color.

“I plant annuals for instant color,” says Boerger, explaining that perennials take longer to produce blooms.

“The first year they sit; the second year they kind of grow and the third year they flourish,” he says. As a bonus, though, they can be divided and replanted throughout the garden or shared with friends. His favorite perennials include large-flowering day lilies, showy hardy hibiscus and the pollinator-friendly butterfly weed.

Boerger also encourages self-sowing annuals such as purple larkspur to drop their seeds. As the plants weave their way through the beds, they seem to knit the various plants altogether. Purple larkspur can be prolific, starting with thousands of seedlings, many of which will eventually need to be pulled.

A table setting in Donald Boerger's garden

To the east side of the house, he designed a shade garden beneath a ginkgo tree and blue spruce. He filled it with a collection of hostas, bleeding heart, brunnera, hellebores, garden phlox and coral bells. One of his many tips is to place plants—often in deep beds extending away from the foundation—so that they can be viewed from each room indoors. He’s even been known to plant trees in the neighbor’s yard to enhance the views.

Over the years, Boerger has found that Ohio’s heat spells make it tough to grow the classic New England style of cottage plants, so he’s swapped in several native perennials such as black-eyed Susans and coneflowers. He also replaced three burning bushes with more eco-friendly Brandywine viburnums for their glossy leaves, blooms and fall berries.

For July Fourth, Boerger hangs buntings on the front of the house. His year-round show continues through the fall with displays of ornamental kale and pumpkins. At Christmastime, he wraps trees in lights and fills urns with red lanterns to carry on his grandfather’s infamous holiday decorating tradition.

The exuberant gardens are a bright spot in downtown Marysville and a reflection of Donald’s cheery personality.

“I always take advice from a sunflower,” he say. “Be bright, sunny and positive. Rise, shine and hold your head up high.”

This story is from the Fall/Winter 2021 issue of Home & Garden.