Create a Showcase Garden
- By: Aurelia C. Scott
During the gardening season, Robin Whitten has been known to arrive for work as editor of AudioFile magazine with mulch-stained knees. That’s because from mid-April into November, she spends the dawn hours among her plants, watering, rearranging, deadheading, and kneeling to pull recalcitrant weeds. After work, you’ll find her outside again, reveling in the color and scent as she clips, shovels, and tidies.
Such is her passion for horticulture that with her husband, architect Rob Whitten, Robin has created and currently maintains two gardens. Beds of wind-resistant perennials and summer flowers surround the Whittens’ East Boothbay seaside cottage, which they have owned since 1970. Apple and birch trees, spring-flowering perennials, and great swaths of tulips and daffodils decorate the Victorian home on Portland’s Munjoy Hill that the Whittens bought in 1976. Both locations serve as lovely backdrops to annual parties and receptions. The Portland garden, which is a particular show-stopper, has also been featured on garden tours and in magazines.
What did the Portland yard look like when you bought the property?
Our yard runs beside and behind the house, and the entire property is about four feet higher than the sidewalk. When we moved in, the retaining wall in front of the house was about to tumble apart, and in back, it looked and felt like an abandoned lot. The space had been invaded by bamboo and wild cherry. Lots of rocks and scrubby grass. And over in the corner, some pines and two sad apple trees that someone had once planted.
How did you and Rob begin the design process? Did you draw a plan?
Nope. We made it up as we went along and we made a lot of mistakes! Not that I recommend that. But along the way, we did learn. Because of all the mistakes, we learned that gardening is a forgiving art form — you can move and divide plants, rearrange outdoor furniture, and, when in doubt, cut down the tree that’s grown too big and use it for firewood! We also learned to take one section of the garden at a time, notice how the light moves, and let the light guide our choice of plants. And we have learned that even when you have an area just the way you want it, nature will make changes you didn’t expect. Right now, I’m having to figure out how to garden in our little birch grove. I love the birches, so they’re staying. But as they grow, the leaf canopy is heavier and the tree roots are denser. I’m working on adapting.
What’s the primary lesson you’ve learned over the years about creating a showcase garden?
A great garden needs focal points, places for the eye to pause as you walk through. A focal point can be a wonderful shrub or tree, a collection of similar plants; it can be a trellis or a bench; a group of pots. Something that centers each area of the garden and draws the visitor in. For example, every year I arrange some plants in pots at the top of the stairs beside our garden gate. The mix of colors and textures is interesting, and flowers in pots are like flowers in a vase; they say, “Welcome,” as you walk in the door of the garden. Farther along, in a corner of the garden, we have a bench under a trellis of wisteria.
Actually, that’s an example of learning from our mistakes. We planted a spruce in that corner that grew into this gigantic green blob. It was the right idea — we needed a focal point, but absolutely the wrong choice. So on the first Earth Day, we replaced it with the wisteria and the bench, which was the right size for the garden and invited you in, rather than shading you out.
In order to find the focal points, spend time walking and sitting in different places in your yard. Visualize it as a series of outdoor rooms, then make sure there’s one plant or object, perhaps a gnarly apple tree, or a collection, such as three shovels leaning against a shed, to provide focus in each room. To get your ideas flowing, you might even take a photograph of the area and draw on it until you’ve created the picture you want. Don’t use the same focal points everywhere. So, don’t put benches in every corner of the yard. We have the pots of flowers at the top of the stairs, bench and wisteria in the southeast corner, a big trellis on the back of the house, a small grove of birches and three apple trees in the east, and a little portable greenhouse and “working area” around the side, which is just as interesting to look at as anything else. And then plants, of course. They don’t have to be big to draw the eye. Even ground cover can be a focal point. I have a bank of lady’s mantle that offers an expanse of variegated green all summer long.
Edges. I actually learned this from Jeff Tarling, the horticulturalist for the City of Portland. It’s the edge of a bed that catches people’s eye. A full front edge that looks really nice encourages visitors to enjoy what’s behind it.
It can even divert the eye from something that doesn’t really work at the back of a bed. Really! In our garden, we use different kinds of edging, both hardscape and plants. We have a straight line of stone on the street side, then a curving line of brick defines the south-side garden beds. The brick contrasts with the grass, gives you something to look at early in the spring, and later in the year, it contains the edging plants, including campanula, ground phlox, and veronica.
How do you create “wow” all season long?
You don’t. Or, at least, you don’t have to. Remember that focal points can be objects and edging can be hardscape — those are going to look good all season, and depending on what you’ve chosen, they can look “wow” all season. When it comes to plants, concentrate on the one or two times of the season that you love best. I adore spring. From late April into June, my yard is awash in thousands of pink and pastel tulips, daffodils, and scilla. It’s almost overwhelming — definitely wow! The rest of the season, the effect is more subdued — a collection of peonies in one area, roses in another, the silver bark on the birch trees. It’s still an interesting garden, but the wow factor happens in the spring.
Now, if you really do want “wow” all season, I advise creating it room by room. So, you might have flowering crabapples in one garden room in May and June, then stunning clematis on trellises in another room in July, or if you have shade, a mix of the biggest and most interesting hostas you can find. Whatever you choose, the lesson I’ve learned is that repeating and multiplying creates the effect. So, big clumps of the same or similar colors; several trees with shaggy bark instead of one; five pots rather than two.
Now that we have the basics of a showplace garden, how do we get ready for a garden tour?
First, I speak from experience here, don’t agree to a tour in July if your garden is best in May!
Other than that, plan ahead. Do you have plants that will collapse in a hard rain? The year you’re on the garden tour is the year you should remember to stake them before they get too big. An old apple tree with a branch that might fall? Prop it up in the spring with a visually interesting support and you’ve created a focal point.
You should also plan ahead for empty spaces. You are not a failure if you run out and buy some pots of geraniums or whatever to fill in the holes, but don’t do it the day before the tour! Give those “instant plants” a week in the ground to look settled.
Let’s see. Cut the grass a couple of days before the tour. Unless it’s a wet period, water well the day before, and lightly the morning of the tour. Keep deadheading. Tidy up and deadhead your plants all season until the day of the tour. That’s probably the most labor-intensive aspect of preparation, but it’ll keep your garden looking its best.
If you’re worried about forgetting the names of your plants, make a plant list. In all these years, I’ve had no more than three people ask me for the name of something in my garden. But go ahead and make a list so you don’t find yourself staring at an aster and forgetting what it’s called.
Oh, yes, don’t obsess about hiding your tools and compost pile. Clean them up a bit, but, otherwise, leave a few things out for people to see. You don’t want them to think that a garden service did it all for you.
Yes. Don’t panic. Something will happen — rain, wind, heat, a prize rose that’s suddenly covered in Japanese beetles.
Forget about it. People who go on garden tours are not inspectors. They’re enthusiasts who love plants. Their experience won’t be ruined by unstaked peonies.
- By: Aurelia C. Scott