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Berkshire Garden Style • Contained Chaos: A Close-Up of The Potting Shed: part 1

July 2022 • a Viridissima blog

July 2022 - a vignette from the Potting Shed garden

July 2022

Contained Chaos: A Close-Up of The Potting Shed part 1

The outdoors is my shelter. The sight of soft grass beneath high canopy trees lifts my heart. The green light illuminates the grass. Birdsong ripples like running water. Wind hisses through white pine tops and rattles poplar leaves. There is dew. The insects. The fresh strawberries harvested on my birthday. Mouthfuls of blueberries for breakfast every morning during my July vacation. Fistfuls of fresh herbs. Frothing smoke bushes. Winding roads. Lunch on the ground with friends, eating random foods out of mismatched containers, our meal supplemented by fistfuls of herbs and handfuls of berries. Back roads. Cold water straight from the faucet. Dirty feet. Big birds, small birds, big bugs, small bugs, stinging bugs, slimy slugs. This is my kind of crowd. This is my community. These are my people.

Late July means towering Lilium and voluminous Hydrangea blooms

And it’s July – the smack dab middle of it all, the growing season at its apex. It’s the time in the season when I can start to ease off a bit, where I can set my schedule to maintenance. For a little while, anyway. Sometimes, I get a little pause where I get to stop and notice it all, take it all in. I feel so grateful for this outdoor shelter. This human and more-than-human community.

Arco, the Potting Shed dog, sniffs his approval of these whiskey barrel planters featuring a Dahlia

named Jenna, Salvia 'Skyscraper Pink', Begonia 'Sinbad', and the vivid green Jasmine 'Fiona Sunrise'

I took notice of all this one morning a few weeks ago as I drove to one of my favorite properties, the Potting Shed. I’ve been tending to this particular property going on 15 years. This garden, belonging to Nancy and Lincoln, is unlike any other I care for – it’s not a border or a bed or any sort of traditional shape, but a garden planted in the vestiges of the stone foundations to what was once a vast greenhouse. The greenhouse belonged to the original owners of the Wheatleigh estate, now an adjacent property to Nancy’s, where none other than Frederick Law Olmstead designed the grounds for the railroad magnate Henry H. Cook’s Italianate country home in 1893.

Looking south from the gravel patio in June 2016

What’s left of the foundation is a large square, roughly 2,000 square feet. The garden is divided into five beds – very creatively named One, Two, Three, Four, and Five by yours truly – separated by the remainder of stone walls. Some beds are deep and sunken into the ground, and some are higher up. The garden is best described as controlled chaos – a wild sea of aggressive perennials, hearty volunteers that return year after year, and dahlias and annuals that we surreptitiously tuck in each spring to add color and texture. Plants range from the very tall, like a listing Ironweed in Five, to ground bunching Lady’s Mantle, whose acid-yellow flowers froth over onto each bed’s path, flowers that my crew diligently thin season after season.

Lady's Mantle blooms frothy acid-yellow along the pathways and are a vivid foil to the pink Oriental Poppy and Peony

When I first started on this bed, I wasn’t so sure of its hodge-podge nature. A lover of green, of the beauty and abundant textures of foliage alone, it was hard for me to adjust to Nancy’s craving for more and more color. There were so many plants in the garden! Yet she’d always say, “Can we get just a little more color?” Then, one day, visiting inside her house I started to notice her aesthetic: vintage and antique quilts, furniture, china, mismatched textiles, and miscellany. This woman loved the patchwork, and her garden, I started to realize, was like a gigantic quilt of living plant material. I don’t really plant this garden, but I “edit” it – thin/pull back some of this, trim leaves on that to make room for this other thing. This garden is somewhat intentional and somewhat happenstance. My realization of the garden’s quilt-like nature combined with my burgeoning signature as a container gardener encouraged me to think of the Potting Shed garden as “contained chaos.” There is a strict border, beyond which smooth lawn spreads out, where a very tidy row of white pines signifies the border between Nancy’s property and the neighbor’s. Next to the house is a gravel patio. And then there’s this wily jungle, emerging out of the ground in a cacophony of colors, textures, and heights.

August 2013 and the quilt concept had caught on

It’s hard to capture this garden in both photographs and in words. It’s really a place that needs to be experienced. It’s a cacophony of plant material, but each bed has its own mood, and over the years I’ve worked to cultivate this garden’s multitude of personalities. Right now, the first thing someone might notice as they encroach upon this garden are the Opium Poppies. There are swaths of them in each bed, little communities that volunteer themselves year after year, one of the plants my gardeners are trained to edit, thinning and defining the patches. The flowers range in color from coral to lavender.

Jenna stands atop a wall that borders Number Two, pondering the layout with Opium Poppies in the foreground

The beds are defined by several groupings of tall species: on one end of Three, the middle bed, is a stand of Sanguisorba officianalis ‘Red Thunder,’ Great Burnet, with its long, rangy stems and deep red, bottlebrush flowers on top, like a sea of floating raspberries. The Sanguisorba mingles with its also rangy neighbor, Cephalaria gigantea, Giant Scabious, with its creamy yellow pincushion flowers atop slender stalks. The two plants reach over my head, their subtle flowers intertwining together, the Cephalaria nodding with bees. Back in one corner of bed Five, Macleaya cordata, Plume Poppy, runs rampant. The leaves look like kale, and if not kept in check this plant can take off aggressively. But it looks fantastic – super fun – next to the tall plumes of deep pink Filipendula, Queen of the Prairie– plumes and plumes swaying overhead.The paths are lined with Alchemilla mollis, Lady’s Mantle, the yellow blooms making a sulfurous frothy foil for the June blooms – late Tulips, Peonies, Iris, Allium, and perennial Poppies.

Sanguisorba officianalis 'Red Thunder', like a sea of floating raspberries

mingles with its also rangy neighbor, Cephalaria gigantea

Tucked here and there throughout are lillies, which lean with character. At the time of this writing, most of them are still green pods suspended on peduncles, but a few have just started to burst open. Punctuating the sea of green are occasional dark-stemmed and -leaved plants: black-stemmed Dahlias and Red Orach, a self-sown annual. There are swaths of Echinacea, Monarda (Bee Balm), Helianthus. There’s the occasional arching spray of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer,’ showing off its fire-red jewels. There are the weeds we don’t eradicate, but manage, like Celandine Poppy – a treat to have something bloom early! – and Queen Anne’s lace. There’s the wild Queen Anne’s lace, classic white umbels, and then the cultivated Queen Anne’s lace, Dara daucus ‘Purple Kisses,’ blossoms blushing from pink to deep purple.

Lilies just above center frame - find them, if you can, amongst the cacophonous quilt

of brazen blooms including Crocosmia 'Lucifer', Echinacea and Black-Eyed-Susan

Like I said – hard to capture in words. But I think you get the idea. In coming to accept the Potting Shed garden for what – I’m tempted to say “who” because it just has so much personality! – it is, I can identify the core tenets of Berkshire Garden Style. In fact, tending to this property over the years has helped shape some of those very tenets. For example:

  • The Potting Shed is authentic and wild. As in, I’m not trying to make it look like any other kind of garden. I didn’t come here and say, let’s take all these plants out and start with a base of, say, hostas, because that’s what the base of every garden should be. I came here and did something out of the ordinary for me: I added color, lots of color, color that didn’t always follow any particular scheme. Because that’s how this garden is. So I let it be. Let it follow its own way. I just help shape it around the edges, help define it.

  • This garden honors the landscape that’s already here. In creating this garden in the foundations of Wheatleigh’s original greenhouses, it tells a story: the story of change, of how land evolves, and how elements of it can withstand time. It’s a palimpsest of cultivation: traces of the old remain while a new garden emerges.

  • And, it’s heart-centered. I know, I know. What does that even mean?! Well, heart-centered – f*cking heart-centered, as I prefer to say, because sometimes that helps with a sense of conviction – really deserves its own blog post some day. But let me just say, when I’m gardening BGS style, I’m not following an idea of what the garden should be, but am trying to understand who this garden is and who lives here. Remember how I started this blog post? The outdoors is my shelter. Because these plants and the critters who eat them and make their homes around them and rely on them – they’re all my people. And if they’re my people, well, I have to be one of their people, too. That’s what this property makes me feel: like this garden is a community. One that I’m a part of and that I help take care of.

Roshni, a member of the family who lives in the Potting Shed, holds a skeletal sunflower from the previous

year that we finally decided had to come down - a case when we favor garden green over tawny tones

Stay tuned! Next month, I bring you the Potting Shed part deux where I delve deeper into the property’s past. Next month’s post will bring to life the palimpsest – the origins of the land as cultivated property, its many (famous!) iterations, and how it came to be the home and garden it is today. I sit down with Nancy to have a conversation about this garden and our shared vision for it as we give a glimpse into the gardener-client relationship.

A towering row of White Pines planted as a hedge decades ago and Arco's tennis ball,

a sign of this well-loved and lived-in family garden space


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