Story by Beverly Hoffman • Photos by David Godfrey
As much as Jane Stewart and Neil Burkhardt, owners of McComb Gardens in Sequim, have invested in their own education, as well as promoting Washington State Nursery and Landscape certification of their staff, they work even harder on the concept that gardeners should be having fun. If gardeners aren’t, Neil and Jane suggest a change in some way: Reduce the size of the gardens, hire someone to help, take out that irritating tree that pokes you every time you pass it. They believe landscapes are installed; the garden is a playground. Experimentation, experimentation, experimentation is the name of the game, along with a strong dose of humility.
We gardeners need to recognize no matter how hard we try and to what degree we plan, we are going to make mistakes. Plants have their own genetic DNA of what they want to become and how much they want to sprawl. They don’t read plant labels about their mature size and often grow beyond a general descriptor, especially here in the Pacific Northwest where ideal growing conditions exist. In gardening, there is a constant tension between humans and plant life. Each has its own vision.
Neil and Jane’s nursery is a display garden, which showcases specimen plants, mostly at their mature growth. The nursery gives gardeners an opportunity to see size, proportion and habit so that they can imagine the plant in their own gardens. Jane and Neil have used professionals Dan Hinckley and Phil Wood to create parts of the display. Neil laughs and says that hiring outside help was cheaper than divorce since he and Jane see gardens from different perspectives; a third eye was mandatory.
Jane is the artist who looks for the same elements she uses in her paintings — repetition, pathways for the eyes, color combinations that work. Neil is more the plant expert and sees shapes and textures. In thinking of a design in a garden, he thinks of flowers last — the opposite of the way most gardeners purchase plants — and uses them to soften edges.
The two of them do, however, agree that landscapes are compositions, with variations of a theme or that transition from theme to theme. The basic design principles they follow are:
1. Repetition creates unity. Use both plants and colors for repeating patterns. They mentioned how yellow can be a strong color and a single plant of yellow can stop the eye. Use several other touches of yellow or use more of the same plant in the border so the eye can move through a landscape.
2. Before planting, first plan for paths, uses within the garden and utilities. Paths should be wide, enough for two or three people walking abreast or wide enough for a wheelbarrow. Let pathways meander rather than take simple straight lines from A to B. Soft pathways invite people to linger, as well as entice them to look ahead in expectancy as a path curves into the unseen. Figure out the watering systems and outdoor lighting, if you’re going to install them. Decide the mood you want your garden to project and where you want to sit and have a conversational or dining area. Function should be well-established before any planting.
3. Specimen plants and trees are stand-alone plants that can become a focal point in a vignette of supporting plants. Use specimen plants for accents. Rather than thinking of a category of prized specimen plants, such as Japanese maples and Cryptomerias, consider that many plants/trees can be a specimen. Perhaps you need a plant that is highly textured and so the specimen plant can be the lowly Eryngium (sea holly), with its spiky amethyst flower heads.
Neil talks about a specimen plant he chose outside their bedroom window, which he wanted to have fragrance, have a light and airy habit and be a sanctuary for birds. From that criterion, he choose the Styrax japonicas (Japanese snowbell), which grows to about 25 feet high. Had he wanted something shorter, but with his criteria, he could have chosen the Korean spice viburnum
(Viburnum carlesii), which grows to about 8 feet tall.
After a new display section had been planted, Jane wanted a tree to complete an area and set off a marooned Japanese maple. Together, they chose Robinia pseudoacacia (Tunisian locust) and its bright lime leaves and its proportion work perfectly in that area.
4. Create a welcoming entry. Let your personality emerge so that you, above all others, love to enter the garden. Not only is it a design principle, but it also has an element of psychology. If the garden does not entice you to enter, you … and others … probably will stay out. Entries also define where the garden begins, suggesting, too, that there is an end point. Some gardens seem to splay out in all directions, somewhat like a toddler lying on the floor, legs and arms akimbo.
5. Most people desire a sense of privacy, a retreat where they can move and relax unobserved by others or where they don’t have to look at others’ blue tarps or trash bins. Fences are the easiest way to create privacy. In their McComb Gardens, one can see a yew hedge that creates privacy. Of course, hedges take years to grow — at least four. If an immediate barrier is needed, hardscape is best. Neil pointed out that fences need not be continual. Panels, such as those at hardware stores, can be placed end-to-end but separated by equal distances and then with plantings in a repetitive pattern between the panels can soften the structure and, perhaps, save money.
6. Jane uses a personal principle that she’s not seen written in any books so far. She uses two of the primary colors (red, blue, yellow) and then if she needs a touch of the dramatic or a transitional element, she’ll use a single spot of the third primary color. Her sense is that the two primaries work together in a harmony that seems absent when too many colors compete.
One of the questions I asked Jane and Neil are their feelings about art in the garden. They use art as they’d use a plant. If texture is needed, they’d insert such a piece. Around a water element, they might place a bird. Neil’s sense is that one almost should have to look for the art hidden among plants rather than it taking center stage, and to avoid cutesy things such as decorative gnomes along a pathway. Garden art should enhance the garden; the garden should not enhance the art.
As nursery owners, they warn excited gardeners not to make common mistakes:
1. Not reading the label to plan for the mature height/width of a plant. Sometimes we think that a plant will cap out at a certain height. Neil mentioned that even dwarf plants grow 1 inch to 6 inches a year (which is the definition of dwarf plants) and over 10 years, they can grow 5 feet.
2. Not planting a border made up of dozens of different plants; rather, plant three, four, five or six of the same plant, either in one mass or interspersed throughout a section.
3. Not watering the plant correctly … either too much or too little. Light is a huge factor for the health of plants and also is a clue for how much water a plant needs.
4. Not following the directions on pesticides/herbicides and using too much. Jane reminds her customers that following the directions is actually a contract between the chemical manufacturer and the gardener. Applicable to organics, too.
5. Not giving enough space for seating. Plants poking and jabbing while you’re trying to relax makes any rest stop unusable.
Neil suggests that a lesson he had trouble learning, but now recognizes as truth, is that gardeners should plan a landscape to last about 10 years. After that time, the garden probably needs reworking. Trees that have crowded out other plants should be removed. Or the bully plant that is either naughty or elbows its way into every crevice. Make room for a plant or tree that you’ve come to love, such as the Acer griseum (paper bark maple) with its magnificent year-round interest and textural bark that peels, or perhaps a textured tree, such as Cryptomeria japonica ‘Beaumont’s Dwarf.’ Perhaps you want to include pots in your garden, all one color but in different sizes, where vignettes spill into the garden.
Both Jane and Neil suggest that we come more as children to our gardens rather than stern, disciplined adults. Remember as children how we made mud pies or sand castles and our screams of delight when we perfected the correct amount of water so the pies could set or where the moat flowed around the castle? A magical time where our work with nature was a shared effort and a pure delight. This is the joy we want as gardeners!