A garden for all seasons

David Culp's Brandywine Cottage in Pennsylvania Photograph: the layered garden

David Culp's Brandywine Cottage in Pennsylvania Photograph: the layered garden

Sat, Feb 16, 2013, 00:00

David Culp takes a multilayered approach to planting and design, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

The late Russell Page, one of the great garden designers of the 20th century and author of the classic The Education of a Gardener, said: “A garden is, by definition, an artifice.” But as most gardeners know from hard-won experience, creating such an artifice isn’t easy. A solid knowledge of plants and their cultivation is required, as is an understanding of your garden’s soil and its microclimates.

A deft grasp of design and composition also helps, and an appreciation of the importance of form, texture and colour. If you have a rough handle on the rudiments of hard landscaping (useful when it comes to understanding things such as changing ground levels), all the better. As if all that weren’t enough, the gardener must also contend with a plot that is forever in a state of flux, a hostage to any number of climatic vagaries (drought, floods, frost, heatwaves) as well as a mirror to the never-ending cycle of the seasons.

That ephemeral nature of gardening – the essence of its charm – poses some of the greatest challenges. Most of us spend a large part of our gardening lives wrestling with the thorny question of how to successfully create a garden with year-round interest. Or, as US gardener David Culp puts it in his book, The Layered Garden: “How much beauty and pleasure can I wring out of that space?” In the case of Brandywine Cottage, the author’s two-acre garden in Pennsylvania, which he shares with his partner and fellow gardener, Michael Alderfer, the answer is an awful lot.

A gardener in the tradition of great British garden-makers such as Christopher Lloyd, Beth Chatto, Penelope Hobhouse, Margery Fish and the aforementioned Russell Page, Culp’s knowledge and love of plants is second to none. Not for him hard-edged, pared-back modernism. Brandywine Cottage’s borders and woodlands are bountifully planted and multilayered, created over two decades and designed to sate the appetite of any dedicated plantsperson, no matter what the time of year.

The key to such a layered garden – a matrix of flowering bulbs, annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees, as well as fruit and vegetables – is “understanding and taking advantage of the ways plants grow and change through the seasons and over the years, providing different textures, colours and effects, and evoking a variety of feelings”.

The Layered Garden is the anatomy of Culp and Alderfer’s garden at Brandywine Cottage – its flower borders, “jewel box garden”, gravel garden, vegetable plot, sloping hillsides, rose beds, even its hellebore garden – laid bare. Photographs of it in spring, summer, autumn and winter show the difference even a few weeks’ growth can make – a reminder of the quicksilver nature and the shifting moods of any garden.

A good example is the series of shots of Brandywine Cottage’s rose beds, the first taken in April while bare patches of ground are visible alongside the emerging tips of the golden grass Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’, and the last photograph taken in June, as abundant growth almost conceals the grassy path and purple alliums, and scarlet roses set the garden ablaze.

Culp would “not be happy with a garden in which everything bloomed at once”. Instead there are multiple seasons of interest, as different plants peak at different times of the year. Alongside an overview of the gardens and his design philosophy, Culp also looks at what he calls “the signature plants throughout the seasons”. This group includes witch hazels, narcissus, epimediums, magnolias, trilliums, irises, paeonies, alliums, lilies, hydrangeas, asters and a host of other seasonal stars. But a particular passion for hellebores and snowdrops, for example, is never allowed to cloud his designer’s eye.

Instead, it leads to the exploration of other companion plants such as eranthis, crocus, wintersweet and Jasminum nudiflorum, as well as nonflowering but equally ornamental plant parts, including berries, bark and seed pods.

All the while Culp never stops asking those questions all gardeners should ask of themselves: “What do I want from my garden? What really excites me? What do I think is beautiful? And how much work do I want to do to keep it that way?”

Dates for your diary

Plants and Gardens at Home and Abroad, a lecture by Frances McDonald, owner of the Bay Garden, at Wesley House, Leeson Park, Dublin 6 on February 27th at 8pm. Admission €7 for nonmembers. See rhsi.ie tel: 01-235 3912

Building a Willow Structure with Norbert Platz, a half-day course at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, February 18th, 9am-1.30pm, booking essential, see cookingisfun.ie, tel: 021- 4646785

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