A Student Garden in Three Steppes

Martha Keen is currently a 1st year student in Longwood Gardens’ Professional Gardener Program; one of her program’s requirements to design and plant a plot adjacent to their student housing. In the following, she shares her philosophy about her garden, which has a spectral, if not ethereal feel in its muted hues (namely blues, grays, and washed out mauve).


The area where Martha and her classmates created their individualistic gardens is a broad expanse free of structures and trees that can appear initially uninspiring, but becomes dramatically appealing through light and fog at different times. Already in early May are the plots eerily tonal from a foggy spring morning.
The area where Martha and her classmates created their individualistic gardens is a broad expanse free of structures and trees that can appear initially uninspiring, but becomes dramatically appealing through light and fog at different times. Already in early May are the plots eerily tonal from a foggy spring morning.

Confines free up creativity, I’ve learned. My classmates and I were each assigned a piece of earth, 15 feet across and 50 feet long, in the middle of a field. I pondered how to make a space from such a narrow slice, absent any backdrop or existing groundwork, devoid of even anything to erase. The single marked character of the site was its slight slope, and the more I tread my plot the more I seemed to notice it.

Youthful gardens promise new beginnings that old gardens can obscure without thorough examination. Martha reveals the gradual transformation of her barren plot into the extant garden, which started in May.
Youthful gardens promise new beginnings that old gardens can obscure without thorough examination. Martha reveals the gradual transformation of her barren plot into the extant garden, which started in May.

From this slope I carved three scalloped terraces, each to hold its own group of plantings selected to evoke, but not replicate a short grass prairie on the top tier, a dune in the center, and tall meadow at the lowest end. The hoop path and margins were mulched with blonde pea gravel, and the plants were sited in wide bands to echo the elliptical center bed. I mulched with salt hay, whose soft color and texture left no dark voids among plants.

Given ideal conditions and no competition, plants can rapidly grow as if they are racing to take advantage over each other; here in July, Martha's plantings are beginning to fill out.
Given ideal conditions and no competition, plants can rapidly grow as if they are racing to take advantage over each other; here in July, Martha’s plantings are beginning to fill out.

As a gardener, but as a living creature, I would never begrudge a flower. But this a garden was a study in textures and repetition first. Among the color palette, I deferred to glaucous and muted foliage wherever possible; among the flowers, few occur that are not dusty too: cream and mauve, a smattering of burgundy. Looking up towards my garden this fall, from the southern side facing north, I could finally see what I wondered about all summer long: a series of steps from Panicum, to Leymus, to cardoon, to Schizachyrium, an a series of undulations filling the spaces between the plantings but hidden from view unless one is inside.

Steely blue gray is the thematic color of Martha's garden (left to right): Verbascum phlomoides; Pycnanthemum muticum, Cynara cardunculus, and Leymus arenarius with Zinnia elegans 'Queen Red Lime'; Schizachyrium scoparium 'Standing Ovation', Leymus arenarius, and Cynara cardunculus
Steely blue gray is the thematic color of Martha’s garden (left to right): Verbascum phlomoides; Pycnanthemum muticum, Cynara cardunculus, and Leymus arenarius with Zinnia elegans ‘Queen Red Lime’; Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’, Leymus arenarius, and Cynara cardunculus
In a garden that deploys strong textural contrasts in foliage, like the jagged edges of Cynara cardunculus and curvaceous folds of Crambe maritima (sea kale), flowers seem superfluous, and where they do exist, they become sculptural selves after death. Both Monarda punctata (upper left hand pic) and Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpureum' (lower left hand pic) have dual roles in life and death.
In a garden that deploys strong textural contrasts in foliage, like the jagged edges of Cynara cardunculus and curvaceous folds of Crambe maritima (sea kale), flowers seem superfluous, and where they do exist, they become sculptural selves after death. Both Monarda punctata (upper left hand pic) and Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’ (lower left hand pic) have dual roles in life and death.
In October, the bleached hues of the grasses mark a momentary seasonal shift in light while Cynara cardunuculus and Leymus arenarius remain steadfastly defiant in their icy demeanors. Martha's garden was unwavering strong throughout the season, and because it utilizes more perennials and grasses than annuals, its winter interest will likely be strong.
In October, the bleached hues of the grasses mark a momentary seasonal shift in light while Cynara cardunuculus and Leymus arenarius remain steadfastly defiant in their icy demeanors. Martha’s garden was unwavering strong throughout the season, and because it utilizes more perennials and grasses than annuals, its winter interest will likely be strong.

A garden is alchemy, something where once nothing was; a garden is willful too, requiring tremendous effort and input that we would flatter ourselves to call creation. Rather, this one revealed itself to a fortunate accident. I selected plants, and many of them expressed themselves so jubilantly in their places that to greet them everyday made this gardener feel a bit more steadfastly herself as well.

Categories: Gardeners, Gardens, Horticulture, PlantsTags: , , , ,

4 Comments

  1. A fairly flat 15′ by 50′ swath in the middle of nothing and adjacent to others with similar directive? Setting it off with pea gravel was an excellent thought. The ethereal use of grass, excellent as well. I understand the design devoid of strong color from flowering plants, but I would have thought the use of plants with strong structural focus throughout their growing season would be more important planted the length of the bed. The repetition of these strong structural forms to draw the eye the length of the bed would have given the plot a unity I feel is lacking. A few cardoon planted on a small rise didn’t do it for me.

  2. Thomas Rainer

    Thank you for sharing such innovative, interesting people. Makes me very optimistic about the future of horticulture.

    Thomas

    >

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