Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Inspiration and ideas for your garden

Allium 'Globemaster'
Photo by Jason Holmes

By Kate Blakely

Where do you look for inspiration in your garden planning? What are the elements that will help you merge your vision with your garden site?

Bobby Mottern, Duke Gardens’ director of horticulture, finds his inspiration by visiting gardens, most recently English gardens. Last summer, Mottern and Jason Holmes, curator of the Doris Duke Center Gardens, went to England to glean new information and ideas that will serve them at Duke Gardens. He shared some ideas from that trip and from his own career in public gardens and landscape design.

Color is important and inspirational for many people, Mottern says. If you see something in a garden, book or magazine that inspires you, take note of its unique color combinations. Each plant you select may not be the star of the show; some may be used to accentuate the star plants. For example, catmint (Nepeta x faassenii) is featured in many English Gardens because its silvery gray foliage and small blue flowers complement many other colors in a well-planned perennial border.

Another element to look at is interesting shapes and textures. Your dream garden should play with differing heights and leaf shapes. Consider fascinating vertical forms such as allium ‘Globemaster’, one of visitors’ favorite plants at Duke Gardens?

“That’s a really charismatic plant,” Mottern says, noting its “huge drumstick or lollipop look.” The volleyball-sized flowerheads on some alliums (such as Allium x schubertii) add considerable interest for several months.

Build your gardens around your favorite centerpieces, those extra special plants you want to focus on. Use lower growing plants and edging plants to frame the taller plants. Then create “exclamation points” in your garden by introducing a contrasting color, shape or texture.
Don’t be afraid to copy ideas from other gardens—even in climates different from ours, such as England’s—but learn to adapt them to your local conditions.

“Have a good plant palette,” Mottern advises, so you will know what plants may serve as substitutes for plants that won’t grow well here.

For instance, lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) grows very well in England. Its lime-green foliage combines well with other shapes and colors. But lady’s mantle can’t tolerate North Carolina’s heat. Instead, try heuchera ’Citronelle’; it fills the same niche as lady’s mantle, with an intense chartreuse foliage that lasts all summer.

One of Mottern’s and Holmes’ main interests was to see the White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent, because Duke Gardens was redesigning the Page-Rollins White Garden behind the Doris Duke Center, which is now looking gorgeous. If you haven’t seen the White Garden in a few years, you’re in for a big surprise.

Want to learn more about English gardens and the strategies we can borrow from them? Mottern and Holmes will present slides and share stories and plant information from their trip in a lecture Thursday, April 5, from 7 to 9 p.m. Admission for this lecture, titled “Across the Pond: A Celebration of 300 Years of Anglo-American Gardening,” is $15; $10 for Gardens members.

To register, or for more information, please call 668-1707. The annual Taimi Anderson Lecture was created to honor the contribution of Taimi Anderson in beginning the education program at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. The robust program we enjoy today would not exist without her vision and effort.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St. For more information about the Gardens or its classes and events, please go to

Kate Blakely is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens. This column first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun.

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