Whether you begin your gardening life with about 8 acres of pasture, weeds, undesirable trees, and the rusted frame of a 1951 Studebaker, or a small urban lot that backs up to the neighbor’s purple garage, one trick to enduring horticulture happiness is to create what I call garden rooms.
It’s fun, it’s easier than you think, and done properly you can also add some fresh kitchen vegetables while cutting back on weeding and mowing the grass.
And don’t neglect the use of fountains, ponds, well-worn stones, nicely aged bricks, family artifacts, colorful containers, old doors, garden art, and found objects to give the place a personal touch.
Why else go to yard sales?
Obviously the number of garden rooms you create depends on your property. Here at Hidden Hill Nursery & Sculpture Garden near Utica, Indiana, a few miles north of Louisville, we pretty much began about 40 years ago with the 8 acres of previously mentioned pasture, weeds, junk trees, and a tin-roofed 1860s farmhouse. We ended up with about 10 large, distinct garden rooms—and a new roof on the house.
But you can much more quickly create a single-room garden palace in your Kentucky back yard, or even a “duplex” with interconnected rooms leading your guests from the front to back of your property.
And here’s exactly how do to it:
STEP ONE: Research, ponder, visualize
Analyze your space. How much sunlight and shade do you have? What kind of soil will you be dealing with—and how much amending will it need? What’s your garden pleasure: whimsy, traditional, art deco? Would you prefer a series of potted containers over open flower beds?
Involve garden friends—and your favorite local nursery. Think about other garden rooms you have seen that most appealed to you. There are all sorts of garden room ideas online and in books.
Stand next to your garage and try to visualize what you want your garden room to look like. Then go stand at the far side of your lot and look at the garage.
Take notes. Draw pictures. Think it over. Your ultimate goal of creating a garden room is to develop a sense of privacy and personal space, of getting away from the outer world while listening to the water splash from your fountain.
STEP TWO: Create outer walls and entranceway to physically define space
Depending on your budget, you can build outer walls of brick or stone, seek out some wooden privacy fence on which to hang pots and garden art, or plant tough-minded conifers that will provide a screen in a few years.
Arborvitaes (Thuja occidentalis) will form a solid green year-round screen, but be careful to seek out the smaller, more slender cultivars. The ‘Emerald’ or ‘Smaragd’ arborvitae is bright green and grows about 15 feet tall and 4 feet wide. In tighter spaces, the slower growing ‘Degroot’s Spire’ is a good fit at a mature 12 feet by 4 feet.
The entrance to your garden should set the tone for the whole experience. At Hidden Hill we placed a hand-made wooden door with forged-steel hinges at the top of our open, 3-acre pasture—and then insisted that everyone knock before entering the pasture.
In an urban garden, the entrance can be an arched gateway designed to hold a flowering vine, a wooden or wrought-iron gate, a stone or brick path, or even a long trellis you can walk under.
If you want two or three rooms in your garden, create connecting passageways from room to room with the understanding and expectation that each room will provide a different look and feel.
STEP THREE: Being at one with your inner space
This is your room, your quiet place, and you get to pick the furniture. Also keep in mind that most garden rooms are tightly packed, the better to create ambiance and sense of place.
So what about a nice stone or wooden bench, or maybe some wrought-iron chairs and a table with an umbrella? Save the aluminum folding chairs for the picnic in the park.
Bubbly fountains come in all sizes and shapes, from precast to copper to hand-crafted ceramic, and are so nice to come home to.
Whimsy lives in garden rooms. Seek out affordable art: birds, flowers, bees, bouquets of flowers, carved stone turtles, copper leaves, exotic fence posts, and statuary. Okay, you may have to add a landscaped basketball goal someplace. The ongoing search for all of that is half the fun.
One of my favorite garden rooms has a funky potting shed hidden away in one corner. Another has a mirror hidden under a piece of curved lattice that reflects the plants around it—and catches the surprised look on my face. Then there is the garden room wired for classical music.
Using a potting shed, you can fill your containers with a broad variety of color-soaked annuals and perennials. Think about vines that will drip over the edges, fluffy ornamental grasses, and bold succulents that rise to the occasion.
We begin with spring-flowering bulbs such as hyacinths, crocus, and anemone to warm up an April walk. In the sunny summer, we have great container luck with annuals such as angelonia, petunias, zinnias, vinca, and dwarf lantana that love the summer heat.
Our shade container plants include miniature hostas, coleus, impatiens, carex, and ferns. In the fall we’ll go with the cold-tolerant pansies—a very useful plant that doesn’t deserve that name.
You can also add vegetables to the backyard mix by growing lettuce, onions, and carrots in large containers or in a few square feet of dirt. Be sure to include one magnificent and well-tended tomato plant for bragging rights—and ornamental cabbage and kale for more color in the fall.
You want butterflies? Think butterfly bushes (Buddleia), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and fall-blooming asters. My all-time favorite butterfly magnet is the orange-flowered Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia). This heat-loving annual grows 6 bushy feet from seed, providing landing room for dozens of butterflies at a time.
STEP FOUR: Decorator trees and shrubs
These selections are what will really define your garden, so seek out the most interesting and exotic. If you have space for a conifer that reaches 15 to 20 feet, consider a weeping white pine (Pinus strobus pendula) or the yellow-tipped Dragon’s Eye pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Oculus Draconis’). If your pond needs an accent, consider the weeping bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) ‘Cascade Falls,’ which will drape nicely over the landscape.
The better deciduous trees for a smaller space include the weeping redbud (Cercis canadensis) ‘Ruby Falls’ with its pink flowers, ruby-red leaves, and very tight habit, about 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide.
The three-flowered maple (acer triflorum) has beautiful, year-round exfoliating bark and fabulous fall color. Then there are the many Japanese maples with their incredible variety of cut leaves and fall colors; you just can’t have a garden room without one.
STEP FIVE: Continual renovation
Begin the process with the complete understanding there will be no end to it. There will always be more plants, funky gates, and outdoor art. Good garden rooms evolve with their gardeners. That’s why we do it.
Finding new and interesting plants has gotten a lot easier. The ubiquitous garden Web sites are loaded with “Top Ten” plant lists for sun, shade, wet, dry, fragrance, and fall color. You can Google them up by searching for “The Top Ten Dwarf Conifers” or “The Best Weeping Plants for Small Spaces.”
Online research is fine for rainy days and mid-winter reverie, but it’s never the same as getting out to smell the roses.
Locally, many Kentucky garden clubs sponsor home garden tours each year; there’s always something new to be found just around the corner.
Statewide, there are many arboretums to visit for great garden room plant ideas or to take classes.
The Arboretum–State Botanical Garden of Kentucky, Lexington
Baker Arboretum, Bowling Green
(Due to a fire, the Downing Museum, on the same grounds, will be closed for at least a year. The arboretum is still open on a reservation-only basis. For updates, check the Web site.)
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Clermont
Boone County Arboretum, Union
Yew Dell Botanical Garden, Crestwood
Western Kentucky Botanical Garden, Owensboro
THERE ARE ALSO MANY PLANT NURSERIES in Kentucky that sell rare and unusual plants. Many have indoor and outdoor showrooms where you’re welcome to browse, ask questions, and fill your shopping cart. A few include:
Baeten’s Nursery & Greenhouses, Union
Brian’s Botanicals, Hillview
Hillview Garden & Floral, Bowling Green
The Plant Kingdom, Louisville
(Our monthly Garden Guru columnist is Shelly Nold of The Plant Kingdom.)
Integrity Nursery & Outdoor Living, Owensboro
Kendrick & O’Dell Landscaping Inc., Cold Spring
Reminiscent Herb Farm Nursery & Landscaping, Florence
Springhouse Gardens, Nicholasville
Worm’s Way, Erlanger
For more information on great sources of new plants in other Kentucky nurseries, contact your local garden club or your local Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service agent (to locate your local office, go online to www.ca.uky.edu/county, then click on your county on the map).
MORE GARDEN ROOM PLANTS
The really fun thing about creating garden rooms is that you can indulge a particular garden passion, add a little fragrance to your life, or even create a mini-desert setting in your back yard that might otherwise require a four-hour airplane ride to experience.
Try planting smaller conifers, those interesting, exotic, almost pettable plants that make great companions for years afterward. They are great entranceway plants and can be kept to garden room size with regular pruning.
There’s the Japanese plum yew (Cephlotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’) that does well in the shade, the Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Glauca Pendula’) with its vibrant blue color, and the smaller, twisting Hinoki false cypress (Chamarcyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’) with its dark green foliage.
If you’d like some perfume in the air there’s the lilac cultivar ‘Miss Kim’ (Syringa pubescens subspecies Patula). It’s very fragrant, mildew-resistant, and can be kept 4 to 5 feet tall with annual pruning after flowering.
Two more way underused fragrant shrubs that will fit nicely into smaller rooms are the dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) with its exotic, rounded ivory-white flowers and fabulous fall color, and the sweet shrub ‘Michael Lindsey’ (Calycanthus floridus) with its long-lasting fruity fragrance.
For fragrant bulbs, dig no deeper than the leggy Oriental lily ‘Stargazer’ (Lilium), whose heavy spring perfume will fill any sized room.
The truly adventurous can try the cactus such as prickly pear (Opuntia), or the carnivorous, bug-eating American pitcher plant (Sarracenia).
Both easily survive in Zone 6 Kentucky. The pitcher plant will need a special soil mix of peat and perlite. The cactus needs a well-drained mix of sand, grit, and compost. The pitcher plant needs constant rain or distilled water; NO tap water. The cactus can go weeks without irrigation.
Give each its own specific container and grow them 5 feet apart. Talk about wowing your garden guests!
VISIT BOB’S HIDDEN HILL NURSERY & SCULPTURE GARDEN
Writer Bob Hill, retired columnist with The Courier-Journal, owns the 8-acre Hidden Hill Nursery & Sculpture Garden in Utica, Indiana, located a scenic drive along the Ohio River about 8 miles north of Louisville.
Hidden Hill displays and sells flowers, shrubs, rare trees, and native plants along with whimsical garden creatures and garden art.
Every year, Hidden Hill opens with a Kite Flying Extravaganza the first Saturday in April (April 5, 2014) and hosts a bluegrass festival the first Saturday after Labor Day (September 6, 2014). Other events include an Outdoor Garden Train Festival, Jazz in the Garden, and Garden Art Displays and Outdoor Sculpture shows, featuring local artists and musicians.
Hidden Hill is open Thursday through Sunday from April to October. Call for more information or directions, or check www.hiddenhillnursery.com.