At a lecture earlier this year hosted by Montgomery County’s Brookside Gardens, David Culp, author of The Layered Garden, explained the garden design process at Brandywine Cottage, his home in southeastern Pennsylvania. Plants spoke first, Culp listened and responded, and a garden evolved, built on plants selected for sustainability and designed (or layered, as Culp describes it) for visual appeal in every season.
A native of the eastern U.S., the Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) grows as a small tree or multi-stemmed shrub with an airy feel, more delicate than the better-known Southern Magnolia. It lightens the garden with leaves that open chartreuse in spring, grow longer than wide, and show silver when turned by the wind. The clustered leaves provide a clear view of the plant’s graceful stems, and in a breeze, the leaf clusters seem to float.
Walking around a neighborhood in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. earlier this year, evidence of winter burn appeared on street after street: hollies, azaleas, euonymus, rhododendron, even nandina, crisp-edged, the outermost leaves appearing blow-torched, dead. What happened?
It’s 34 degrees outside with freezing rain, the shrubs are bending with ice, and you’re staring at your garden, imagining spring. You find a blank space in the landscape, an area calling to be filled in, a problem to be solved. Visions of plants float through your mind, but you wonder, will they work?