Garden Tour: Lessons from a Garden Guru

Illustration of Burroughs garden plan
Enjoy a stroll through the Washington state garden of Wendy Burroughs. Her garden reflects her guiding principle: every bed, every border, must have a purpose, a reason for being.

Self-taught gardener Wendy Burroughs relaxes with her dog, Camelia. Wendy tends her five acres of paradise on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Although confident of her skills now, she freely admits to a bit of a rocky start. "I was so naive," she says. "If I can learn, anyone can."

No longer a neophyte, Wendy is now a much sought after garden designer. And no matter how large or small your own garden, you can learn a lot listening to Wendy's sage advice.

Left: A dark ceramic pot creates a smooth counterpoint to the bright colors and delicate textures of the perennial bed. Plants include musk rose (in foreground), pink spires of foxglove, and climbing 'Lady Silvia' on the trellis in the background.

Wendy suggests that any garden project begin with a series of questions. "Is it an entry garden?" she asks. "Does it have to have a high-season splash of color? Are fall and winter interest important? Does it need to be low-maintenance? Do you want a specific kind of bed or border: English cottage garden? Mediterranean? Are deer a problem? Is water?"

Left: Lambs' ears spill over an edging of rocks. Other plants include white calla lilies, red Jupiter's beard, and the deep purple-leafed 'Forest Pansy' redbud.

Only once you have asked yourself all these questions, and more (and, yes, answered them), can you begin to plan the shape of your gardens, she says.

Left: Color is exceeding important in Wendy's garden. Here, 'Baggesen's Gold' honeysuckle, 'Crimson Pygmy' barberry, 'Johnson's Blue' geranium, and a yellow sedge display Wendy's weakness. "I have this yellow and purple thing," she says.

Wendy's drive-side bed and border started out as shade gardens. Then a violent winter windstorm felled many of the 80-foot firs towering above her plantings. So the shade gardens had to become sun gardens. And the plants had to be removed and replaced. Is your planting area in shade or sun? -- another question to ask yourself.

Left: An edged brick path diverges just as you come upon the maplelike leaves of yellow wax-bells (Kirengeshoma), which flowers chest-high later in the season.

Wendy has another tip for you. You'll like this one especially. "It's never a bad thing to make mistakes," she says. "You learn by trial and error. I am completely self-taught by my mistakes. I don't mind -- I'm not a perfectionist. When something doesn't work, I change it." If you need to move a plant, move it. "But after I move a plant three times, it goes into the compost pile."

Left: A 'Royal Purple' smoke bush, gold hakone grass, 'Purple Palace' coral bells, and nandina provide a porthole view of a scalloped birdbath. Textures and varied layers unite this almost tropical scene.

Sometimes a perfectly good plant turns out to have no earthly reason for being in your yard. "If it doesn't look good, excuse it from the garden," she says. "I used to have a big moral problem with that. Then I took out six crabapples."

Left: 'Coral Charm' peonies lend an old-fashioned cottage garden air.

One more thing, Wendy says. Perennials aren't the only answer. Make sure to integrate trees and shrubs into your herbaceous beds and borders. Wendy started her drive-by border with a triangular anchor of trees -- cherry, magnolia, and liquidambar. Then she introduced a slow-growing conifer -- a golden Hinoki cypress -- which gave a yearlong glow to her wonderful garden.

Left: Common lambs' ears and calla lilies brightly signal the entrance to a curving brick path. The lollipop gloss of 'Forest Pansy' redbud foliage (far right in the photo) anchors the bend in the walkway.

The addition of trees and shrubs does two things. One, it gives layers to your garden. The beds rise from the ground-huggers to the coif-toppers, a must if your backdrop is -- as it is for Wendy -- filled with tall objects. But, two, the structural aspect of the woody plants gives you something pleasing to look at in the off-season -- that oft-bandied term "winter interest."

Left: Pink foxgloves and a young catalpa tree.

"In winter, when everything else is gone, those architectural plants are still holding it all together," says Wendy. "I just love four-season borders." If you plan well, she says, you will include some colorful berries; trees with striped, peeling, or glossy bark; yellow and blue evergreens; broadleaf evergreen shrubs; and deciduous woodies with interesting branching habits. "I haven't completely eliminated all-perennial gardens," Wendy says. "I have some clients who still want them."

Left: Pink lilies and snapdragons, 'Johnson's Blue' geranium, and gray-leafed lambs' ears.

Seasoned gardeners know to do things in a big way. Paths shouldn't be a stingy 2 or 3 feet wide; that's a dog path. Paths should be 5 or even 6 feet wide. Two people should be able to walk side by side without tripping over each other.

Left: Ornamental grasses, 'Johnson's Blue' geranium, and 'Goldflame' spirea.

Benches, if they are to accommodate anyone but love-struck teens, should be 5 or 6 feet wide. For two more level-headed people to sit agreeably, 4 feet is too close for comfort. Elbows collide; drinks get spilled.

Left: Euphorbia (lower right corner), 'Johnson's Blue' geranium, and acorus.

Size is a critical factor in flower borders, too. "I used to think of borders as 4 feet deep," Wendy says. "Now I make mine 10 to 12 feet deep." That's how you get all those ornamental trees and flowering shrubs in there. And, says Wendy, "It really knocks your socks off."

Left: 'Forest Pansy' redbud in flower.

Wendy offers a few final gems of wisdom:

Put some edibles in your landscape. "The kids graze all summer long, and we have apples all winter."

Plant lots and lots of euphorbias. "I just love every one of them. They're especially good in flower arrangements."

And don't spend too much on your garden too soon. "I first bought inexpensive trees like you can get from any drugstore. They were like pencils. When a local nursery moved, I pulled trees out of their Dumpster. I learned on cheap plants and moved up from there."

Left: Aralia elata 'Aurea'.

Wendy's entry gardens are turf-free, but the island bed is traversed by unmortared brick paths for access and enjoyment. Besides the now-finished brick-laying and concrete work, Wendy does all the gardening herself.

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