Garden Tour: Groomed for Success

When your garden is small, it's easier to groom it meticulously and keep everything under control. This multifaceted gem of a garden in Atlanta is a case in point.

Accompanied by her dogs, Phoebe and Rosie, Louise Poer strolls through the casually styled half of her tiny Atlanta, Georgia, backyard garden. On this side of the blue gate, shade-loving shrubs and perennials are loose, billowy, and relaxed.

The house was still under construction when Louise and her husband, David, bought it in 1993. The oddly shaped lot, 70 feet at its widest point and less than 100 feet deep, is at the end of a cul-de-sac.

Evergreen boxwoods, pruned into globes and a sinuous ribbon, are a preview of the garden that lies behind the house. Inspired by visits to meticulously groomed gardens in Europe, Louise made it her goal to create and maintain a garden that would look great 12 months of the year.

Potted topiaries of various sizes and shapes frame the door. In Atlanta's Zone 7 climate, these container plantings can be left in place year-round. "My chief concern was to soften the front of the house and to create an entrance to the front door," Louise says.

Although the backyard is small, Louise has divided it into two spaces, one a highly groomed area surrounding a brick patio and, beyond that, a carefree walk-through garden. The two areas are connected by a gate in a low brick wall. A taller stucco wall at the back of the lot screens out a busy street.

In the foreground is the sunny, formally styled garden area with brick paths and topiaries. In the informal garden beyond the gate, Louise removed the lower branches of the Leyland cypresses, a trick she learned in Italy, shaping them into multi-trunk trees and gaining more planting space in the process.

Boxwoods keep the garden looking well ordered throughout the year. These small-leafed evergreen shrubs grow as a dense, irregular mound, but they are easily transformed with hedge shears. Pruned boxwoods assume a variety of shapes, from simple spheres and crisp-lined hedges to fanciful topiaries.

Sculpting topiaries from living shrubs takes an artist's vision, but preserving those shapes is a straightforward matter. "I have never pruned a regular boxwood into a topiary," Louise says. "I buy them in a shape -- I have a bear, a chicken, and a chair -- and continue to prune them to maintain the shape." There are also cones, spirals, and lollipop shapes in Louise's collection of shrubs. She trims them at least once a month during the growing season, using scissors to remove any shoots that stray from the original form. "In spring and summer you can do some clipping almost every day. Even a little bit of new growth makes it look like the plants have cowlicks," she says. A monthly trim with hedge shears keeps the lines of the boxwood hedges sharp.

French doors lead from a garden room to the Poers' sunny back patio. The birdhouses on the wall are crafted to resemble hats. "My beloved companions are Rosie, a springer spaniel, and Phoebe, a silver cairn terrier. No garden is complete without a dog," Louise says.

As Louise expanded her garden into all corners of the property, areas of lawn were sacrificed for new planting beds. Now only a postage stamp of turf remains in the front yard. Louise and David hire a lawn service to mow and do other weekly maintenance, but when this small patch of lawn is in its spring growth spurt, Louise can't always wait for the work crew to show up. "We have a tiny red push mower," she says. "Whenever it needs cutting, I can take care of it in a matter of minutes."

Above, stepping stones trace a path through a narrow side garden, connecting the front and back yards.

In the sunny section of the garden -- a space measuring about 20 by 40 feet -- Louise mingles flowering perennials, such as black-eyed Susans, 'Becky' Shasta daisies, and phlox, with roses and evergreen shrubs. The back garden originally included a slender wedge of lawn, but it has given way to a bed of sculptural boxwoods.

Although the yard is not large enough for entertaining crowds, it is just the right size for Louise to pursue her gardening passion without overwhelming her with chores. In this small-scale garden, a few pleasant minutes a day are all it takes to maintain the precise lines and to snip wilted blooms.

Above, a swirl of white-bladed sedges (Carex) surrounds a burbling fountain.

There's another advantage to a garden this size: Because the planting beds snuggle close to the windows, the garden can be enjoyed from indoors in all seasons. Louise especially appreciates the garden views during cold winter months, when the topiary shapes and evergreen hedges are occasionally dusted with snow. "It doesn't snow often in Atlanta, but when it does, the garden looks lovely," she says.

Above, a rustic bird feeder is adorned with twigs.

A concrete table, its rim covered with moss, displays an iron bird, a weathered birdhouse, and a small potted boxwood.

A butterfly sculpture is nestled among white phlox and blue salvias. "I love whimsy," Louise says. "I have tried to incorporate a sense of this into the garden."

Echeverias and other succulents (far left) mingle in a large pot. These succulents are frost-tender and must be moved to a greenhouse in winter.

Louise grows standard, or tree-form, roses in pots, which she can move wherever a spot of color is needed. The prolific red rose 'Knock Out' is one of her favorites.

Louise gives a dwarf conifer a quick trim with scissors. "Pruning begins in mid-March. I always prune by hand," she says.

Despite the many hours of care Louise devotes to the garden, she also makes time to simply enjoy it. "Practically our entire house looks out on the garden, and we have a garden room that enables us to feel that we are sitting in the middle of the garden, where we can enjoy the flowers, a wide variety of birds, including a returning bluebird family, chipmunks, and occasionally a baby bunny. It is a place of beauty, tranquility, hard work, and nature's renewal."

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