When it comes to plant names, some gardeners make it a point to learn their Latin.
Others prefer common names. Karen Lamitie-King and her husband, Charlie King, both painters, pretty much call plants whatever they want to in their upstate New York garden. Visitors to their gardens can expect to hear about Noni and June plants, two of the couple’s favorites. (Noni plants are actually Shasta daises, and June plants are black-eyed Susans.)
“We like to name plants after the people who gave them to us,” Karen explains. “That’s frustrating for gardening clubs that come through because they always say, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ And I have to say, ‘Look, we’re artists. We’re just in it for the beauty.’”
Their approach to names may be haphazard; their gardening methods are anything but. Nineteen years ago, the 10-acre lot Karen and Charlie call home was so heavily wooded they had to use pruning shears to hack out a path to see what they were buying.
Gardeners since childhood, they knew they wanted to grow herbs, vegetables, and variety of flowers, despite the challenges of their northern climate, just 11 miles from the Canadian border. So after finding a spot for the house on high ground, they got to work drawing up a 20-year plan for creating their gardens.
Click here to download PDF file of this story.
Labor of love
The hardscaping in the gardens is intentionally formal. Karen and Charlie plotted it on graph paper, and called Charlie’s brother James, who kindly brought over his chainsaw, backhoe, and bulldozer many times to help the couple clear trees and move earth and rocks. Charlie says his brother couldn’t see much sense in moving boulders for aesthetic reasons, but he’d do it just the same.
“I would ask James to move a massive boulder just a bit to the left because of some nice moss pattern and he would just shake his head and go, ‘Oh, OK,’” recalls Charlie, who works full time as a substance-abuse counselor.
Nearly two decades later, the garden rooms they envisioned cover about 2 acres of the property. Karen’s casual, cottage style of planting softens the formal lines of the hardscaping. In front of the house, the circle garden is home to a sundial, a mix of hollyhocks and other colorful perennials, and annuals like zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, and morning glories.
Next to that, the couple’s vegetable garden includes a wide array of perennial herbs, as well as strawberries, rhubarb, currants, blueberries, gooseberries, and an apple tree that has just started to bear fruit.
“Every spring we make this wonderful French sorrel soup,” says Karen, a retired elementary school teacher. “We also make a lot of rhubarb pies and a red currant tart that’s outrageous.”
Around the back of the house and down ten steps is the white garden, a meditative spot filled with white lilies, irises, phlox, coneflowers, astilbe, veronica, and roses. Not far away, the blue garden is situated beside a brook that cuts across the property. It’s a favorite spot for relaxing or roasting marshmallows with friends on summer nights.
“We’ve mostly got shade-loving plants in there, and in the middle of the brook is a rock that’s like an island with beautiful emerald green moss on it,” says Charlie.
South of the blue garden sits a little gazebo made from twigs. It’s one of the many structures, arbors, and Adirondack-style fences Charlie has built or helped build on the property over the years. The barn, which houses a wood shop and pottery studio, was designed by Charlie and built by a local craftsman. Behind the barn, a large meadow reminds Charlie of the dairy farm he grew up on.
Survival of the fittest
Like all gardeners, Charlie and Karen have spent years learning what they can and can’t grow on their site. Their gardens are technically in Zone 4. But unless they’re planting on the south side of the house, they feel safer choosing plants for Zone 3. The English roses given to them by Karen’s mother didn’t make it, but ‘John Cabot’ climbing roses (Rosa ‘John Cabot’) from the Canadian Explorer series scramble effortlessly up the trellises on the couple’s front porch.
They have the best luck with hollyhocks, lilies, bee balm, globe thistle, blanket flowers, coneflowers, Shasta daisies (from their friend Noni) and black-eyed Susans (from Charlie’s sister June, who died at an early age from breast cancer). Karen is always moving plants around, and she often lets rogue plants self-seed where they want. “I always think if something jumps up somewhere, that’s where it wants to be,” she says.
Karen and Charlie are nearing the end of their 20-year plan, but they still have a few things in the works. “We’ve been talking about a four-season gazebo for a couple of years,” says Charlie. “And I’ve already carved a nook out of some trees for a meditation room that will be kind of a takeoff on a pyramid and a teepee. Things are always evolving.”
garden at a glance
Size of lot: 10 acres
Size of garden: about 2 acres
Years in house: 19
Years gardening: All their lives
USDA Hardiness Zone: 4 (nearly 3)
Watering technique: Overhead sprinklers, watering cans, moveable water towers for vegetable garden
Soil amendments: Well-rotted manure, peat moss
Fertilizer: Organic compost, fish emulsion
Mulch: Grass clippings in a few spots
Hours spent in the garden: Up to five hours a day
Favorite plants: Hollyhocks, zinnias, coneflowers, Shasta daisies
Most persistent pest: Japanese beetle
Advice for new gardeners: “Be brave, and just do it.”
It pays to plan
Charlie King and Karen Lamitie-King created a 20-year plan before starting several different garden rooms on their 10-acre property. But even small spaces can benefit from advanced planning. Here are four ways to create a landscape with lasting presence.
Before drawing up a plan, decide on your style: modern, cottage, prairie? Ask yourself which theme fits best with your house.
Create the “bones” of the garden first. Stone walls, walkways, arbors, fountains, and other hardscaping elements provide the framework for your landscape.
If you want to create garden rooms, think hard about where those spots should be before you dig. Consider the view, the breeze, the trees, sunlight, and water, and create rooms where you’ll enjoy them most.
Give the landscape a cohesive feel to establish a sense of place. Create themes in your garden rooms using elements like light, plants, water features, color, and furniture.
Meleah Maynard is a writer and master gardener in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Janet Loughrey is a garden photographer and author of Gardens Adirondack Style (Down East Books, 2006).