Heber Dreher stands next to one of his many planters. “Consider the lighting where you’ll set a planter: Full sun? Partial shade? Full shade? Select plants accordingly. Determine the ‘front’ of the planter and put shorter plants there; don’t let tall plants overshadow short ones.”
I have the good fortune to be friends with a gardening enthusiast named Heber Dreher. He lives in Lewisburg on Edward Circle, and his yard is fabulous. I asked if he’d let me photograph his gardens and capture some thoughts about his methods. We spent a few hours chatting the other day.
Heber acknowledges a professional landscaping company can deliver an attractive garden, depending on how much you’re willing to spend. But if you won’t have time or motivation to care for the garden, include a maintenance contract in your budget. Commit yourself or your landscaper to control weeds, prune, clean things up in autumn, prepare beds and plant in spring, and replace failed plants. “If you don’t maintain a garden,” Heber warns, “It’s going to look bad soon.”
Whether doing the work yourself or hiring a landscaper, Heber suggests you start by learning some basics on your own. For example, know your hardiness zone and refuse plants rated for warmer zones. “Pay attention to cold hardiness of plants your landscaper installs,” Heber suggests. “Make decisions with your contractor. They make more money when you call them to replace poorly-chosen plants that fail in a cold winter.”
Photos provide a virtual walk in my friend’s garden. Each includes a thought Heber offers about his passion for his craft.
Heber has created intense drama on the path from his driveway to the front door of his house. “Use perennials with different shades of green to make the garden interesting,” he suggests. For other colors, he stages flowering perennials whose blooms may or may not be short-lived, and he mixes in annuals that tend to bloom steadily through the season.
Immediately out the door from Heber’s kitchen, a brick patio features a koi pond with a low waterfall. “I wanted a plant that would fill in the cracks around the pond’s edge. Evergreen Pachysandra worked out beautifully.” Low trees, tall perennials, and tropical plants isolate the patio, providing a place to relax with drinks or an unhurried meal.
A stone path leads from the patio, through foliage, to the lawn. “I’m planting much more in containers than I used to,” Heber says. “Container plants require less water, they’re easier to fertilize, easier to control, and it’s easier to preserve tropical plants such as Elephant Ears and Canna Lilies indoors in winter. Another advantage: you can redesign your garden mid-season simply by moving planters from place-to-place.”
A cul-de-sac in Heber’s lawn ends with bonsai trees on pedestals rising above a dense mix of perennials. Heber encourages you not just to start digging. Rather: plan. “Learn what you like then plan your own garden. Learn enough so you can be relatively sure the pieces of your design will work together.” He suggests not to do too big a first project. “It can be overwhelming.”
Garden? Challenge? What? This photo is among my favorites because it shows my dad’s garden in spring. My dad is obsessed with trees and he gathered acorns in autumn of 2014. He stored the acorns in his refrigerator and planted them in his garden in spring of 2015. During one of my visits, I found about a dozen young oak trees had sprouted and my dad had potted several to plant at the farm where we’d raised horses and bees when I was a kid. My dad was 95 years old and starting oak trees, presumably to harvest for lumber in about 60 years.
Early this year while heavily drugged with painkillers after major surgery, I gave myself 10 photo challenges and delivered on four of them:
The distractions from chemotherapy and from gardening season getting underway derailed my effort to post the remaining six challenges. However, after having reviewed all my photos from 2015 and having selected candidates for each challenge, it would be wasteful not to publish. So, here are seven garden photos I feel are kind of special. Captions explain why.
I travelled west twice last year and got to visit with one of my favorite gardening buddies, Bren Haas. Among the many beautiful garden features she manages is a pond across the drive from her house. The rocks, lily pads, and snake grass at one end of the pond beckoned me to pull up a chair and sit with a cold drink—it was a beautiful scene.
During my visit to Cultivate ’15 (a hort industry conference in Columbus, Ohio), I left the convention center and “discovered” Lincoln Park. The park includes some excellent gardens and a conservatory which was closed by the time I reached it. I captured many photos in the park and particularly like this one which reveals the conservatory almost as an afterthought for the lush foliage in one of the park’s large plantings. I’d planned to tour the conservatory this year during Cultivate ’16, but my pancreas had other ideas.
From hundreds of photos of gorgeous spaces at Longwood Gardens, this “trial garden” spoke to me. Gardeners assemble these patches to try out plant combinations of varied colors and textures and they ask visitors to identify favorites. Later, the most-liked combinations might appear in a show garden elsewhere on the property. I love purple, and apparently even more when it rises above clouds of silver-green.
Since we’re already at Longwood Gardens, here’s one of my all-time favorite gardens. There’s a courtyard you reach by walking through Longwood’s huge conservatory. The courtyard contains several water gardens and when I was there, water platters painted an other-worldly landscape. I had never seen a water platter in person, and I was instantly smitten.
Back at the Cityslipper ranch, I captured a wet moment in my new rock garden. I was moistening soil with the hose on a sunny day when I snapped this photo looking vaguely toward the sun. The rock garden was a bit of a mess with young succulents and weeds aplenty, but I love the photo. This year, many spaces have filled with aggressively spreading stonecrop. I enjoy lingering, plucking weeds, and pinching back the fastest spreading succulents to preserve space to grow into for the slow growers.
One of the most sublime visions I’ve experienced: a stone stairway at Chanticleer garden. If you can fit only one public garden into your remaining life’s plan, visit Chanticleer and Longwood Gardens each of which is about 30 minutes west of Philadelphia. Did I say “only one?” If you truly can fit only one garden into your life’s plan, you’re not trying hard enough.
At a casual glance, this photo shows a stick with a small branch. I deliberately shot from an angle that provides clues about the branch’s true nature.
I assembled some apple trees this spring, but that’s a story for another blog post. I mention it because every morning I’d check the progress of my grafts: were buds on the scions swelling? Were leaves emerging? Did the wood seem to be drying out?
One morning, I was astonished to find a small branch had appeared on one of the grafts.
For a few minutes I tried to convince myself the branch had been there all along but I hadn’t noticed it. I waffled between that explanation and the unlikely, crazy possibility that it had, indeed, grown overnight—or over the course of a few days during which my inspections had been too casual to spot it.
Eventually, the “branch” on my grafted apple tree relaxed and seemed ready to move on. This photo clearly exposes the branch to have been a well-camouflaged caterpillar—something in the inchworm family.
Then it occurred to me: my young grafted apple tree hadn’t grown a branch, it had acquired a resident. The branch was a caterpillar doing a really good job of looking like a branch.
What an awesome adaptation! Imagine you’re a caterpillar that sometimes shares trees with birds that like to eat caterpillars. One day, one of those birds perches just eight inches away! The bird sucks down several of your mostly green caterpillar neighbors, and several times it looks directly at you… but it doesn’t even lean closer because in those moments, you’re just a tree branch!
After that bad boy bird moves on, you can grab the branch with the rest of your tiny feet and inch away.
Seems to me this caterpillar had an excellent chance of growing into a moth. Apparently, even then it probably did well at avoiding moth-eating birds. The adult of this caterpillar has earthy, mottled colors on its wings so it nearly disappears when it lands on tree bark. If a bird doesn’t see you as food, it’s probably not going to eat you.
Sunflowers have surrounded a decorative shrub in a farmer’s field… or perhaps the shrub has infiltrated sunflower territory. Either way, it looks kinda cool.
Every summer I keep watch for fields of sunflowers in full bloom. A few local farmers grow sunflowers, swapping crops from field-to-field—sunflowers one year, corn another, and soy beans in another.
This year, there had been no sunflowers in the usual places, but yesterday I drove a few hundred yards past those places and discovered a thousand yellow flower heads.
These sunflowers were different from those of past seasons: Rather than simply filling a large field, they had surrounded a decorative shrub. OK, it’s not earth-shaking or anything, but I captured a few photos and have included one here.
Without apparent relationship to sunflowers, a few weeks ago my online gardening friends started chattering about naked ladies appearing in their yards. I’m not sure I’d heard such chattering in past years, but it was immediately apparent these naked ladies are some type of plant. In fact, I’d heard them called “surprise lilies” in past seasons.
Surprise lilies grow foliage in spring, but the leaves die back so people lose track of the plants by mid summer. Then, overnight, flowers emerge on stalks that can grow 24 inches tall.
The chattering started, and three days ago I noticed a stand of naked ladies across the street from a local church. Finally, this morning, I had a chance to stop and take pictures. The flowers are gorgeous, and there’s something refreshing about flower stalks rising above the landscape without accompanying foliage.
Can’t say I’d heard of the plant “Naked Ladies” until this season. Then, after seeing so many posts about them online, I spotted a cluster across the street from a church I often pass. I stopped for a closer look and took several photos. I confess: I enjoy looking at naked ladies.
Until a few weeks ago, this was an unruly compost heap next to a pit I had dug on my way to creating a rain garden. The pit is dry 98% of the year, so my enthusiasm for planting wet-tolerant plants has been low. Finally, last autumn, I stocked up on succulents and decided the compost heap would become a rock garden. My wife got the ball rolling by clearing the compost, mounding soil along the back, planting elephant ears and calla lilies, and hauling a few rocks from the driveway.
Some years ago (2011), crazy, biblical rains made my vegetable plants very sad. I decided to reduce the likelihood of a similarly unpleasant experience by excavating a drainage ditch above my garden. The ditch would redirect runoff from the neighbor’s yard into a basin I dug at the west end of my vegetable bed. I first mentioned my rain garden in a post about the National Wildlife Federation; there’s a photo of the rain garden in its earliest days.
We’ve not had a similarly rainy season since. In fact, most of the year, my “rain garden” is pretty dry. I couldn’t decide what to plant IN the basin, so I started planting around the basin—but I left the 15+ year-old compost heap in place alongside.
The Rock Garden Notion
Last autumn I decided I wanted to create a rock garden. Coincidentally, my wife complained about the compost heap. It seemed a good plan to move the compost heap to the back of the yard, and construct a rock garden in the vacated space.
I started collecting rocks. My brother has a farm with a small stream. He has generously helped me load rocks into my minivan and I’ve created quite a heap on my driveway. I didn’t know exactly how I’d use the rocks, but at least some would end up in the rock garden.
Last fall I also started collecting succulents. As winter approached, I ended up heeling the succulents into the vegetable bed so they’d winter well. (I wrote about them here: Unlikely Starters in my Kitchen Garden.)
I weeded around the succulents in the vegetable garden and was happy to find they haven’t quite been choked out of existence… though they seem a bit leggy and wan from lack of sunlight. I’ll move them all to the new planting bed once the final rock is in place.
Commitment! Once the plants come home, there’s little choice but to give them their own beds.
Building a Rock Garden
So, here we are: The vegetable garden is nearly planted. I’d like to add two rows of beans, but there are all these succulents in the way. I really, really need a rock garden so I can move the succulents and plant beans before I run out of growing season. I finally started.
It occurred to me I could use rocks to reinforce the bank of my lame rain garden. A rock retaining wall could rise into the rain garden and frame one side of it. The exact shape of the wall and the garden itself would “happen” during assembly—there wouldn’t be a blueprint or plan to follow. Rather, I’d “sculpt” the area to please my sense of aesthetics.
My wife has been impatient for several things:
- Getting rid of the compost heap
- Getting a heap of soil off the driveway that’s been there for three or so years
- Getting the rocks off the driveway
- Getting things planted (I accumulate a lot of perennials from trade shows and local sales)
So, she dug in while my attention was on the vegetable garden. She moved the compost heap and she built up a mound in front of the vegetable garden. There she set a dozen or so elephant ears I had overwintered on our ping-pong table. She also set a bunch of calla lily roots I had bought for a dollar from the local garden club. And there were nearly a dozen flowering perennials we know virtually nothing about…
We Might Have Something
As I look around the “rain garden,” it shows real promise. Some perennials look stronger this year than they did last year, and they even look nice together. The rock garden will transform the area; the basin will probably look far less like an incidental ditch with the rock garden in place.
After two days (working just a few hours each day), the rock garden’s form has emerged. The rock bank will, undoubtedly, appeal to otters that come to splash in the rain garden, and the low rock wall opposite will provide shelter for chipmunks, snakes, mice, rats, and stinging insects. Since taking this photo, I’ve added rocks to define planting areas and I’ve adjusted the centerpiece. There are a few other “artistic” elements finding their way into the design. Oh, and plants. Final unveiling to come soon.