How colors, shapes and textures combine in Carol Pope’s garden vignettes in Amherst

How colors, shapes and textures combine in garden vignettes in Amherst

  • “I’m always experimenting to see what new things will work,” Pope says. Kevin Gutting

  • Pope has designed a garden of plants that diverge and converge seemlessly. Kevin Gutting

  • Carol Pope in the garden of her Amherst home. —Kevin Gutting

  • A screened wooden gazebo sits along a path next to a bottlebrush buckeye in Carol Pope's garden at her home in Amherst. DAN LITTLE

  • A screened wooden gazebo sits along a path next to a bottlebrush buckeye in the garden. DAN LITTLE

  • A variety of Japanese maples line Pope's garden. DAN LITTLE

  • An arched wooden bridge spans a stone-lined swale. “This is one of my favorite spots,” Pope says. “It’s an exquisite vignette viewed outside as well as from inside the house.” DAN LITTLE

  • Next to a wooden bridge which arches over a stone-lined swale sits a crabapple tree that has been pruned into a gnarled bonsai shape and underplanted with pink azaleas, dark purple tulips and bright blue stoloniferous phlox. DAN LITTLE

  • Pathways made of Goshen stone line the garden. DAN LITTLE

  • Groundcovers soften the margins of the pathways. DAN LITTLE

  • A variety of Japanese maples line Carol Pope's garden at her home in Amherst. —DAN LITTLE

  • The bark of a Sargent’s cherry contrasts with the neighboring doublefile viburnum. DAN LITTLE

  • A black-stemmed maidenhair fern is a central feature in one of the garden vignettes. DAN LITTLE

  • Japanese Hakone grass in Carol Pope's garden in Amherst. —DAN LITTLE

  • Carol Pope's garden at her home in Amherst. —DAN LITTLE

  • A variety of Japanese maples line Carol Pope's garden at her home in Amherst. —DAN LITTLE

  • A crabapple tree in Pope's garden DAN LITTLE

  • In Carol Pope's garden in Amherst there is a crabapple tree pruned into a gnarled bonsai shape. She has planted pink azaleas, purple tulips and blue phlox beneath it. DAN LITTLE

  • The swale was a “nasty, weedy muddy ditch” before Pope and her late husband David Kinsey transformed it. DAN LITTLE

  • Carol Pope's garden at her home in Amherst. —DAN LITTLE

For the Gazette
Published: 6/2/2016 3:57:19 PM

The first glimpse of the lush woodland garden that wraps around Carol Pope’s updated farmhouse in Amherst offers a natural flow of plantings that diverge and converge as seamlessly as a river. But, a closer look reveals that Pope has achieved this effect by arranging clusters of perennials, shrubs and trees that have a cohesive unity while blending into the larger picture.

“I design for vignettes,” she said.

A vignette, literally, is a grapevine. The word was first used metaphorically in the Middle Ages to refer to a long, vinelike decoration in the margins of a book. By the 18th century, vignettes were no longer relegated to the margins. Instead, they became fanciful illustrations with indistinct edges that blended into the text rather than standing apart as formal plate illustrations. These vignettes appeared to tell stories, and the word has also come to mean “little story.”

Gardeners often use the word in all these senses, but especially as a visually striking cluster of plants and other garden elements. Pope says she thinks of a vignette as a grouping of plants “that are combined with one or more aspects in mind, but always embodying significant contrasts and echoes.”

As her garden demonstrates, the grouping can be arranged for a major seasonal impact with varying colors and forms. Or it can be largely based on color repetition, or structure, with special contrasting bark, berries and plant shapes.

Pope, a member of the Garden Club of Amherst, and her late husband, David Kinsey, a professor at the Center for International Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who died in 1998, began the garden in 1990.

Their initial inspiration came by chance that year, while Pope was recuperating from a serious illness she had contracted in Nepal, where Kinsey had taken a sabbatical. Friends in England had invited them to stay for the month, but Pope and Kinsey did not want to interrupt their friends’ busy lives.

Instead, they got a membership to the National Trust and spent a month in the fall touring three or four gardens a day. When they returned home, full of garden aspirations, they consulted with two landscape gardeners.

“We didn’t like any of their ideas,” Pope said. “So we said, ‘Let’s just make a path and see what happens.’ Then, miracle upon miracle, there was a bed here, and a bed there. We started planting them.”

Hands-on learning

Pope, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, has a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of plants and gardening techniques. Yet she’s quick to admit she has no formal horticultural training.

“I have no credentials at all except those that came from the dirt,” she said. But, she added, once she and her husband began the garden, she read everything she could get her hands on. “As an academic, I was such a thorough researcher. I have learned all the plants in Zone 5,” she said, referring to the USDA plant hardiness zone that includes Amherst.

A Japanese-style wooden fence designed by Pope — with vertical boards of varying heights and a diagonal overhang — and a low curving stone wall surround the garden. Pope and Kinsey built the fence and Kinsey made the wall. Paths of Goshen stone and a stone-lined swale run through the garden, drawing the viewer’s eye into the space and creating separate beds.

A trip through the garden reveals aesthetically pleasing groupings of plants of many shapes, sizes and colors, along with smaller arrangements within larger ones. The vignettes.

One simple vignette consists of a fountain of black-stemmed maidenhair fern rising from a patch of low-growing blue-flowering vinca, with its small, shiny, dark green leaves, next to a contrasting patch of bloodroot, with its white flowers and large, scalloped leaves of a paler, matte green.

“To me, that is so beautiful,” Pope said. “Even people who aren’t gardeners appreciate seeing these layers and contrasts. No matter if they don’t know what they’re seeing.”

Pope also designs seasonal vignettes. Next to an arched wooden bridge over the swale is a spring vignette on a grand scale: a mature crabapple that Pope has pruned into a gnarled bonsai shape underplanted with pink azaleas, with dark purple tulips and bright blue stoloniferous phlox for contrast.

“This is one of my favorite spots,” Pope said. “It’s an exquisite vignette viewed outside as well as from inside the house. It’s beautiful in the spring and summer but it’s also beautiful in winter, with the bare bonsai against the bridge.”

For winter appeal, Pope uses evergreens and deciduous plants with “excellent structure,” including a host of unusual shrubs and trees with distinctive bark. These include a stewartia, with boldly mottled bark in shades of ivory, taupe and cinnamon, and a Sargent’s cherry, whose maroon bark is marked with silver horizontal striations.

The big picture

While visually appealing on its own, each tree and shrub is part of a larger vignette. The bark of the Sargent’s cherry, for example, contrasts arrestingly with the bright green, striated leaves of a neighboring doublefile viburnum.

Key aspects of Popes’s vignettes are artful “color echoes,” the repetition of different shades of one color that create an overall unity. Pope said she learned the concept from a book by Pamela Harper, “Color Echoes: Harmonizing Color in the Garden.”

“I love this book,” she said. “When she wrote it back in 1994, nobody was thinking of leaf and flower color echoes.”

Pope’s many varieties of red Japanese maple create stunning color echoes throughout the garden. A deep pink rhododendron, for example, blooms next to a crimson ‘Bloodgood’ maple that grows in a bed of red-edged epimedium.

The maples come in a wide range of size, shape and color, including the small, rounded red ‘Shaina’; the ‘Tamukeyama,’ with its finely dissected purplish leaves and cascading growth habit and the apricot-colored ‘Amber Ghost,’ to name just a few. “I can never have enough of them,” Pope said. “They’re great in sun and shade. I’m always planting more.”

Golden yellow is another recurring color in Pope’s garden. She has planted golden varieties of Japanese Hakone grass, oakleaf hydrangea, cotinus, barberry, privet and ninebark throughout the garden. She says she loves these gold-inflected focal points.

“At the beginning I was not a fan of yellow,”she said. “The Hakone grass taught me to love yellow. Now it’s practically the best color in my garden.”

Groundcovers including vinca, lamium and lysimachia, or creeping Jenny, create vignettes by connecting disparate elements in the garden. Pope points out a burgeoning patch of veronica ‘Georgia Blue’ with its cheery blue flowers and dense green foliage. It blends with the bold round leaves of asarum and the etched leaves of geranium. “It makes the garden feel so unified,” she said.

Groundcovers also soften the margins of stone pathways and the swale. Their delicate flowers and foliage contrast with the blue-gray stone that in turn brings out the colors and textures of the plants.

Some vignettes happen by chance, like the drift of pinky-purple lamium that has taken hold at the edge of a bed Pope designed to combine bright yellows and blues.

“As I get older, I can’t change everything,”she said. “I love how it settled here and spread.”

A garden of stories

Many features in the garden carry their own stories, constituting narrative vignettes.

The swale, for example, started out as a “nasty, weedy, muddy ditch that ran through the lower half of the garden,” Pope said, explaining that the water flows down from a hill across the street. “We decided to make an event out of it. David dug it out and established a high point for the headwaters. The Goshen stone was delivered and we made it ourselves.”

A generously spreading bottlebrush buckeye next to a screened wooden gazebo evokes another story. The shrub is a favorite of the eminent horticulturalist Michael Dirr, author of “Hardy Trees and Shrubs,” a veritable gardener’s bible. Pope recalled that a friend introduced her to Dirr at a symposium at Smith College back in 1995.

He said, ‘Oh, I’m coming to see your garden.’ I was in shock. It was like Elvis telling a teenager he’s coming to visit.”

Pope and Kinsey became good friends of Dirr and his wife, Bonnie. After Kinsey’s death in 1998, Dirr and his colleague Allan Armitage, a perennial expert, came to Amherst to host a benefit to raise money for a memorial garden Pope was building behind the Jones Library in Amherst.

Pope said she was moved by the efforts of Dirr, Armitage and more than 100 others who helped create the garden. “David did so much for so many people. Now they were doing something for him.”

In light of a current plan to expand the library that could impact the garden’s space, Amherst Town Meeting voted last week in favor of preserving and protecting the garden.

Meanwhile, Pope says, work continues in her own garden.

“I’m always experimenting to see what new things will work,” she said. For her, there are many more stories to be told.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at

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