Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: A garden for all seasons

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  • Carol Pope likes the placement of this azalea silver sword, foreground, next to a paperbark maple tree in her Amherst garden, seen on Dec. 15. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • —STAFF PHOTO

  • Pieris Interstilla growing in the Amherst garden of Carol Pope. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

  • Cyclamen coum grows among a bed of stones in the Amherst garden of Carol Pope. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

  • Closeup of a Stewartia pseudocamillia trunk in the Amherst garden of Carol Pope. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

  • Carol Pope employs several hardscape features throughout her Amherst garden. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

  • Cyclamen coum grows in a bed of stones in the Amherst garden of Carol Pope. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

  • Carol Pope of Amherst stands just inside the gate to her garden on Dec. 15. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Carol Pope employs several hardscape features throughout her Amherst garden. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

  • Oxydendrum arboreum, or sourwood tree, in the Amherst garden of Carol Pope. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

  • Closeup of the unusual bark of a parottia, or paperbark maple, tree in the Amherst garden of Carol Pope. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

  • Detail of metasequoia tree bark in the Amherst garden of Carol Pope. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

  • Carol Pope stands in a new walkway in her Amherst garden. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Carol Pope stands with a chimney pot in a newly landscaped corner of her Amherst garden. Behind her is one of the structures used in the 2012 Amherst art installation of Emily Dickinson poetry, ÒThe Little White House Project: ÔDwell in Possibility'", by Deerfield Academy student Peter Krasznekewicz. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

  • A Clethra barbinervis trunk adds visual texture in Pope’s marvelous garden. STAFF PHOTO/kevin gutting

  • A gate that Carol Pope and her late husband commissioned for their Amherst garden. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

Published: 1/6/2022 1:23:08 PM
Modified: 1/6/2022 1:22:28 PM

My garden is looking awfully dreary these days, and not just because of the cold gray weather that has been with us since before Christmas.

There are a few bright spots: dwarf Japanese pines with twisting, irregular branches laden with tiny pine cones, the peeling white bark of a dwarf river birch, and pots of cut evergreen branches gingered up with wands of winterberry.

But mostly I see dying lawn grass and patches of soggy brown perennials that I’ve left standing in hopes of providing shelter to overwintering critters large and small. I’ve read a lot about gardening for four-season interest, but this time of year I always sigh that I haven’t done nearly enough.

On a cold day last month I visited the Amherst garden of my friend Carol Pope. An inch of snow the night before had added a magical skim of white frosting to everything. As I strolled along the stone paths that wind through her semi-shaded garden beds, I saw that the delightful vignettes — interesting combinations of texture, color and shape — that appear the rest of the year have given way to pleasing winter compositions.

“We live in a place that has long, cold winters,” Pope says. “We should design our gardens so they have visual appeal all year-round.”

In front of the house a golden mound of Japanese Hakonechloea grass rubs shoulders with an evergreen azalea and tall brown stalks of trycertis (toad lily) whose seed heads and dried leaves add visual complexity to the scene. Nearby, the twisting, lichen-laced branches of a mountain laurel provide an elegant contrast to the delicate, variegated needles of a dwarf Japanese Tani mano uki pine. Orange rose hips and the red berries of Ilex verticillata and Photinia villosa add brilliant pops of color here and there.

Pope relies heavily on trees for garden interest, both deciduous and evergreen. She explained that when she and her husband, David Kinsey, who died in 1998, began planning the garden more than 30 years ago, they chose trees whose bark and structure would be visually appealing in winter. As these trees have matured, they have generously fulfilled that promise.

The smooth mottled bark of Stewartia, which Pope says reminds her of a giraffe, is highlighted against the Pinus flexilis (Limber pines) and Pinus koraiensis (Korean pine) at the edge of the property. The reddish, vertically striped bark of a Metasequoia is stunning in the muted winter landscape. Likewise, the intriguing bark of a Sargent’s cherry, smooth rusty red wrapped around with bands of pale yellow, provides a striking focal point near the center of the garden.

For structure, perhaps the most dramatic tree in Pope’s garden is a mature crabapple tree that she has pruned over the years to form a spreading horizontal shape. In spring it’s a cloud of pale pink blossoms; in winter, its gnarly gray branches look like a dark storm cloud on the horizon. Pope said it’s one of her favorite winter sights.

A wide variety of deciduous shrubs add further structural diversity to the garden. The tiered branches of doublefile viburnum Shoshoni that are full of white flowers in spring contrast with the vase-shaped silhouettes of early blooming coralopsis and a Chinese redbud that flowers for a full eight weeks in spring. The beds are dotted with dwarf Japanese maples whose sinewy branches still hold some pale, desiccated leaves that have a ghostly charm.

Pope also limbs up hemlocks and other small trees to create architectural elements in the garden. She recently added 40 new evergreen azaleas that add volume to the garden in winter.

One of the things I love about Pope’s garden is that it’s always evolving. This year she added a bed of hardy cyclamen, a plant that thrives in dappled shade. These are not the gaudy potted plants that show up at florists and supermarkets around the holidays; hardy cyclamen has spectacular variegated foliage crowned by delicate, diminutive flowers in shades of pink, white and lavender that bloom in fall, winter and spring.

The day I visited, several pale lavender flowers were peeking out from the snow, a welcome reminder that flowers can bloom in New England even on the shortest days of the year. Cyclamen doesn’t like to be surrounded by wet soil, so Pope added a layer of small, smooth stones over the soil that acts like mulch.

Pope’s garden is full of artful hardscaping elements that add whimsy and delight to their natural surroundings. A screened gazebo is a lovely focal point that also provides a place to sit and admire the view. Water features include a small fish pond and a swale lined with Ashfield stone (a more striated type of Goshen stone) that runs through the property, crossed at three points by wooden bridges, all stained dark red.

Sculptures of stone and metal blend into and enhance the vignettes she has created with plants. There are always new surprises.

And after my waves of garden envy subside, I’m left with the resolution to do a little better this year. My garden will never rival Carol Pope’s, but I always leave her garden inspired to try something new.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.

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