“We must cultivate our garden,” says Voltaire’s Candide - sound advice perhaps, but completely contrary to human nature. We like peering out from behind the curtains and looking into our neighbors’ yards. Thank heaven for the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days, when passionate gardeners and aspiring Martha Stewarts are invited to view some of the country’s most beautiful private gardens. There, enquiring minds can openly converse with the owners, take pictures, steal ideas, and generally drool with envy. Voyeurs, rejoice.
The 2012 Raleigh area Open Days took place last weekend. I popped in to three gardens and, of course, found them all quite lovely. Each displayed a dazzling assortment of sensational plants, many of which I had never seen in person. Each had picturesque architectural elements – fountains, trellises, gazebos - and each was impeccably maintained. My favorite, though, was Dennis and Georgina Werner’s garden.
Often the gardens featured on Open Days are impossibly perfect. They are the very antithesis of my galloping horse garden, where a more – how shall I put this? - relaxed aesthetic prevails. The Werner garden may have been impossibly perfect, but it was also warm, informal, and real. I loved it. I wanted it.
Described in Garden Conservancy literature as “an informal collector’s garden,” the Werner garden was overflowing with plants ranging from the familiar Salvia “Hot Lips” to the kooky and unusual vigna caracalla (aka corkscrew or snail vine). I coveted the tall gomphrena, a deservedly trendy annual that is a vast improvement over the compact “Gnome” gomphrena, its ubiquitous, boring brother. I was also bowled over by the garden’s sheer abundance, and by how healthy and lush everything looked, despite the miserably hot weather that had devastated my garden only three miles away.
How did they do it? Simple: they actually know what they are doing. After buttonholing owner Dennis Werner to compliment him on his garden and marvel at his talent, I discovered, to my chagrin, that the gracious and unassuming Dr. Werner is the former head of Raleigh’s JC Raulston Arboretum. That would explain the gorgeous garden. He is also a professor of horticulture at NC State University and a renowned plant breeder whose most recent creations are the low-growing “Chip” series of buddleias (Butterfly Bushes to you and me) that are now all the rage. I felt like a sixth-grade science fair winner telling Einstein to keep up the good work.
Fortunately, there was more to the day than the mortification of offering my stamp of approval to one of the world’s leading horticulturists. I got a free buddleia (a Dr. Werner creation, needless to say), courtesy of nearby Campbell Road Nursery. I got answers to some longstanding plant mysteries (my Winter Red winterberry holly needs a new male pollinator; Apollo just isn’t doing the job). And I got ideas (tall gomphrena and celosia spicata as next year’s annuals; try them from seed to save money). Taken all together, not a bad day’s work. Thank you, Dr. Werner.
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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