Photographed By Celia Pearson
“When the boys were young, we used the stone wall as a pony jump,” says Robin Breitenecker. When she, her husband, Rudy, and their three sons moved to 50-acre Broadacre Farm in 1969, she says, “The bones were here, but the farm was in a state of neglect.” Old peonies and a few roses (including an indomitable ‘Dr. Van Fleet’), larkspur and iris grew among vines and weeds by the wall a former owner had built as a backdrop to a perennial border.
In 1980, when the gardening bug bit, Breitenecker cleared the vines and weeds, planted daylilies and astilbes and accepted gift plants from friends and neighbors, including the legendary gardener Ella Calhoun. She became expert at spotting attractive plants along streambeds, in her own fields and at any plant stand from Vermont to North Carolina, where her sons went to college.
Almost 30 years later, a 120-foot-long, 12-foot-deep border flanks both sides of the wall with small trees, shrubbery, perennials, annuals, wildflowers and some original plantings. “I add 300 to 800 bulbs each season,” says Breitenecker, another indication of how perennial is her passion for planting. Gardens now ring the 1900 white clapboard farmhouse, guesthouse, garden shed, barn, tenant house and even the fences.
“I love color,” she adds. She no longer allows ponies in adjoining pastures to jump the stone wall, instead planning and planting bright tapestries filled with varied textures and plant structure. So successful is Breitenecker’s work of art that Broadacre, already on the Ladew Topiary Gardens spring tour, is on this year’s Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage.
“Something that does not look contrived. It takes a lot of housekeeping. It tends to get a little wild. I’m trying to keep it a bit tidier,” says Breitenecker. “I’ve given up on delphiniums, lupines and daisies. We’re in the lime belt.” But she couldn’t resist an acid-loving, pink azalea on a construction site dump. “I guess I have a greedy bent,” she says with a laugh. In inclusive combinations she mixes hollies, boxwoods, peonies, a few roses, dahlias, Japanese maples with wild asters, stands of pink and blue larksprur, cleome and phlox, native blue salvia, cosmos, wild evening primrose, annual plantings of zinnia and necotiana. Breitenecker’s environmentally conscious approach brings many wildflowers and natives, and in summer she waters only newly planted trees and bushes, not the perennials. “They curl into themselves like plants in the woods,” she says. “Then they grow like mad with plenty of rain.”
Keeping it orderly. “Hard to do when there’s always a good crop of larkspur, buttercups, dame’s rocket and forget-me-nots spreading through the gardens which grow bigger and bigger.” Breitenecker once used horse manure as fertilizer but now sticks to desiccated cow manure. “Fewer weeds,” she says.
“I like to look at the garden and walk around. I have a thing about digging in the soil… My hands and fingernails recover in winter… But I enjoy bringing order, weeding and then looking at it afterward.”
garden time: At season’s height, she spends two to three hours a day.
garden as therapy: “I find it soothing and calming. I don’t take the phone with me in the gardens. Constant interruption is not very healthy.”
- 1) Look for drought-resistant perennials and shrubs.
- 2) Feed the birds. (We have bluebird houses.) Encourage ladybugs and praying mantises. Don’t kill too many bugs.
- 3) We have bats in the barn for natural mosquito control, and I’m thinking about installing bat houses. I’m looking for someone to install beehives.
- 4) Mulch, mulch, mulch. I use double shredded hardwood mulch, but I’m about to try some compost mulch.
- 5) No pesticides on the garden beds. I use desiccated cow manure, Holly Tone for the acid-lovers in the spring.
- 6) Divide perennials. It’s good for the garden and good for giving to friends and neighbors.
The Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage features Western Run gardens on Sunday, May 17. For tickets: http://www.mhgp.org or 410-821-6933.