Cultivating a Dynamic Landscape

Paul Babikow's array of bamboo includes a stand painted by artist Nancy Valk.
Paul Babikow's array of bamboo includes a stand painted by artist Nancy Valk. (Sarah L. Voisin - The Washington Post)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006

Spend an hour or two with Paul Babikow in his leafy country garden and you understand what you give up if you let others install and maintain your landscape -- and what you gain if you don't.

Babikow and his wife, Beth, have spent 26 years devising, planting and adjusting the two acres of shade garden around their contemporary house in Baldwin, Md. The result is a series of spaces that are contemplative and yet filled with quiet drama.

Babikow has employed a number of design techniques to achieve this: trees and bamboo clumps to form strong bones, careful placement of every plant and stone, elements of surprise and pleasing contrasts of foliage. But the sum is greater than the parts; this is a garden that is both soulful and full of gentle lessons in landscaping: Tone it down, throw yourself into it, be patient and reap the rewards.

"I want this garden to have a spiritual element to it," said Babikow, 64.

The back story here is that Babikow is co-owner and president of a major regional grower of plants for the landscape trade, Babikow Greenhouses in Baltimore, specializing in perennials and ornamental grasses. His ancestors started the company as a truck farm in 1875, and he has been working there since 1970. So, unlike most of us, he has access to an Aladdin's cave of flowering plants and could, one figures, attempt flashy border plantings or beds of uninterrupted color from April to October.

But for Babikow, the essential element is not color, not even texture or form, but in cultivating plants that are constantly changing, and thus forever altering one's perception of the garden. This has led to the use of a lot of deciduous trees and shrubs and herbaceous plants such as perennials and grasses that grow rapidly, change and color with the season, and then are cut back by late winter to start the cycle all over again.

"When you're making a garden you're making art. Art is about one's own experience, and the one experience that is universal is change, so when I choose a plant for the garden, it has to change," he said. "There's not a lot of boxwood, not a lot of evergreen plants."

Babikow is a big fan of bamboo species: bamboos as low-growing ground covers, as dense groves and delicate, semi-open stands -- unusual varieties that elevate the plant from wandering and unneighborly screen. In one area, he has allowed a tall, fat-bladed species, Phyllostachys dulcis , to grow tall next to a large bank of bottlebrush buckeye. Nearby a pair of large native trees, the sourwood and a serviceberry, add more interest. The scene is further enlivened by plantings of the bigleaf magnolia, a tropical-looking native tree with leaves as long as three feet.

In advance of a visit by members of the American Bamboo Society in June, he had Nancy Valk, an artist from suburban Baltimore, paint sections of the living shoots in brilliant colors.

The tour continues over a crude wooden footbridge above a bog of pitcher plants and other meat-eaters with roots. Up the hill behind the house, Babikow has positioned five teak garden chairs across a small lawn from a similar number of tree ferns. The fronds rise three or four feet and spread about as much. The ferns work as sculpture, but there is an animal quality about them as well. Babikow likes to sit and watch them.

At the rear of the house, a hidden, grotto-like pool fills the air with the sound of falling water. Above the pool, a patio of stone-framed pavers leads to a swale of softball-size stones that spill out to a small field dotted with boulders. The scene was inspired by a trip to Patagonia, but this and other aspects of the garden have a real Japanese or Chinese feel to it. This flows from the plant material but also, Babikow says, from the idea that each stone or piece of sculpture or specimen plant exists in considered relationship to its neighbor.

"It's that almost obsessive idea of just exactly where does all this fit and work together," he said. In trying to figure it out, he has enlisted the help of a number of artists and designers, including David Hand, an artist then based in Baltimore who reworked the rear patio and the entrance garden. He now lives and works in Northern California.

The front garden is dominated by an abstract sculpture of columns and spheres, "Grove," by David Hess of Phoenix, Md.

In some of his tree beds, Babikow has planted ground-cover bamboo varieties that grow in early summer after spring-flowering ground covers have had their day, including golden nettle and the giant butterbur. In a zigzag bed along the wall of the house, he has planted an attractive, clean-looking bamboo with tight foliage and growing to about eight inches, named Pleioblastus distichus Mini.

He also points out a robust, waist-high native perennial that performs well with little cosseting -- prairie dock, placed in a large mass around a swamp white oak. It produces yellow, daisy-like blooms, but he removes them in bud because they distract from the horizontal line of the massed plant. Nearby he has taken a grove of old white pines and removed the lower branches, and the missing branches have formed rings so that the trees look like colossal columns of bamboo.

The garden peaks in June and in October. The fall is beautiful, Babikow says, but it does herald the relatively lifeless winter. To help him through the bleak months, he asked the Baltimore landscape designer Dejan Ernestl to supply 22 trough gardens, positioned with sculptural precision in the entrance patio.

In the early evening, Babikow is sure to find himself in the kitchen, where the view through the window is to a distant clump of a giant bamboo variety named Robert Young. The stand is now old, the shoots a good two inches across and a warm, golden yellow. Here the last sunbeams of the day strike them and cause them to glow. For Babikow, it is the day's final reminder of the dynamic nature of a personal garden.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company