Those of us who garden here like to think we have it easy, with a relatively long growing season, fairly mild winters, lots of summer sun and plenty of water.
So we pity those poor folks up North, say in New England, where all is dark and dank most of the year.
I discovered just how wrong we are on a recent trip to Vermont, where my wife and I had the pleasure of staying at the Inn at the Round Barn Farm, a delightful and enlightening spot in Waitsfield, just west of Montpelier between the Green Mountains and the Northfield Mountains.
The property's 245 acres, once a dairy farm, retain the original Shaker-style round barn, now a conference and event center for the 12-room inn. What intrigued me about the place, however, was the 25 manicured acres of lawns, ponds, trails, fields and gardens created over the years by owners Jack and Doreen Simko. The Simkos, who are retired from the inn but live nearby, bought the property in 1986, when it needed a lot of work.
Jack Simko was a successful floral designer with no training in landscape design. He just did what he liked and what made sense to him. The result is a remarkable collection of garden spaces that includes five interconnected ponds, sculpture integrated into the landscape, seating to enjoy the vistas, a French-style kitchen garden and a variety of trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables.
Simko incorporated some of the most appealing of landscaping elements in the garden -- notably, water and an element of mystery, or what professional designers call progressive realization.
It's a highly personal garden. I thought it was great. I'm a huge believer in creating gardens for the people who live with them.
He managed to convert the property's liabilities into assets. When crumbling foundations in the house and round barn were replaced, he took the rocks and created a series of tiered terraces descending behind the house. Terraces give a landscape stability, which is why Frederick Law Olmstead added them to the U.S. Capitol building.
Simko's terraces, softened with bright plantings, give a wonderful structure to the hillside and provide places to sit, stroll, and picnic. The terraces overlook the former ice house, which had been turned into a pigsty, and which now has been transformed into an herb garden for the inn's caterer and event planner. The roof is covered with a lovely mat of moss several inches thick, provided by Mother Nature.
Along with the tattered structures, the Simkos acquired a low, swampy, boggy stretch behind the house. Jack's solution was to create a series of five ponds that collect all the water, clean it as it flows through them and guide it into a brook.
He also turned a patch of giant boulders into a conifer garden with mugo pines, false cypresses, spruces, junipers and other alpine types of plants, and planted a rock garden around them. When the timbers of a stone and wood fence rotted away, the stone posts were left as sculpture.
Simko liked gardens that people discover. You're not aware, as you walk around, of passing from one garden "room" to another, but a few steps can take you into what you suddenly realize is a different, and often unexpected, space. I discovered the boulder and conifer garden by accident, by wandering from the willow grove, a favorite spot for weddings, walking over the bridge graced with an arbor on both sides, covered with larch trees trained as standards, without even noticing a transition.
This was another lesson to bring home. Even a tiny urban garden can offer this kind of surprise -- a path curved around a tree revealing a border; an arbor opening up to a vegetable garden.
As for the plants, there are plenty for us in the mid-Atlantic states to envy. Cooler weather means some flowers bloom for longer than they do in our hot, sultry summers. Evidence begins at the front entrance, which is flanked by huge, fragrant white lilies (Casablanca) that were still going strong in August. Annuals such as creeping phlox hold their flowers longer, too. Some plants love and need cold weather -- like the lilacs on this property, which are probably 80 years old but have been kept as low shrubs, a situation in which they thrive.
The cold weather and the trees that do well there account for the Northeast's spectacular shows of fall foliage -- birch turning yellow, red-orange sugar maples, red fall foliage on red maples, purple ashes and red oaks. In the Washington area, choose varieties of trees that reliably offer fall color. Fall is the time to check out garden centers to see foliage colors you would like on your trees.
The cold weather also inhibits pests and predators. Deer, for instance, are not nearly as destructive, so daylilies and hostas, a deer salad bar here, go relatively unscathed in Vermont. Rugosa roses are the only ones that grow well in an unprotected setting in Vermont, but they provide fall and winter color with their red hips.
Winter interest is crucial up North, and one of Simko's dual-action moves was to separate a large parking area from gardens by planting a hedgerow of winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata), a deciduous variety that sports clusters of bright red berries in winter. The hollies are underplanted with cranesbill geraniums (G. sanguineum), wormwood (Artemesia lugoviciana "Silver Queen") and gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides), with its nodding shafts of white flowers in late summer or fall. It's not related to the invasive, noxious weed purple loosestrife (lythrum salicaria), which should never be planted.
Of course, when you garden in Vermont, winter kill is unavoidable. Simko planted a ginkgo tree given to him by a guest, but it didn't survive. So, the trunk was cut to about four feet, and a bird feeder was placed on top of the stump. The next year, the ginkgo sprang back and now grows around the bird feeder. A crab apple that didn't survive is the base for a birdhouse.
Sculpture, found and created, plays a large role in the garden. There's an array of old farm implements, once useful, now ornamental. One of my favorite sculptures is a rusted iron piece, about four-foot tall, that has been surrounded by a bed of globe thistle (echinops ritro). The spiky, thorny gray-green leaves and round blue-gray flowers have the effect of softening the look of the metal. But the real treat is that goldfinches love globe thistle, so the spot is sometimes alive with flitting gold and black birds.
The inn also finds ways to bring plants indoors. Breakfast found sprigs of Emerald Gaiety euonymus and miniature English ivy in the vase-like napkin rings, gerbera daisies on the table, and sage or rosemary or even cymbidium orchids on the plates.
These are just a few of the design and plant ideas I picked up; if you visit, you might pick up even more.
Fall foliage season begins in early September in New England and runs into the middle of October. The Inn at the Round Barn Farm is at 1661 E. Warren St., Waitsfield, Vt. 05673. Call 802-496-2276, or visit www.theroundbarn.com. There are also numerous other inns in the area. It's about an hour and a half flight to Burlington from Washington and a 45-minute ride by car to Waitsfield.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.