Beautiful Canvases

The Columbia Green garden tour



Robert Clark

There is nothing quite like Columbia in the spring. The sweet fragrance of the tea olive, the subtle blush of the camellia and the iris leaf pushing its way up through the dirt bring a sense of a new beginning and clarity. Columbia is home to many majestic gardens, each unique in its own right. While some are manicured down to the very inch, others grow wild and with abandon. For the past 25 years, the Columbia Green Festival of Gardens has been celebrating the many exceptional gardens across the city.

 

The Festival of Gardens is Columbia Green’s signature fundraising event in support of the organization’s goal to promote beautification in the greater Columbia area. Columbia Green is most recognized for its partnership with the City of Columbia in landscaping medians and public spaces with colorful, seasonal plantings. Money raised from the festival and its memberships provides funds for grants to civic and neighborhood associations and other non-profit organizations for beautification projects across the capital city.

“Columbia Green’s garden selection committee visits potential neighborhoods that would be suitable for a tour, many times using suggestions from friends and neighbors,” says Susan Thorpe, co-chair of the 2017 Festival committee. “The committee looks for innovative landscaping and unusual plants since participants appreciate seeing interesting landscaping solutions for gardens of all sizes.”

The 2017 Festival takes place May 5 and 6 in historic Elmwood Park and will feature tours of 10 private gardens, along with the Roy Lynch Butterfly Garden, which received a community grant from Columbia Green. “Columbia Green prides itself on featuring garden ideas, not only to our members but also to the public,” says Cathy Kennedy, president of Columbia Green. “To paraphrase Lady Bird Johnson, ‘Beautification is contagious, and it starts at home.’” 

The 2016 tour featured, among others, three grand estates in the Wales Garden neighborhood, each bursting with its own colors, fragrances and histories.

 

The Gordon Garden

As one of the oldest suburbs in the city, the lots in Wales Garden are very expansive — in some cases a lot and a half. Paula and Malcolm Gordon have made wonderful use of every inch of their large backyard with ample seating areas and substantial flower and plant beds.

To be sure, the Gordons’ backyard is a special place, as it was there, underneath a beautiful dogwood, that the two were married. Just one week before the wedding, Malcolm was laying the brickwork in an adjacent flower garden, aptly nicknamed “The Love Garden.” It’s easy to imagine the soothing, romantic music beckoning from the harpist that played during the ceremony. It’s no surprise Paula would want to get married under a dogwood, as she is a self-proclaimed flower girl. “I always have a flower and herb garden in the summer,” says Paula. “My goal is to take something in from the outdoors every day — regardless of the season — to place on my windowsill. Pansies help when I’m in dire straits. It just makes me happy.”

Paula relishes the fact that her garden takes on different personalities, depending upon the season. “You can’t just come one time and see my garden,” she says with a laugh. “It looks completely different throughout the changing seasons.”

Various plant and flower beds are located around the yard. Shade gardens of hydrangeas, ferns and azaleas provide texture and interest during the spring and summer, while sasanquas provide a punch of color in the fall and winter. During the summer, the cascading water of the fountain on the pergola drowns out any nearby traffic. The bench placed on the pergola was Paula’s great-grandfather’s cemetery bench in Cincinnati, where it was common for visitors to have lunch at the cemetery by their loved one’s gravesite. When that practice went away, Paula inherited the bench from her parents. The beautiful piece provides a great sense of tradition to the space. 

It’s impossible to overlook the front yard of the Gordons’ home, where a massive Japanese Maple tree makes a statement. The tree was planted in the early 1900s and is said to have hailed from the Chicago World’s Fair. A snowball bush flanks the other side of the house and is often a topic of conversation for passersby due to its billowy, puffy white buds. Each year, Paula plants 200 tulips, her favorite plant, under the dogwoods in the front yard. Paula attributes this passion to the story of her father buying her mother pink tulips when she was born. This is just another example of Paula infusing her home with memories of friends and family.

Iron and aucuba plants line the home and lead to the side of the estate, which features a Charleston-style garden replete with ferns, hostas and an elongated brick pathway. Containers dot the path and lead to the woodlands garden, which is highlighted by grand Evergreen Oaks that are close to 100 years old. “When we look out from our bedroom upstairs, we feel like we are in a treehouse,” says Paula. It’s a sanctuary that Paula and Malcolm have built on their own — with blood, sweat, tears and a whole lot of love.

 

The Davis Garden

Dorothy and Keith Davis have lived in their beautiful Wales Garden home for more than 40 years, where they have added to the splendid plants and trees over time. A unique feature at the Davis home is the cluster of majestic camellias that line the front of the home. The bush features different-colored blossoms on the same branch. How it does so is still a mystery to Dorothy. Monkey grass billows over the walkway, seemingly bowing to guests as they walk to the backyard.

The pristine landscape is dotted with blooms that have grown so beautifully from bulbs Dorothy has planted over the years. Stately sago palms sit at attention across the landscape, while oakleaf hydrangeas and perennials provide beauty and interest to the space. Dorothy prefers to plant many of her summer plants in pots, so that she can move them out of the full sun. For Dorothy, she plants whatever catches her fancy. 

“I don’t know the proper name of my plants,” she says. “If I get them and they grow, fine. I lose the tags, and that doesn’t matter to me. I’m not a master gardener; I just enjoy trying things and seeing what works.” Her method is relatable to many, for Dorothy is truly interested in relishing the fruits of her labor. The picture window in her kitchen looks over the backyard, where she and Keith take in the beauty of the scenery from the comforts of her home. “Unless I am working in a flower or plant bed, I really prefer to sit in the air conditioning and look out at the garden,” says Dorothy.

In this yard, there is a lot to see. A water garden sits in the center of the yard, where lilies quietly rest atop the water and goldfish glide underneath. Hawks, herons and other varieties of birds are known to take residence near the water garden, a key reason Dorothy no longer puts koi in the pond. The water feature is the anchor to this stunning space, and beside it sits an inimitable Edgeworthia plant. The plant is unique in that its golden blooms appear on bare limbs before the tree’s leaves come in; only once the plant blooms do the leaves then appear.

Directly underneath the picture window, a bevy of wind chimes hang during the winter. In the spring, they are replaced with hanging orchids that deliver an unmatched elegance and beauty to the area.

The brick walkway is dotted with interesting pieces, including a concrete butterfly nestled among of bed of daffodils. A walk down the pathway leads to a life-sized bronze flautist that sits upon a concrete bench. The statue is on loan from friends who have moved out of town, but it appears this area of the landscape was made for this stunning piece. 

From the beauty of the plants and the strength of the trees to the peacefulness of the water, the Davis garden delivers a sense of tranquility that even the hottest of Columbia summers can’t burn out. 

The Linder Garden

Lynne and Bill Linder have two distinctive gardens. The front, formal garden features viburnum hedges and boxwoods that line the neatly manicured front walk. The different shades of rich greenery are a first hint at Lynne’s affinity for variegated plants. “I love the variegated look,” says Lynne, whose plants include Fallopia, Aspidistra and Fatshedera. In many cases, these plants started as a houseplant or a gift from a friend. They have since grown to be a special part of Lynne’s garden, bringing with them the memories of those who gave them and offering new memories to those who are able to enjoy them. A beautiful brick walkway leads to the backyard, where it’s hard to miss the massive space left by one of Lynne’s treasured oaks that was lost in a storm. While the new space will allow for new growth and plantings, it’s a bittersweet opportunity. “When the oak tree blew over, it changed the life of my garden,” says Lynne. The powerful oak fell against a majestic magnolia in the back, stripping a part of the tree but stealing none of its beauty.

The backyard opens up to a series of original vignettes, many of which share a sense of whimsy and history through their featured pieces that sit amongst the glorious bushes, flowers and trees. In one, an ivy-covered antique bike sits in deference to the cyclists in Lynne’s family — her husband, son and daughter. In another, a majestic antique spire cap obtained from Trinity Cathedral during its restoration is surrounded by Lenten Roses.

While each part of Lynne’s garden has its own personality, the real focal points are the glorious trees. Century-old pecan trees form a canopy over the landscape, while a massive fig tree and pineapple/guava shrub soak up the space with beauty and grandeur. An interesting weeping cypress is beginning to sway over the walkway in its path, serving as its own entryway into the vegetable patch behind the garage. “I love the idea of entrances into spaces,” says Lynne. “What better way to create one than with glorious trees and plants?” 

While Lynne loves the formal look of her front yard, her goal for the backyard is to create a fanciful space that her family can enjoy and where her granddaughter can play hide-and-seek. A playhouse, nestled in the backyard, is flanked by two purple benches where family can relax and enjoy the view. A beautiful pergola provides additional seating space and interest to the back area. It’s the ideal location to take in the beautiful blooms of Lenten Roses and Chardonnay Pearl Deutzia plants that dot the landscape. Rich green hostas and other greenery cover the grounds, some seemingly escaping from their designated beds to add color and ground cover to the nearby land. Hope springs eternal with these seeds. 

Fennel stalks are abundant in one flower bed, hearkening back to Lynne’s mother, who often used fennel in her recipes. Just enough okra is planted to add the perfect accompaniment to the butter beans on the stove. The colors, the flavors, the aromas and the textures are a song for the senses. For Lynne, her garden is an anthem to friends and family through the plants they have given her, the pieces that reflect upon them and the joy that they bring.

 

Like a painter, each of these Columbia Green Tour homeowners has created their own canvas with individual palettes of flowers, plants, colors and memories. The final masterpieces delivering motivation and inspiration for those looking to create a backyard oasis of their own.

Tickets to this year’s tour can be purchased at ColumbiaGreen.org.