A Charming Garden With Planter's Punch
Artfully mixing familiar favorites with more unusual plants is the secret to this garden's charm
Familiar plants win hearts for good reasons: Daffodils signal the start of spring, shade-loving hostas thrive where many perennials won't, and ornamental grasses bring texture and movement to stark winter scenes. Such plants are loved because they're beautiful, reliable, and mostly carefree. But take a stroll through the garden of Andrew Bunting, and you'll likely come away inspired to try something new.
As curator of The Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, a 300-acre campus outside of Philadelphia that doubles as a public garden, Andrew is charged with showcasing thousands of unusual plants. And as you might expect, a career spent tending to rare collections has influenced his choices at home, too. "My garden is like a little subset of the arboretum," says the horticulturist and garden designer. "If I grow a plant there that I like, I may plant one in my home garden, too."
Shown: In his woodland garden, a small bluestone patio is softened by chartreuse mounds of 'All Gold' Japanese forest grass and shaded by several uncommon trees and shrubs, including four Japanese hollies and a 'Yoshino' Japanese cedar that towers above them.
With just a one-third-acre lot and an ever-growing wish list, however, Andrew makes a point of practicing restraint. "I'm constantly torn between being a collector and wanting my garden to look nice," he says. But unlike many collectors' gardens, where plants come first and design second, his garden has a carefully conceived plan. When he bought the property, in 1999, the house had been a rental and the yard was overrun by shoulder-high weeds. He spent most of that first season pulling out ivy and pachysandra, lugging away old firewood, and removing dying trees. "I kept two Japanese maples, several Norway spruces, a couple of lilacs, and a dogwood," he says. "Everything else came out." The garden's current layout closely resembles the original sketch Andrew did years ago. His rectangular lot is divided into a series of five garden rooms, screened from one another by hedges, walls, or the house itself. Each garden has its own theme, as well as its own sun exposure and soil conditions, which helps limit plant choices. His woodland garden, for instance, lies beneath tall trees that suck most of the moisture from the ground, so the plants in those beds must all tolerate dry shade.
Shown: Tropical plants, such as ruffled 'Portodora' elephant's ears and the giant 'Musifolia' canna behind them, add interest to the border along the summerhouse. Such tender exotics are overwintered indoors or simply replaced each year.
Although each space is distinct, Andrew has tied them together by using some of the same key plants throughout the garden. In addition to six 'Yoshino' Japanese cedars, he relies on boxwoods and yews, which he prunes into spheres and columns to provide lively structure year-round. The result is a series of repeating sculptural elements that draws the eye from room to room.
Giving precedence to plants with off-season interest helps Andrew make the most of every square inch of his property—and rein in his collecting instincts even more. He favors plants with evergreen leaves, textural bark, colorful fruit, and winter blooms. One such four-season plant is bloodtwig dogwood, which he planted outside his kitchen window so that in winter he could admire its bare orange stems from indoors. Another is pale spicebush. From spring through summer, this shrub provides a glossy green backdrop and then, just as most of the garden starts dying down, comes through with showstopping pumpkin-orange foliage in fall that fades to muted tan in winter.
Visitors usually enter the garden from the driveway, which is now mostly lawn. Walking to the backyard, they find a bluestone patio surrounded by a clipped hedge of 'Steeds' Japanese holly. This intimate seating area has a revolving color scheme, determined each year by Andrew's numerous container plantings, which, as he likes to say, "give a high return for the real estate." His pots, overflowing with annuals and tropicals, are quick to mature, and they look good from June until frost. "I can group them to create vignettes, use them to frame a focal point, or move them to different parts of the garden," he says. And if a display doesn't perform as expected, it can be removed with far less angst than ripping out a failing in-ground plant.
Shown: Containers line the edges of the main house's back patio, with some raised to eye level atop the stone wall and on an old barrel to make the plant forms easier to admire.
From the start, Andrew Bunting wanted seating areas, a patio for containers, vegetable beds, and a water feature. His yard is now a series of five garden rooms, each with its own feel and an impressive collection of unusual plants.
A gap in the patio's hedge opens onto a lawn. A long border that runs the property's length harbors trees and shrubs, including a clipped hedge of upright 'Frans Fontaine' European hornbeam and two Koehne hollies sheared into 7-foot pyramids. Beneath these specimens grows a mix of partially shaded perennials, including 'All Gold' Japanese forest grass and 'Caramel' heuchera, which flaunts copper-colored leaves. As in other areas of the garden, Andrew has been careful not to fill this border with too many permanent plants. "I use a lot of bold, colorful tropical plants in warm weather—castor beans, cannas, bananas, taro, and others," he says. "I have to leave voids so there's room for them." Some of these tender plants he buys new every year; others, such as the bananas and cannas, he digs up and places in containers in fall, stores in his basement through their winter dormancy, and brings out and replants once the soil warms up.
Shown: Homeowner and horticulturist Andrew Bunting grows an enticing array of plants in his Pennsylvania garden.
Andrew's favorite spot stands opposite this border. The summerhouse, a former garage, provides a screened-in, mosquito-free space for entertaining and has lovely views of the garden. Its courtyard provides room for a sunny gravel garden where he can display a variety of plants that appreciate quick drainage, including Schubert onion, with its huge globular flowers, and Mexican white oak and California evergreen oak, which Andrew prunes to keep stout and shrubby. Behind the summerhouse sits an enclosed kitchen garden, where Andrew grows herbs in the center and, in the four surrounding square beds, alternates between flowers for cutting and vegetables.
Shown: A gravel patio encircled by sun-loving plants, including black-eyed Susans, white-flowering 'Diamond Frost' euphorbia, spiky yucca, and a fading aechmea, greets anyone who enters the summerhouse.
At the property's shady far end lies the woodland garden. Ferns, hellebores, and barrenwort weave around a small pond and beneath unusual shrubs, such as a false Daphne, which sports fragrant purple blooms and slender rhododendron-like leaves. Andrew also grows several "zone-busters" here—plants that are marginally hardy in his Zone 7 garden but worth trying in a sheltered spot—including a deer-resistant 'Halley's Comet' anise tree, which has big star-shaped spring flowers.
Shown: A highlight of the woodland garden, this small pond provides a spot to grow plants that like their feet wet.
The front yard has an inviting cottage look, with sun-loving perennials, like threadleaf bluestar, giant coneflower, and 'Skyracer' moor grass, and several shrubs, including burgundy-leaved 'Summer Wine' ninebark and winter-blooming 'Jelena' witch hazel. Vines, including 'Fenway Park' Boston ivy and 'Moonlight' Japanese hydrangea, soften the walls of the two-story house.
Shown: The front yard features an exuberant mix of shrubs and perennials, including 'Limelight' hydrangea and fine-textured threadleaf bluestar
Initially, Andrew created these front beds in the shade of a Japanese maple. The maple eventually died, however, as did the next tree he tried in its place. Two new, native trees were recently added—a white oak and a 'Wildfire' black gum. "I might get disappointed when something I have babied along croaks, but with gardening, the best lessons are learned hands-on, through succeeding and failing," Andrew says. And with a wish list as long as his, an empty spot in the garden just means a chance to experiment with something new.
Shown: Dense evergreen foliage makes a quiet backdrop, perfect for showing off the flamboyant leaves of ruffled 'Portodora' elephant's ears and 'Musifolia' canna.
Beyond a garden gate, the kitchen garden has four beds for vegetables and flowers, with herbs planted in the center. Here, cherry tomatoes flourish beside zinnias. The showy flowers add beauty and lure in pollinators.
Pruning the shapes of Hicks yew and 'Steeds' Japanese holly transforms these shrubs into sculptural focal points that unite the various sections of the garden.
A lone chair at the edge of the great lawn provides a solitary spot from which to admire the garden.
An alcove on one side of the summerhouse offers a sheltered place for a couple of chairs and potted tropicals.
Masses of threadleaf bluestar, with its needle-like foliage that turns golden orange in fall, claim a garden seat on the front walkway.
A simple structure adorned with a vine or a potted plant, such as this obelisk, provides an impromptu vertical element that's easily moved, season to season.
Curved borders block sections of the garden from view, giving visitors something to discover. The café table and chairs hide in one corner of the woodland garden.
A large potted 'Dancing Flame' salvia is just one of the rare cultivars at home on the back patio.
Sulphur cosmos, a no-fuss annual that's stouter than common cosmos.
'Serena Purple' angelonia flowers through most of the summer heat.
In Andrew Bunting's garden, familiar favorites share space with exotic tropicals, succulents, and underused natives. Adding even a few of the plants he uses from the list below will likely encourage visitors to slow down as they walk your garden paths.
'Sinonome' toad lily
(Tricyrtis hirta 'Sinonome')
Instead of planting hosta, bring extra color to shady spots with this toad lily, which sports violet-spotted flowers in fall. Full to partial shade; 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Zones 4–9.
Swap black-eyed Susan for this towering North American native with bright yellow blooms and floppy powder-blue leaves. Full sun to partial shade; 5 to 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Zones 4–8
Forgo forsythia for this early-spring bloomer. Before leafing out, flower clusters up to 8 inches long dangle from bare branches. Full sun to partial shade; 3 to 12 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Zones 7-9.
Instead of Japanese maple, try this vase-shaped shrub with unusual mitten-like leaves. This spicebush boasts rose-tinged new growth in spring, golden fall foliage, and fragrant yellow blooms in late winter. Partial shade; 20 feet tall and wide. Zones 4-9.
(Schizophragma hydrangeoides 'Moonlight')
Rather than potentially invasive wisteria, plant 'Moonlight' hydrangea vine, with its variegated foliage and lace-like blooms—a stunning cover for arbors and walls. Full sun to partial shade; up to 40 feet tall. Zones 6-9.
Skip bearded iris and try a pineapple lily for its tropical-looking fall blooms and spiky, succulent foliage, which lends structure to beds all season. Full sun; 30 inches tall and 8 inches wide. Zones 8-11.
(Epimedium x rubric)
Instead of astilbe, try this groundcover, which sports red-tinged leaves in spring and fall and yellow-and-crimson flowers in late spring. It tolerates dry soil under large trees better than many shade plants. Partial shade; 1 foot tall and wide. Zones 5-9.
(Nyssa sylvatica 'Wildfire')
In place of red maple, which has red foliage only in autumn, consider this tree, whose new spring growth emerges scarlet before turning dark green, then blazes red again in fall. Full sun to partial shade; 30 feet tall and wide. Zones 5-9.
Swap ornamental grasses for this waist-high perennial that also offers golden-orange fall color and gentle movement, plus dainty blue flowers in spring. Full sun to light shade; 3 feet tall by 4 feet wide. Zones 6-8.
(Fatsia japonica 'Spider's Web')
Switch out cherry laurel for an aralia with showy variegated leaves that set it a cut above most broad-leaved evergreens. Though it's supposed to need warm winters, this "zone-buster" grows happily in Andrew's Zone 7 woodland garden. Full sun to partial shade; 5 feet tall and wide. Zones 8-10.