Late-Season Garden Sensation
Carved out of an apple orchard, these colorful garden rooms show how fall-blooming perennials, long-flowering annuals, and a fruitful harvest can really shine in the golden light of autumn
When the time came for Robin Coleburn to design her garden rooms, the apple trees that surround them set the pace. The orchard not only gave the connected outdoor spaces their grid but also influenced their bloom schedule: While most gardens hit their stride in spring and early summer, then limp along into fall, Robin's follows a different rhythm. Autumn has always been a big moment in her landscape. And over the years she has found additional creative ways to make the growing season go out with a bang rather than a whimper.
Robin is a seasoned gardener, but originally she came to northern Vermont to farm. Twenty years ago, she decided to take on an apple orchard. She was no stranger to the Chittenden County region—she had spent her childhood summers at her family's camp down the road from what was then Golden Apple Orchard. So when the business came up for sale, she plunked down her money, pulled on some overalls, and went straight into getting ready for the next autumn's pick-your-own crowds.
Shown: In autumn, the white garden in front of Robin Coleburn's art studio is punctuated by sprays of white Anemone 'Honorine Jobert,' the oboe-like blossoms of Nicotiana sylvestris, and Sedum 'Frosty Morn.' The bronze leaves of the stewartia add a fiery note.
A few winters into her stewardship, Robin decided to call it quits, as the orchard dream was losing its luster. The reality of growing apples entailed too many spray rigs for a person fond of birds and bees. Eventually, Robin let the fruit trees go back to a wild state and switched gears, creating a haven for wildlife. That meant converting her land into gardens with fodder for winged things from the first sprig of spring to the last winterberry. She had already begun carving out garden rooms that radiate from the house to extend the living space outdoors. She'd started with a curved patio—having previously done the job herself, she knew that laying out the bricks from a central circle was surprisingly easy. From there, she configured terraces and replaced ailing apple trees with stands of conifers to direct winds over the house. There was an ulterior motive: The gardens gave Robin the flowers she wanted as models for the oversize canvases she paints—but what she really needed was an artist's studio to get her out of the house when snowbound. The workspace she built was a modest clapboard structure, but it incited all sorts of horticultural high jinks.
Shown: Robin Coleburn, shown on the circular patio behind the house, used the arms of espaliered pear and apple trees to form a fence that provides a sense of enclosure.
Robin's instincts as an artist pointed her toward taking the grid of the apple orchard and echoing it in the landscape surrounding the building, creating a formal array of spaces. And she craved lots of strong color—but the shades couldn't clash. The answer was to segment the gardens into rooms.
Shown: For a focal point in the central room of the studio garden, Robin chose a corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') with amsonia all around.
"I had been a gardener for 20 years, so I knew plants. But I knew nothing about landscape design," Robin admits. Her remedy was to hit the books and study magazines. Research extended her education, but it also expanded her wish list. In order to incorporate every fantasy that hatched—from classical parterres to ebullient, less structured spaces—she had to think big. That's when she took out her colored pencils and drew up a plan for the series of rectangular rooms within a larger rectangular framework. The patterns in each garden—from intersecting circles to fleurs-de-lis—were complex. The 200-by-300-foot format provided ample room to let her artistic leanings run free. She used conifer hedges and tall shrubs as walls to give the gardens a cohesive look, and she surrounded the whole studio garden with an 8-foot-tall open-lattice fence that allows good air circulation but dissuades marauding deer.
Shown: Blue-green fences define the studio garden.
Drawing up the garden was done in one winter; tweaking the design took another four-plus years. For example, a berry garden was originally on the menu, "but it was too much of a mess," Robin found. In the end, she was able to indulge the full gamut of her dreams, including an herb garden, a bird garden, a white garden, a hot-color garden, a vegetable-garden parterre, and a conifer garden—all within footsteps of her studio.
Shown: In the bird garden, a fanciful birdhouse is surrounded by more Polygonum oriental and winterberry.
A four-season sort of gardener, Robin would never let autumn fall off the map, even though that went against the tide of typical nursery availability. Fall is when most nurseries sell their inventory for 30 percent off and call it a day. Meanwhile, the big-box stores and supermarkets go straight into chrysanthemum mode—period. Robin likes mums, but they are just the beginning. Although beefing up fall required some legwork, research, and trips to specialty nurseries, she got the fairy-tale ending to the growing season that she wanted.
Shown: The birdbath beside the studio is flanked by colossal pumpkins. Yucca, Nicotiana sylvestris, and Anemone 'Honorine Jobert' complement the blue Arizona fir in the distance.
Autumn is when the anemones send up tall flower spikes and break into bloom above sedums smothered in flower heads of shimmering shades. Airy blue blossoms form clouds on tall spires of Russian sage. The wand flower (Gaura lindheimeri) reblooms. And autumn crocus goes crazy carpeting the beds like a groundcover. In the bird garden, kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate grows eye-level high, and amaranth plumes produce reddish-purple seed heads, to the delight of winged passersby. The nicotiana is still going strong, and echinacea is in its prime. Add in the flowering kale and the ripe edible cabbages, and there's plenty to please both palette and palate. Even the lacy flower stalks of spent asparagus turn bright yellow before browning. Myriad ornamental grasses are in tassel and plume. And then, on top of it all, surrounding trees and shrubs blush with their fall colors, including stewartia, maples, and winterberries.
Shown: Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (Polygonum oriental), flowering amaranth, and ageratum soften the bench in the bird garden, with winterberry on the side.
Put it all together, and the colors could reach riotous proportions—if it weren't for the room design. Even outside the fenced studio garden, conifers muffle the carnival effect while simultaneously playing off the blues in the squash and the oranges in the pumpkins scattered around as Robin takes the last hurrah to another level. Later in the year, northern Vermont might not be such a lively sight. But in this garden, come October, rather than a winding down, it looks more like the start of a brilliant new beginning.
Shown: Conifers, ornamental grasses, and sedums form a deep border.
The studio garden's moon-shaped gate supports an arching larch (Larix pendular) on the way to a stand of asparagus.
Robin's dog, Tricky Woo, ambles by the snail bench in front of the wetland area, with cattails and ornamental grasses standing tall. Mums, autumn anemones, and ornamental peppers provide more color in pots.
A stone cairn balances beside Sedum 'Matrona' and teucrium, which muscle out any weeds in the cracks between the stones of the pathway.