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Garden Visit: ‘The Thrill of Letting Things Happen’ in Helen O’Donnell’s Vermont Garden

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Garden Visit: ‘The Thrill of Letting Things Happen’ in Helen O’Donnell’s Vermont Garden

May 30, 2023

“I grow for the intrepid gardener,” says garden designer and plantsperson extraordinaire Helen O’Donnell. She’s the co-owner of The Bunker Farm in Dummerston, Vermont, which sells a wide range of rare, unusual, and tried-and-true plants. “I don’t focus on what I think I can sell, but rather what I am most excited to plant,” she says. (Check out her 2023 plant list here.) O’Donnell grows almost her entire stock from seed, sustainably raising her plants so that they will look good and thrive in the garden, not just in their nursery pots. (Some places pump their plants with “steroids,” synthetic fertilizers, and growth hormones, and raise them in coddled settings so that they look good at purchase time, but aren’t necessarily strong and healthy for the long haul.) 

O’Donnell, who’s been gardening since she was 15 years old, has a penchant for “boisterous plants,” those that haven’t been bred too much and have “wilder characteristics.” But she’s careful about what she sells, avoiding offering any invasive plants. “I also put a warning on aggressive native plants I am selling,” she says. “Fireweed, for example, is a wicked runner that can be aggressive in a garden bed.” But she notes, “many plants will behave differently in different gardens. It’s all about noticing what a plant does.”

For more than a decade, O’Donnell has also been designing gardens in New England, producing lush, plant-lover paradises in small plots and larger estates. “I try and find the feeling of a place,” she says of her process. “So much of good design work comes out of the maintenance and caring for the gardens, collaborating with clients, stone masons, other gardeners, and employees,” she says. “It’s a team effort.” 

Her own garden, though, is a place to experiment, testing out varieties and plant combinations. She also practices a more laissez-faire approach to gardening there, letting annuals and biennials reseed themselves so they pop up in unexpected spots. “It feels like working with natural processes, playing around with chance as an element of design, or lack of one,” she says. “Of course, the gardener’s hand comes in periodically and rips out, say half the Verbascum, for example, but I get a thrill out of letting things happen.” She shares some of the fun plants and combinations growing in her own garden.

Photography by Helen O’Donnell.

 Above: Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) is a favorite of O’Donnell’s. The annual/biennial native (Southern Vermont is at the northern edge of its natural habitat) seeds itself, producing strong, hardy plants. They can reach five feet in height, with a bushy habit. “It blooms for several months at the end of summer and produces beautiful seed heads in late fall and winter,” says O’Donnell.
Above: Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) is a favorite of O’Donnell’s. The annual/biennial native (Southern Vermont is at the northern edge of its natural habitat) seeds itself, producing strong, hardy plants. They can reach five feet in height, with a bushy habit. “It blooms for several months at the end of summer and produces beautiful seed heads in late fall and winter,” says O’Donnell.
The Bunker Farm is located in southern Vermont. The self-serve nursery is open 7 days a week May through June.
Above: The Bunker Farm is located in southern Vermont. The self-serve nursery is open 7 days a week May through June.
“Peucadanum verticillare  is one of the great umbel plants,” says O’Donnell. “It’s biennial and grows to easily five feet tall when it flowers. When it is in bloom, as it almost is here, it is covered with blue winged mud wasps,” says O’Donnell, of the docile native pollinator. 
Above: Peucadanum verticillare [giant hog fennel] is one of the great umbel plants,” says O’Donnell. “It’s biennial and grows to easily five feet tall when it flowers. When it is in bloom, as it almost is here, it is covered with blue winged mud wasps,” says O’Donnell, of the docile native pollinator. 
O’Donnell put together this pot display of purple bell vine (Rhodochiton sanguineum), wispy, white Gaura &#8\2\16;The Bride&#8\2\17;, and bright violet three bird toadflax (Linaria triornithophora). “These are just some good plants all tangled together,” she says.
Above: O’Donnell put together this pot display of purple bell vine (Rhodochiton sanguineum), wispy, white Gaura ‘The Bride’, and bright violet three bird toadflax (Linaria triornithophora). “These are just some good plants all tangled together,” she says.
“This area was an old vegetable garden from the previous occupants. I&#8\2\17;ve turned it into a growing plot for seed collection and trialing. Initially, it was supposed to be for annuals, but over time it has more perennials and woody shrubs, like raspberries and asparagus. In this current moment, the Verbascum chaixii has absolutely taken over. I&#8\2\17;ve since taken 3/4 of them out! But the effect of all of them together is amazing. When in bloom, they are completely-filled with bees.” 
Above: “This area was an old vegetable garden from the previous occupants. I’ve turned it into a growing plot for seed collection and trialing. Initially, it was supposed to be for annuals, but over time it has more perennials and woody shrubs, like raspberries and asparagus. In this current moment, the Verbascum chaixii has absolutely taken over. I’ve since taken 3/4 of them out! But the effect of all of them together is amazing. When in bloom, they are completely-filled with bees.” 
“A friend grew this clematis from seed, and I grew the ruby red twining snap dragon vine Maurandya erubescens ‘Magic Dragon’ (right). I let these vines two scramble over the panicle hydrangea ‘Vanilla Strawberry’ and spill down the wall. Maurandya is not hardy for me, so I dig up its tuber and store it in the basement. Fuchsia spires of Persicaria affinis ‘Superba’ grow in front of a red-hot poker, Knifophia caulescens. The red-hot poker is not often hardy here, but I have had luck overwintering it in gravel gardens in zone 5,” says O’Donnell.
Above: “A friend grew this clematis from seed, and I grew the ruby red twining snap dragon vine Maurandya erubescens ‘Magic Dragon’ (right). I let these vines two scramble over the panicle hydrangea ‘Vanilla Strawberry’ and spill down the wall. Maurandya is not hardy for me, so I dig up its tuber and store it in the basement. Fuchsia spires of Persicaria affinis ‘Superba’ grow in front of a red-hot poker, Knifophia caulescens. The red-hot poker is not often hardy here, but I have had luck overwintering it in gravel gardens in zone 5,” says O’Donnell.
While mostly self-taught, O’Donnell studied with Fergus Garrett as part of the prestigious internship program at Great Dixter in the UK. In front of the native perennial Actaea racemose is a mix of volunteers and blooms she planted, like the tall and rusty-colored ‘Cinnabar’ marigold, which was a strain selected by Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter. O’Donnell brought it back from England and have been collecting, sowing, growing, and selling it for \10 years. “The wild daisy showed up one day and I just let it be. I was inspired by the kitchen garden at Great Dixter. Letting daisies be part of the mix gives such a good effect in early summer. I love to combine them with cultivated plants.” 
Above: While mostly self-taught, O’Donnell studied with Fergus Garrett as part of the prestigious internship program at Great Dixter in the UK. In front of the native perennial Actaea racemose is a mix of volunteers and blooms she planted, like the tall and rusty-colored ‘Cinnabar’ marigold, which was a strain selected by Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter. O’Donnell brought it back from England and have been collecting, sowing, growing, and selling it for 10 years. “The wild daisy showed up one day and I just let it be. I was inspired by the kitchen garden at Great Dixter. Letting daisies be part of the mix gives such a good effect in early summer. I love to combine them with cultivated plants.” 
“I love all vines,” says O’Donnell. “Here are two: the white flowering Asarina scadens ‘Snow White’ and the other with the ivy, pendant-like shaped leaves is called tiny yellow morning glory (Ipomoea hederifolia var. lutea), which is one of my favorites even without its little tubular yellow flowers. The leaves are so good!”
Above: “I love all vines,” says O’Donnell. “Here are two: the white flowering Asarina scadens ‘Snow White’ and the other with the ivy, pendant-like shaped leaves is called tiny yellow morning glory (Ipomoea hederifolia var. lutea), which is one of my favorites even without its little tubular yellow flowers. The leaves are so good!”
Here is a ground cover of reseeding “weeds”, including native violets, that carpet a garden bed. “There is hardly any room for other weeds and certainly no room for mulch!.” says O’Donnell. “The plants themselves become a living mulch, which helps build soil especially using tap-root plants, like Verbascum, Liatris, and dandelions, whose roots can go deep, helping to cycle nutrients and build more mycorrhizal connections.” 
Above: Here is a ground cover of reseeding “weeds”, including native violets, that carpet a garden bed. “There is hardly any room for other weeds and certainly no room for mulch!.” says O’Donnell. “The plants themselves become a living mulch, which helps build soil especially using tap-root plants, like Verbascum, Liatris, and dandelions, whose roots can go deep, helping to cycle nutrients and build more mycorrhizal connections.” 
The compact white-flowered shrub ‘The Bride’ pearlbush (Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’) provides a backdrop to yellow-blooming marsh spurge (Euphorbia paulstris) and Weigelia florida ‘Wine & roses’, a shrub flaunting hot pink blooms in spring and again later in the summer amid wine-colored foliage. Pretty purple ‘Negrita’ tulips complements the color scheme. 
Above: The compact white-flowered shrub ‘The Bride’ pearlbush (Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’) provides a backdrop to yellow-blooming marsh spurge (Euphorbia paulstris) and Weigelia florida ‘Wine & roses’, a shrub flaunting hot pink blooms in spring and again later in the summer amid wine-colored foliage. Pretty purple ‘Negrita’ tulips complements the color scheme. 

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Frequently asked questions

Where is Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm located?

Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm is located in the region of Rhinebeck, New York.

What can visitors expect to see at Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm?

Visitors can expect to see beautiful gardens, a historic barn, and a variety of farm animals.

Are there any admission fees to visit Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm?

Yes, there is a small admission fee for visitors to enter Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm.

Are guided tours available at Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm?

Yes, guided tours are available for those who wish to explore and learn more about the farm and its surroundings.

Can visitors bring their pets to Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm?

No, pets are not allowed at Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm.

Is parking available on-site at Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm?

Yes, there is ample parking available for visitors at Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm.

Are there any picnic areas at Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm?

Yes, there are designated picnic areas where visitors can enjoy a meal surrounded by natural beauty.

Are there any nearby restaurants or cafes for dining options?

Yes, there are several restaurants and cafes located nearby for those who prefer dining out.

Is Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm wheelchair accessible?

Yes, Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm is wheelchair accessible, ensuring that everyone can enjoy the visit.

Are photography and videography allowed at Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm?

Yes, visitors are welcome to capture memorable moments through photography and videography at Helen O'Donnell Bunker Farm.

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