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Lessons Learned: The Founders of Gardenheir Share the Highs and Lows of Designing Their First Garden

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Lessons Learned: The Founders of Gardenheir Share the Highs and Lows of Designing Their First Garden

March 30, 2023

We are huge admirers of Alan Calpe and Christopher Crawford’s beautifully curated Gardenheir store (see our Shopper’s Diary on it here), which is why we were curious about the couple’s own garden in Windam, NY. When they bought their Upstate home in 2016, they had “no garden experience whatsoever,” admits Alan, but that didn’t deter them from dreaming, planning, and, finally, planting a sprawling, flower-filled garden.

It took a healthy appetite for mistakes (see lesson #4), vast reserves of patience (see lesson #5), and a high tolerance for back-breaking labor before the pair were able to transform the challenging landscape—”heavily forested and brambly” is how Christopher describes the property prior to their interventions—into the modern pastoral garden they sought.

&#8\2\20;We call our garden a &#8\2\16;wildlife pond garden&#8\2\17; because everything radiates from the pond as the central feature. We wanted to settle the pond into the landscape as naturally as possible, so the perimeter is filled with plants that can thrive in and at the margins of the wet conditions,&#8\2\2\1; says Alan. Pictured here are Iris ensata &#8\2\16;Darling’ and Iris versicolor ‘Gerald Darby’.
Above: “We call our garden a ‘wildlife pond garden’ because everything radiates from the pond as the central feature. We wanted to settle the pond into the landscape as naturally as possible, so the perimeter is filled with plants that can thrive in and at the margins of the wet conditions,” says Alan. Pictured here are Iris ensata ‘Darling’ and Iris versicolor ‘Gerald Darby’.

“A new garden can be so daunting but you really can surprise yourself with what you can accomplish. We found that it helped to think of it as a process, a series of experiences, rather than an end product,” says Christopher.

Below, the two share all the invaluable lessons they’ve learned on their gardening journey thus far.

Photography courtesy of Gardenheir. Follow them on Instagram @thegardenheir.

1. Research should be both broad and specific.

Plantings around the perimeter of the pond include Sagittaria latifolia (arrowhead), Eutrochium purpureum (Joe Pye weed), Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower), Verbena hastata (swamp verbena), and Scirpus cyperinus (woolgrass).
Above: Plantings around the perimeter of the pond include Sagittaria latifolia (arrowhead), Eutrochium purpureum (Joe Pye weed), Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower), Verbena hastata (swamp verbena), and Scirpus cyperinus (woolgrass).

Alan and Christopher were truly clueless about gardening when they purchased the 4-acre property and started their horticultural education “in the most likely place—the internet,” says Alan. “We bookmarked texts and collected a lot of imagery to start understanding what appealed to us.”

Nymphaea &#8\2\16;Black Princess&#8\2\17; waterlilies.
Above: Nymphaea ‘Black Princess’ waterlilies.

“There was a lot of reading of the greats (Dan Pearson, Piet Oudolf/Noel Kingsbury, Christopher Lloyd, Vita Sackville-West, Gertrude Jekyll, and Derek Jarman) that opened our perceptions of the garden as more than simply aesthetics. Gardenista and Gardens Illustrated were definitely resources we relied upon—as were blog sites that helped us to understand our particular region and growing conditions, like Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden, James Golden’s Federal Twist, and Tony Spencer’s New Perennialist.”

Alan pruning at the edge of the pond.
Above: Alan pruning at the edge of the pond.

Says Christopher: “We also loved watching a lot of television programs from the UK, where gardening shows are quite popular. Gardeners’ World has been a particular favorite. Monty Don always advises people who are just starting a garden to ‘Be brave.’ I guess that stuck with us.”

2. Your dog can be your co-designer.

The early stages of building the raised vegetable boxes, steps, and new garden beds. To the left of the main house is guest quarters.
Above: The early stages of building the raised vegetable boxes, steps, and new garden beds. To the left of the main house is guest quarters.

Before the pair could focus on the plantings, they had to make sure the structural elements were in place. One of the first things they did was to clear about an acre of land to gain mountain views. Then they had a pond dug out. And from there, they began to create paths and beds. “We were a bit eager with early hardscaping and paths and ended up changing them as we got to know the garden better and spent more time there,” says Christopher. “At the beginning, when the garden was just open landscape, we had some paths in mind, but we found that we were moving through the garden in a different route than we had designed. Someone had mentioned to us that dogs often take the most direct route and in the case of our garden, this was true. Once we took note of it, the garden flowed a lot better.”

3. Compost is your friend.

The newly laid gravel path inside the moonlight garden. &#8\2\20;We always loved the idea of the moonlight garden, so this has been our place to try out a wilder, wily version of one,&#8\2\2\1; says Alan. Growing here are Peony &#8\2\16;Duchesse de Nemours&#8\2\17;, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (narrowleaf mountain mint), Geranium maculatum &#8\2\16;Album&#8\2\17;, Lychnis coronaria &#8\2\16;Alba&#8\2\17;,  Buxus ‘Winter Gem’, and Betula nigra &#8\2\16;Little King&#8\2\17;.
Above: The newly laid gravel path inside the moonlight garden. “We always loved the idea of the moonlight garden, so this has been our place to try out a wilder, wily version of one,” says Alan. Growing here are Peony ‘Duchesse de Nemours’, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (narrowleaf mountain mint), Geranium maculatum ‘Album’, Lychnis coronaria ‘Alba’,  Buxus ‘Winter Gem’, and Betula nigra ‘Little King’.

Alan and Christopher had read that one shouldn’t amend soil because native plants prefer native soil, but it was hard to stick to this rule. “The excavation work had badly compacted our already compacted soil structure. It’s heavy, sticky clay, and very, very rocky,” says Alan. “For most areas, we laid down cardboard and heavy layers of compost as preparation to help suppress weeds and improve the soil structure come planting time. Occasionally we’ve planted directly in the unamended soil because there’s been a lot of thought that plants fare better in the end, but the clay really is so agonizing to work with that compost has been such a friend.”

4. Got deer? Do not underestimate them.

Christopher thinning out the moonlight garden. Pictured are Monarda didyma &#8\2\16;Alba&#8\2\17;, Eupatorium perfoliatum (common boneset), Philadelphus &#8\2\16;Snow White&#8\2\17;, Asclepias incarnata &#8\2\16;Ice Ballet&#8\2\17;, and Anaphalis margaritacea (pearly everlasting).
Above: Christopher thinning out the moonlight garden. Pictured are Monarda didyma ‘Alba’, Eupatorium perfoliatum (common boneset), Philadelphus ‘Snow White’, Asclepias incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’, and Anaphalis margaritacea (pearly everlasting).

“Our second season, after convincing ourselves that the deer browsing wasn’t so bad, we planted thousands of tulips and, without exaggeration, at the very moment before we were going to see its gorgeous display, we woke up to a complete massacre,” recalls Alan. “It was as if the deer had a bacchanalia and were just laughing in our faces. This really shifted what and how we planted. Our garden would have a hard time maturing if many of the plants, particularly shrubs, were constantly eaten down.”

5. Patience is a virtue—especially for gardeners.

&#8\2\20;We had to keep ourselves in check and not constantly feel overwhelmed,&#8\2\2\1; says Alan. Here, they&#8\2\17;re organizing a delivery of plants on the back terrace.
Above: “We had to keep ourselves in check and not constantly feel overwhelmed,” says Alan. Here, they’re organizing a delivery of plants on the back terrace.

It took three years before “we started to feel more confident in what the garden was becoming,” shares Alan. “After the excavation, we were left with something that looked like a disaster zone in the wake of a meteor crash! It was hard not feeling like we had devastated the land. Having the blank-ish space where all is potential was exciting but also pretty terrifying. Patience is the lesson we’ve really had to learn through gardening.”

6. Mother Nature knows best, always.

Raised vegetable beds just before dusk along the stepped slope of the garden.
Above: Raised vegetable beds just before dusk along the stepped slope of the garden.

“An embarrassing amount of plantings, especially in the early days, didn’t work out—mostly because we didn’t heed Beth Chatto’s ‘right plant, right place’ motto at the time. We’d imagined our guest house swallowed in climbing roses, and there just wasn’t enough sunlight for that” says Alan. The couple prioritized native perennials that could grow in clay-heavy soil (and the more deer-repellent, the better) and often took cues from what was already growing wild on their property.

Drifts of Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (narrowleaf mountain mint) line the path to the house. The plant is native to the area and often grows wild. &#8\2\20;They are great workhorses,&#8\2\2\1; says Christopher. &#8\2\20;Their smell is intoxicating. They’re vigorous and act as shrubs in several areas of the garden. They hold structure through most of the winter. And the beneficial insects cannot get enough of them.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: Drifts of Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (narrowleaf mountain mint) line the path to the house. The plant is native to the area and often grows wild. “They are great workhorses,” says Christopher. “Their smell is intoxicating. They’re vigorous and act as shrubs in several areas of the garden. They hold structure through most of the winter. And the beneficial insects cannot get enough of them.”

“Though there wasn’t much in way of an established garden on the property, we’ve still really been surprised by what would find their way into our cultivated garden, like the wilder asters (calico and wood asters), ironweed, sedges and rushes, many woodland ephemerals, and solidago. The goldenrod felt too vibrant at first but, along with the other interlopers, now helps the garden feel more attuned to the natural boundaries of our land where they’re abundant.”

7. Your garden can be a four-season wonder.

In the winter, Panicum virgatum &#8\2\16;Heavy Metal’, ‘&#8\2\17;Prairie Sky’; Silphium laciniatum (compass plant), Rudbeckia maxima (giant coneflower), Senna hebecarpa (American senna), and Rudbeckia hirta provide visual interest and structure.
Above: In the winter, Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’, ‘’Prairie Sky’; Silphium laciniatum (compass plant), Rudbeckia maxima (giant coneflower), Senna hebecarpa (American senna), and Rudbeckia hirta provide visual interest and structure.

“Choosing plants that would have a long seasonal interest is really important to us,” says Christopher. “We have a short growing season in our area of the Catskills and can have brutal snowy winters here, so we try to include many plants that can hold attention as form throughout the colder months.”

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