Letting nature be her guide

Garden designer Pam White keeps her eye on the paths of water and deer


Except for a couple of shorn pools of grass, the front lawn at Pam White's Glyndon home is virtually all garden.

Sculpted Japanese maples anchor one side of the slate walk, which is banked by broad, undulating beds of perennials and shrubs. A small conifer -- a dwarfed "natural bonsai" rescued from years of crowding -- now holds pride of place in a little mulched lay-by. Bronze fennel, planted for the swallowtail butterflies, and cleome, for the Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies, wave beside the breezeway. Raised beds of Creamsicle-colored California poppies (Papaver Eschscholzia californica) echo the muted orange tones in the stone house.

"The goal is to cover everything here with plants or trees," says White, owner of Gardens for the Spirit, a garden design business.

Her "blanket the yard" policy is part aesthetic, part defense against the floods that cascaded from the road into the basement during every storm when White and her family moved here. After thinning plantings ("You have to prune and thin to maintain trees"), they rerouted much of the water into a French drain that disperses it into plantings and lawn for absorption.

"You can't fight nature," White says. "You have to work in partnership with it."

White's deer-resistant gardens, which rely on careful plant choices, are a kind of partnership, too, though the spritzes of homemade deer-repellent and the deer fence that surrounds her own vegetable garden are less collaboration than benign weapons in the war on deer. Yet even in battle, there is beauty. Her deer fence is a lovely bamboo lattice with spaced poles of three different heights.

"It's a Roman fence," she says. "With the different heights, the deer can't figure it out, so they leave what's inside alone." And she was (figuratively) guided by the deer when she created a walk in a piece of forest behind the house.

"I went through with a rake and just followed the paths the deer had already made," she says.

The meandering walk, defined with cut saplings and lined with native woodland plants, including magnificent jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum), leads down to White's labyrinth. Edged with dark stones and padded with blond wood chips, the 30-foot diameter labyrinth looks like the surface of a mammoth prehistoric stump, its spiral paths like the tree's rings.

"It's a Seven-Circuit Classical labyrinth," White explains. "The design predates Christ. There are also Medieval labyrinths. Most gothic cathedrals have them."

White's fascination with coiled labyrinths, (which are different from mazes), springs from her early appreciation for the myriad spirals in nature. But her interest bloomed when a close friend who loved them was diagnosed with a late-stage cancer. White flew to Massachusetts and together with her friend, walked the labyrinth at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Marblehead.

"It was cold, but we could smell the herbs there. It was peaceful and she was so happy in that moment," White remembers. "Labyrinths are transformational."

Ultimately, it's the transformational power of gardens and everything in them, their meditative, restorative qualities that are White's focus.

"Gardens," she says, "give people hope."


Reroute troublesome deer. "Deer are creatures of habit, and if you block one pathway, but leave another open, you can sometimes also change what they find to eat," White says.

Plant conscientiously. "I never use plants that are on the Maryland Invasive Species List," she says.

Prune trees to maintain health and beauty. And thin trees that are impeding another's growth. "It's not only good stewardship," she says. "It's beautiful when the tree is backlit and the light comes through the branches."

Tall stumps, or "snags," can act as trellises. A 15-foot snag is the support for climbing Dutchman's Pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla) in her woods.

In working with a garden designer, be sure you're on the same page. White gives clients "homework," asking them to clip from magazines and photocopy pictures in books (in color) to see what most attracts them. "I want to give the homeowner their heart's desire," she explains. "So I need to know what they see as a beautiful space."

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