A gardener who learns by doing

Home & Garden

September 17, 2006|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to The Sun

Shirley Loller is self-taught, finding beauty in the serendipity of loose plans and volunteers Even among the Victorian beauties in Chestertown, Woody and Shirley Loller's home stands out.

But it isn't the turn-of-the-20th-century house so much as the gardens.

Broad, extravagantly planted borders and beds are barely contained within the fences, a look perfectly in sync with an era known for exuberance barely kept in check by convention.

The front bed is crammed with yellow-flowered Helianthus, lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina), snow-white Phlox davidii, pink spider flower (Cleome), and buxom hellebores.

Along the north side, rangy native azalea, camellia and Fothergilla vie for space with ferns, hosta, ginger (Asarum), and perennial begonia.

The China-blue blooms of a sprawling shrub clematis (C. heracleifolia) twine through delicate baby's breath (Gypsophila) and flop over a tangle of sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus).

Climbing hydrangeas (Schizophragma hydrangeoides) climb through a crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) in back and scramble along the tall fence on the south side.

This riot of foliage, bark, and bloom is encouraged in part by Shirley's sparing use of mulch, which allows volunteers like the verbena (V. Bonariensis) that has sprung up beneath a `Heritage' birch to take hold.

"My garden is a lot of serendipity," she says. "I do plan, but I don't over-plan."

Though she sounds like a master gardener now, when the Lollers moved here 20 years ago, Shirley had virtually no gardening experience.

But she did have an artistic eye and ambition.

"I started with beds around the house," she says, remembering.

She began planting trees - two exfoliating birches at first - to buffer road noise and pollution as well as to provide dappled shade.

"I love shade gardens," she says, "It's surprising how many things they say like full sun that will thrive in dappled shade."

She learned by doing, and buttressed her choices with reading and advice from her local garden center and other experienced gardeners.

"[Horticulturist] Cindy King talked me into this tree and I love it," she says, caressing the sagey leaves of a Styrax in a corner by the drive.

"It's got a lovely white bloom in spring and it's followed by these little [palest green] balls."

Like many self-taught gardeners, Shirley designs in chunks rather than trying to plan the entire property in one go.

"I tend to say, `Oh, let's have a patio here,' and then, when that's in place, `Oh, let's build a pergola.'"

She and Woody have also scoured auctions for ornaments like the Victorian urn, a year-round focal point currently filled with Agapanthus.

Several years ago, they found the wrought-iron fence.

Painted black, it encloses the front yard, offering a sense of intimacy, and provides the perfect visual frame for the house and gardens.

"The iron fence was the best thing we did," she says.

Though the lushly planted place looks complete, Shirley Loller insists it's still a work in progress, "like every growing thing." And she loves the work.

"Gardening is so satisfying," she says. "And if something's bothering me, I can zone out working here; at the end of the day, I'm happy."

Gardening tips

Shirley Loller's advice for gardeners:

Don't be afraid to make mistakes. "Try things, and if they don't work, or you don't like them, you can move them around."

Consider year-round interest. "When choosing a tree, I look at bark as much as anything; it's wonderful in winter."

It's all right to go through phases, like her `Hydrangea Phase.' "You learn a lot about a particular plant that way."

Instead of mulch, she uses LeafGro, an organic compost produced from leaves and grass clippings that would normally go into landfills.

Fall cleanup is key. "It makes a big difference in how soon you can plunge in in spring and how much you have in the way of weeds."

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