By Chris Cohan
“When one designs a garden, one must design in time to enjoy the garden,” says Edith B. Cohan.
Those are words to live by and she does. All too often gardeners are obsessed with perpetual care. They strive to prune plants perfectly, so they are as full of blooms as a bride’s bouquet. The wedding day, like a petal perfect garden, is a romantic and fleeting moment. So, instead of fighting Mother Nature, learn the Mother Cohan, aka Jiu-Jitsu, gardening philosophy: Use an attacker’s energy against him, rather than fighting it. In the case of gardening, allow a plant’s energy to flow in the direction it wishes.
If the vegetable patch is not enough, Edie has a subtle hand in her ornamental garden. She turned her back on high-maintenance, high-stress plant control for a more natural approach. A hill that frames her lower yard dominates views from the house, similar to a painting displayed on a wall where every detail is easily viewed. To eliminate the stress of everything needing to be just so, Edith planted a combination of many evergreens to provide year-round interest. Pfitzer Junipers, with their eccentric horizontal branching, provide depth and contrast to vibrant flowering Kurume Azaleas tucked between.
Purple flowering PJM Rhododendrons begin the spring show. Oakleaf and Endless Summer hydrangeas flank the sides of the hill. Endless Summer blooms all season long on new and old wood; this makes them idiot-pruner proof. Oakleaf’s bold leaves and big flowers provide interest when flowering, as well as when fading in fall.
Groundcovers add interest and retain the slope. Ajuga, an aggressive spreading groundcover with black-purple leaves and blue flowers work well. For height along the sides, she mixed a combination of ferns and Solomon Seal. The former’s fronds are light green while the latter display a long arch of dangling petite white blooms. Both shallow-rooted, they thrive at base of major trees, are deer-resistant, and disinterested in care.
Maintenance involves little more than the infrequent removal of an aberrant juniper branch to expose azaleas. All shrubs require a clip here and there every couple of years. Ajuga, Solomon seal, and other perennials are divided and spread out to fill in gaps. Otherwise, they do as they please.
There was once a gravel driveway separating hill and lawn. Keeping it clear was just too much bother. Instead, Edie allowed a series of summer-flowering perennials to take over. Spring starts with pale blue flowering Forget-Me-Nots and lime-green leafed Sweet Woodruff, followed by Daisies, Lamb’s Ears, and a few Poppies. Mixed in is Italian arugula, a tap-rooted variety known for its sharp, distinct flavor. If not harvested, arugula produces dainty yellow flowers attractive to pollinators and ignored by deer.
In the foreground, Snow-in-Summer cascades over a low wall as it desires. The white flowers bloom in spring, while its dusty gray foliage is pretty all season long. One can never have enough of this plant. It is easily lifted, cut, and transplanted. Old-fashioned Bleeding Hearts and garnet colored Heuchera pop up behind. Strawberry and Foxglove freely fill cracks in otherwise moribund pavement.
The lawn is the only garden element requiring regular care. Otherwise, it is on its own. No pesticides or fertilizers used. There is no sprinkler, yet the lawn is green. Mom planted Zoysia, a drought-tolerant grass, which creates a thick mattress feel underfoot that a deer family enjoys. The family can be found lazily napping there on sunny days.
Her driveways are gravel. More homeowners should be encouraged to do the same. Gravel allows percolation of water into ground, diminishes stress on storm sewer system, cools down faster at night, and provides a panoply of planting opportunities between tire tracks.
Wild strawberry runners creep over Belgian block curbing into the drive, providing sweet fruits. Growing in gravel is more Snow-in-Summer and Forget-Me-Nots, and in shady spots, Tiarella. Dandelions have added themselves to the mix. This is good fortune as it makes a refreshing spring tonic salad. They are easily controlled by regular removal for meals. Of course, everywhere is more arugula. The driveway looks messy to most, but some nibble their way from street to kitchen door.
EBC designed her gardens to be enjoyed, not fretted over. Mom carefully orchestrated her gardens to include hardy plants of varied heights, textures, and blooming periods that are deer- and rabbit-resistant. The plants seem to enjoy her light touch, growing as they wish, keeping her company with flowers and food on her table.