Marisa LaFoe of Uncanoonuc Moutain Perennials keeps granite boulders free of debris in the Display Garden at the Goffstown nursery. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
Editor's note: The author is a landscape designer and author of several books on the subject. He is also the designer and owner of Evergreen, a one-acre woodland garden in Goffstown, which will be open to the public this weekend.
GOFFSTOWN -- The display garden at Uncanoonuc Mt. Perennials is actually much more than an exhibit of some of the plants grown and sold at the nursery on Mountain Road. It's also an all-too-rare example of superb landscape design.
The garden is located on a low mound just off the parking area. You enter it by climbing up a very short, very gentle grade, partly on wide fieldstone steps. This quick ascent helps gives you a clear sense that you're entering a different space — a special garden-not only physically separate but distinct in character from the rest of the nursery.
This welcome sense of differentiation is enhanced by the large shrubs and specimen trees planted along the edges of the space. They help screen out the rest of the nursery, so once you're inside the display garden, your attention is on the garden, and almost nothing else.
This screening illustrates an essential principle of landscape design: that a landscape isn't just the land on which the landscape is created. It's everything you can see from that land. If, for example, you can see cars and telephone poles and other people's houses from your garden, then those things are every bit as much a part of your landscape as your flowers. To preserve the integrity— the unity and special character—of a landscape you need to screen out anything that doesn't relate to it.
The smaller plants in the display garden (mostly perennials) are arranged in large groupings—what designers often call sweeps, or drifts—and each group consists of just one variety of plant. It perfectly illustrates the designer's rule of thumb: one sweep, one plant.
Perhaps the biggest mistake made by lay gardeners is that they do the opposite: The put way too many different varieties of plants in one group. That makes the garden confusing; there are no focal points. So many plants are competing for attention that the eye doesn't know what one to look at first. Rather than making the garden restful or soothing — or a powerful statement of any kind — the plants have no emotional effect at all. They may be perfectly groomed, but visually they're a mess.
The Display Garden thus illustrates another, more general rule of thumb: Good garden design is powerful design, and powerful design is simple design.
The garden also makes optimum use of bark mulch. Mulch does many practical things: It suppresses weeds, keeps soil moist and adds nutrients (thus reducing the need for weeding, watering and fertilizing). But the fine, dark much that covers the ground between the plants also unifies the space, because, like a solid sweep of plants, it carpets the space with uniform color and texture. It's also the most pleasing bark mulch because it's the most natural looking: It looks like top soil, which is what you expect to see in a garden (unlike, say, red or other dyed bark mulch, which looks surreal.)
The Display Garden is also enhanced by artful use of stone. Stone is nature's sculpture. Like trees and evergreen plants, it gives a garden year-round structure and interest—-especially valuable in a perennial garden, which would otherwise be a bit bare before the flowers appear in the spring and after they wither away in the fall.
Most of the garden's large, smooth stones enter the ground at or near their widest point, thus creating the illusion that, like the tip of an iceberg, they're just the top of a much larger rock—or even ledge-that gets wider as it reaches deeper into the earth. This illusion that the garden is a part of something massive and permanent helps gives it a powerful sense of peace and rest.
This effect is the very opposite of that created when stones are merely dumped on the site, often resting on top of (not in) the earth at their narrowest point. As Frank Lloyd Wright said in another context, these misplaced rocks are on the site, but not of the site. They're obviously not part of a larger stone or ledge that predates the garden. In fact they're the very picture of impermanence. They look as if they could be spun around like tops.
Equally artful are the Display Garden's occasional flights of stone steps. They're luxuriously wide — two feet or more — and the height between them is low, only about six inches. As a result, climbing them is effortless. They not only look graceful, they feel graceful. They illustrate another rule of thumb: The easier it is to walk through a garden, the greater its pleasure.
A final note: Some sections of the garden path are bordered by squat, square stakes connected with rustic-looking rope. This low, Japanese-style edging is just high enough to keep visitors from trampling delicate plants, but also low enough to be unobtrusive and to draw the eye along the ground, thereby echoing and emphasizing the low horizontality of the perennials while also making them seem "higher."
The garden is a co-production of Mark Rynearson, a landscape designer and contractor, and his wife Annette ("Nettie") Rynearson, who runs the nursery. They met when they were undergraduates at Cornell. Mark majored in landscape architecture, Nettie in horticulture.
The nursery (497-3975) is open 9 to 5, Wednesday through Sunday. Come, look and learn.
Robert Gillmore's books include "The Woodland Garden" and "Beauty All Around You: How to Create Large Private Low-Maintenance Gardens, Even on Small Lots and Small Budgets." Evergreen, his one-acre woodland garden in Goffstown, will be open to the public July 13 and 14 as part of the Garden Conservancy's Open Days program.