- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

It hasn’t been an easy winter in the Washington area for gardens, says professional landscaper Barbara Cram of Falls Church as she displays a huge hole in the shrubbery at her home. The hole was torn open when a branch from her 100-year-old hemlock came crashing down on some of her boxwoods and prime perennial beds after a February storm.

“You never know what will happen over a winter and what plants you might have to replace,” Mrs. Cram says. “I just kind of roll with the punches.”

She’s had to. Virginia’s Historic Garden Week, featuring more than three dozen garden tours around the state, begins Saturday, and Mrs. Cram’s showplace Victorian garden — which she owns and maintains with husband Steve, a home designer — is one of eight to be shown on Tuesday during the Falls Church/Arlington tour.

The week, in fact, starts a full season of bloomtime excursions on both sides of the Potomac. The Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage, which runs well into May, also begins on Saturday with a tour of Charles County homes, reaching Prince George’s County on May 5. The Georgetown Garden Club follows on May 12 with its annual tour of Georgetown gardens.

All of it means work for gardeners wherever they are.

On the Maryland side of the river, Eugene and Lynn Roberts of Upper Marlboro echo Mrs. Cram’s philosophical attitude.

“Nature is the real gardener here,” Mr. Roberts says, describing a limb that fell off his front maple during a winter ice storm this year, and damage wrought by hungry deer gnawing away at the bark of trees on his side terrace.

The gardens around the Roberts’ restored and upgraded 1903 schoolhouse, Patuxent Farm, will be shown on the Prince George’s County tour.

Abounding bloom

Winter — not to mention an unusual early April freeze and snowfall — may have been hard on the region’s gardens, but a pre-tour spot check of Virginia and Maryland homes suggests their owners have met the test.

Take Steve and Barbara Cram’s place on East Jefferson Street in Old Falls Church, for example. The old hemlock broke and the Crams lost a rosemary bush, a plant threatened by freezing weather that is always difficult to keep alive during Maryland and Virginia winters.

But in early April the yard surrounding their Victorian-era home is alive with the blossoms of star magnolias, helleborus and redbuds as well as spring-flowering annuals such as pansies and violas.

Mrs. Cram has developed six garden rooms extending out from the wide porches of her house. They present something new for every season: “Thyme for Roses,” “Evergreen Path,” “Children’s Garden,” “Garden Work and Rest Patio,” “Sunken Lawn and Floral Berms” and “Herbs and Birds.”

As president of her own landscape design studio in Sterling, Mrs. Cram was able to take advantage of unsold plants and garden inventory at wholesale prices, she says. As a result, she has quite a few unusual specimens growing in her yard, not normally seen in Washington-area gardens.

Among these is a strikingly beautiful paperbark maple (Acer griseum), which features peeling bark and a cinnamon-toned trunk that shows up very nicely in winter and early spring before the tree has grown its leaves.

But even the most beautiful and unusual of plantings need upkeep and maintenance, and Mrs. Cram says she is always tending her garden — year-round. Among those chores are “constant cleanup” from fallen tree limbs and ugly foliage that has died back, and continual mulching of plants to retain water and retard weed growth.

Some of her favorite plants, seen frequently in Virginia, are boxwoods, viburnums and redbuds. She advises that the best and prettiest gardens for this area balance the linear lines of the houses they surround with circles and curves.

“When I was planning my gardens, I was thinking about the curves of the rolling hills of the Virginia countryside — that’s the beauty I was trying to capture,” she says.

A waterfall surprise

Just a few blocks from the Crams, Matt and Suzie Smith’s distinctive modernistic house on North Fairfax Street boasts features rarely seen: a meandering waterfall and 57,000-gallon pond full of goldfish and koi.

Yet two years ago, when the Smiths bought the property, “the yard and house were buried under a wall of trees,” Mr. Smith says, and ill-tempered swans in the half-hidden pond terrorized the family dogs.

At first the Smiths didn’t realize that this exceptional water feature, which covers half the property, was designed by a legendary landscape artist — the late Lester Collins, one-time dean of the Harvard University School of Landscape Architecture, renowned for his redesign of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden and his creation of Innisfree, a natural panorama on 200 acres in Millbrook, N.Y.

Like Innisfree, the Smiths’ landscape is based on the “cup garden” concept, in which trees, boulders and other natural features frame individual focal points. The calming sound of water from the waterfall and the fountain in the pond lends a sense of tranquility.

It is this design that Mr. Smith is working hard to bring back to life.

“We’re trying to communicate, by showing it off in the garden tour, that this yard is a work of art. What Lester Collins has done here is just as important as what Andy Warhol did,” he says.

An outdoor deck that extends from a multi-windowed master bedroom suite and an octagonal living area in the back of the house provides a convenient platform to view the holly, azalea and hydrangea plantings that surround the pond.

In addition, Mr. Smith hired designers Mary Ann Ogle and Russ Allen of Terra Landscape and Design in Falls Church to build a garden shed/entry point to the gardens and, to complete the design, a series of planting mounds that will feature old-style crape myrtles, large stones and other elements removed from Mr. Smith’s grandparents’ house.

Ms. Ogle has created a series of sketches, based on Lester Collins’ original design for the yard, to help restore the garden to its original beauty. She, Mr. Allen and the owner have put hours of work into the yard, including bringing in 16 truckloads of dirt to create the planting mounds and provide a base for some of the family’s treasured heirloom plants.

Despite fighting all the mud and overgrown trees that had to be removed to whip the garden into shape, Ms. Ogle says all the effort should be worth it, and that the garden will be “stunning” for the Falls Church tour.

Perennials and play

Not far from the Smiths is the Birch House on East Broad Street, owned by Sam and Sandy Mabry and identified in a Falls Church historic survey as the fourth oldest house in the city.

Home in the 1840s to Joseph Edward Birch, a blacksmith and a member of the first town council, by the mid-20th century the house and yard had been abandoned and had seriously deteriorated. In 1976 the property was deeded to Historic Falls Church Inc. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and restored soon after.

All that history meant that the gardener in the family, Mr. Mabry, inherited some ancient plantings, including boxwood, cedar and a deciduous magnolia at least 80 years old.

However, rather than focus on the past, Mr. Mabry primarily had the future generation — his grandchildren — in mind when designing his striking perennial gardens. While the garden features many delicate blossoming plants, including hostas, rhododendrons, azaleas and roses, it has been carefully laid out so that children can run around the paths surrounding the garden beds in the yard without wreaking havoc.

In addition, Mr. Mabry has developed some of the historic features of the property for the children’s benefit. One example is a livestock watering trough behind the house that has been converted into a wildflower garden planted by the Mabrys’ grandchildren. Mr. Mabry has also left an outdoors “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree for the youngsters to have fun decorating every year.

Another child-friendly idea he incorporated was planting “step-on” creeping herbs — plants that can be stepped on without permanent damage — that cover some of the stone walkways in the yard. Mr. Mabry has also installed lights in his garden, so that the children can play hide-and-seek in the yard at night.

To prepare his gardens every year and for this year’s garden tour, Mr. Mabry says that in the fall, he plants out new daffodil and tulip bulbs. Last fall, for example, he planted more than 100 daffodil bulbs.

In March, he pruned back the boxwoods and hydrangeas. Early April is the time when he plants more azaleas and moves self-seeding young trees, like Japanese maple seedlings, into better locations.

Mr. Mabry has a little friendly competition going on with neighbor Barbara Cram. And he’s delighted to show off a thriving rosemary plant that made it through the winter in the microclimate of his yard, in a year when Mrs. Cram’s rosemary was not so fortunate.

Terraced slopes

At Patuxent Farm in Upper Marlboro, Eugene and Lynn Roberts have just finished mulching around a patch of daffodils, Shasta daisies and miniature boxwoods in their terraced front gardens. They are also rushing to prune, trim and plant annuals as part of their preparation for the Prince George’s County garden tour.

Winter storm damage and marauding deer may have taken their toll on some of the Roberts’ plantings, but the destruction has provided an opportunity for newer plants to take off. For example, a lilac that had never before bloomed suddenly came into its own on the couple’s side terrace when some older trees died off.

As Mrs. Roberts prunes some of the old growth from last year’s perennials, she discovers new shoots of Siberian iris, bearded iris and miniature jonquils, some of which will be in bloom for the May 5 tour.

The distinctive scent of English boxwoods dating from the 1930s and 1940s — a staple of Colonial-style gardens and a central feature at Patuxent Farm — fill the air and help define the different “rooms” of the Roberts’ outdoor gardens.

Visitors on the tour should be sure not to miss one of the few remaining outdoor working smokehouses in the county, graced by trees in the back of the Roberts’ property. Every January, members of the extended Roberts family and neighbors get together for a “ham rubbing.”

“We buy fresh hams, mix up a combination of salts and spices, and then rub it into the hams, working it in for about a half hour,” Mr. Roberts says. Then the hams are hung in the Roberts’ smokehouse.

“My father and my cousin Odin Bowie started doing that at the end of World War II, and it has become a tradition,” Mr. Roberts says.

It’s one of several fine old Maryland traditions that have been kept alive at this lovingly restored property.

All of it has meant work, but if the toil on view in this preliminary peek into the Washington area’s 2007 garden tours is any indication, these gardens will be more than ready for their close-ups.

An expert shares tips

Home gardeners who want to get their own backyard oases into show-off condition might take a few tips from Barbara Cram of Falls Church, a professional landscaper and president of Greenscape Design Studio in Sterling. She will show her Victorian garden on the Falls Church/Arlington garden tour on Tuesday. Here’s what she suggests:

• Mulch in March, but try to work a little fertilizer into the ground before doing so.

• Prune trees and bushes that need it as early in the season (late February-early March) as possible.

• Work hard in the fall before the spring flowering season to get beds ready or to clean up yards. The more you can do the fall before, the better.

• Change the water in bird baths and water features regularly to discourage mosquitos and prevent algae growth.

• Keep a couple of bags of mulch around the house for last minute touch-ups before showing off your garden.

• Get painless annual plants that are easy to care for and bloom a long time, like pansies and impatiens.

• Divide perennials later in the spring, rather than earlier.

• When planning your garden, aim to have some flowers in bloom all the time — from flowering trees and shrubs, to perennials and annuals.

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