Creating a garden is like costuming a show for Susan Rendall, head of the University of Kansas’ theater department costume shop. It’s all about drama, color and good taste. In her country garden, Susan designs colorful scenes that delight, entertain and soothe.
Susan and her husband, Doug, had a family farm in Wisconsin when, in 2000, Susan landed a dream job as the head of the KU costume shop. Susan headed south to Lawrence, Kansas, renting an apartment while Doug stayed behind so the youngest of their three children could finish high school with his classmates. A passionate gardener, Susan spent the transition time touring local gardens, plotting her dream garden. After Doug took a farming job and joined Susan in Lawrence, the couple bought a home on 5 acres of rich, loamy soil.
Staging the Scenes
After touring local gardens and learning about the best plants for the area, Susan was ready to map out her garden scenes. She envisioned windbreaks, native prairie and cultivated gardens framed by snow fence, rock benches and archways. The couple built a rambling wall out of dry-stacked concrete blocks to define a large part of the garden and provide seating. They also built a wooden pergola to cover a shade garden.
On nights and weekends, the couple steadily planted trees, constructed trellises and established paths. But when their oldest daughter announced she wanted to be wed in the garden, they started to improvise, hurrying to set the perfect stage for the wedding. Today, nearly eight years later, the scene Susan created for the ceremony remains climactic: Blazing stands of roses, zinnias and lilies in shades of red, orange and yellow surround an archway that frames the prairie beyond.
Building Colorful Sets
Throughout her property, Susan created several “sets”—individual gardens defined and unified by colors. In addition to the fiery wedding set, Susan planted a white garden, a pink garden, and a purple and yellow garden. Moody, hazy blues planted between the gardens ease the transition from scene to scene.
Susan designs her gardens just as she would the scenes of a play. First, she chooses a star for each, which varies by season, then chooses the chorus lines (drifts of similar plants) and casts the supporting characters (plants that enhance but don’t dominate the scene).
For example, in the pink garden, Betty Corning clematis earns top billing, while spirea, dogwood and hydrangea form the supporting cast. Oriental, Asiatic, trumpet and regale lilies form the chorus line, their striking long-legged beauty repeated in each bloom.
Susan also planted several food gardens, including a potato patch that stirs memories of their Wisconsin farm. Also reminiscent of their farm days, Doug and Susan work together to maintain the gardens. Berry-picking is Doug’s favorite chore, and tasting is his reward. “In the middle of winter, when I get to eat them out of the deep freeze, that’s when it’s the best,” he says.
The Show Must Go On
Susan spends most evenings and weekends weeding, deadheading and soaking in the garden’s glories. She loves the exercise, and says gardening brings her tranquility.
Good drama requires attention to detail. By studying soils and plants, and relying on her knowledge of color and texture, Susan directs a show that, season after season, stays true to her goal: “to create beauty, peace and graciousness.”
A Talent for Texture
Texture adds depth and interest to a garden. Susan, an expert in textiles, employs several techniques to make her gardens inviting and captivating.
• Variety: Mix large and small, fluffy and spiked, dainty and bold. Consider variegated, speckled, every kind of leaf.
• Continuity: Not only should textures differ, they should repeat. Susan places the same or similar plants in clusters and drifts to bring a sense of order and flow.
• Individual statements: Striking and unique plants work well as singles when set against contrasting plants or in attention-grabbing locations. A chartreuse ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta will pop brilliantly against dark-leafed neighbors. Delicate, determined clematis climbs skyward with the aid of a thick wire trellis.
• Textural color: Susan likes the subtle pinks, greens and grays of Japanese painted ferns, the grace of white anemones, and the richness of deep purple oxalis.
• Layering: Plants vary by height, and low-growers planted en masse add another layer of interest. Favorite groundcovers include tiarella with white or pale pink flowers and low-growing veronica with blossoms of blue.
• Year-round interest: Seed heads, berries, dried foliage, bark and branches provide texture in late fall and winter.
Though she loves color, one of Susan’s favorite garden methods is to plant mostly white blooms in one area. White gardens are crisp in the morning and magical at night. She offers these design tips:
• Let trees and shrubs provide structure. For stunning white blooms, try bulbs in spring, roses and lilies in summer, and asters in fall.
• Not all blossoms are white. “If it’s all white it’s boring,” Susan says. “Pale pinks and soft yellows add richness to a white garden.”
• Leaves make a huge difference, and Susan uses a variety of shapes, textures and colors.
Favorites for a white garden:
Trees: White redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Alba’) and Kentucky Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea)
Shrubs: Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Little Honey’; Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’; Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora); Rosa ‘Starry Night’ and Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’
Vines: Everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius) in white, Clematis ‘Miss Bateman’ and Clematis florida ‘Sieboldii’
Perennials: Geranium sanguineum ‘Album’; Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy’ and ‘Shell Pink’; Cimicifuga, several varieties; Striped Japanese Iris (Iris ensata ‘Variegata’); two single white peonies, Paeonia ‘White Wings’ and ‘Krinkled White’; and Double Oriental Lily (Lilium ‘Serene Angel’)
Annuals: Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’
Carol Crupper is a freelance writer who lives and gardens in Lawrence, Kansas.