Imagine a dozen mints run amok. That’s just what Suzanne Dalton faced a few years ago in her northern Michigan garden, where exuberance was (and still is) a virtue. Created by a couple of artists—Suzanne is a designer and fiber sculptor and her husband, Clyde Foles, is an industrial designer and watercolorist—the garden is a lovely, living tapestry of garden rooms and terraces, where pear trees form tunnels, lavender spills from rock walls and 5,000 bulbs bloom each spring.
Yet while no one was looking, the mint ran away with the thyme, and the herb plot became a “lost zone,” recalls Suzanne. So she stepped back, thought it out and adopted a new approach to gardening—simplicity.
Back to Basics
Getting there began with gardening basics: The area needed a complete overhaul from the ground up. The couple yanked out overgrown plants and dug up the soil to eliminate runaway roots, then constructed a new raised bed. They confined the most aggressive herbs to pots, which they sunk into the bed, then surrounded the plantings with a thin layer of river rock. Voilà—creepers and self-seeders were kept in bounds, and tender herbs like French tarragon and rosemary could easily be brought inside for the winter. Suzanne installed a lightweight fountain in the bed’s center and placed a bistro table nearby where the gardeners and visitors could soak in the surrounding sights and scents.
In the walkways, they replaced rocks and weeds with a layer of landscape fabric, a durable material that blocks weeds but lets in rainwater. “Now I don’t have to weed—I just have to sweep,” she says. “We’re simplifying so we can spend more time enjoying.” The fabric has held up well, she says, “but I warn visitors, ‘No spike heels!’”
There also are more mass plantings—large swaths of single varieties, rather than a patchwork of mixed varieties. The mass plantings grow so densely that weeds don’t have a chance, and their bold strokes of color make a more dramatic display from a distance.
Herbs play starring roles elsewhere in the garden, as well. Structurally beautiful, 6-foot-tall angelica grows near the back deck, and ‘Lady’ English lavender, a diminutive variety, spills from a rock wall. (The wall is like a series of pots that can be changed up on a whim. Suzanne plants the herbs in the wall’s crevices, tailoring the soil mix to the specific plant.)
Lavender is one of Suzanne’s stalwarts, thanks to its gray-green leaves which complement many other plants, its sturdy form in all seasons and, of course, its fragrance. “I love to walk by and just crunch the tips of my herbs,” she says. “An herb garden appeals to all the senses.”
Kitchen Garden Gleanings
Just steps below the back deck is the kitchen garden, filled with vegetables, edible flowers and herbs. Suzanne grabs whatever is ripe and is ready to invent a meal, tossing in herbs as needed. For many years, she also used this area to grow edible garnishes—English violas, nasturtiums, ‘Lemon Gem’ marigolds, mints and borage—for the now-closed elite restaurant Tapawingo in nearby Ellsworth, Michigan, a gig she gave up for the sake of her new mantra: simplicity.
Of the garden’s 100-plus species of herbs—including a dozen mints, 13 lavenders and 16 thymes—a few have emerged as favorites. Suzanne adores lovage, not only for its vertical, structural presence in the garden, but also for cooking. In spring, when its leaves are young and tender, she harvests and dries them. “I always have vegetable stock in the refrigerator from cooking broccoli or asparagus, and I’ll add lovage for an instant, pungent soup.” And lovage with potatoes? A perfect marriage, she says.
Winter savory is not only “beautiful to look at” but also is fabulous in bean dishes. (Be sure to harvest early in the season, she advises, so its tips don’t become woody, “like little knives.”) And a home can never have enough basil. Suzanne blanches and freezes hers for perfect Italian caprese salad—a classic combination of basil, tomatoes and mozzarella—even in winter.
She waits for another favorite herb, fennel, to set young, plump, green seeds, then harvests, bags and freezes them for year-round use in meats and pastas.
The Art of Herbs
When composing gardens, Suzanne uses an artist’s eye: It’s all about focal points and color. Much of this garden was designed from the vantage point of the kitchen window using an axis system, which draws the eye down different paths to a focal point, such as an arbor.
Suzanne includes some herbs for their texture or form alone. And she makes the most of color: Hot colors (yellows, reds, oranges) pop in midday, while pastels (pinks, light blues, violets) are best seen in hazy, soft morning sun. “A plant or planting has to tickle my eye in some way,” she explains. “A pink-and-yellow color combination doesn’t happen in my garden, but a combination of violet and salmon, which are tertiary complements, is among my favorites.”
The most common plant color—green—often is overlooked in gardens, she adds. In herb gardens, where green is prominent much of the season, it’s especially important to be conscious of green hues, which can range from blue to gray to yellow. For best visual effect, combine green plants with plants of complementary colors.
A monochromatic garden can be quite lovely, she says, pointing to the example of the all-white garden of English writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West.
“I like to think of an herb garden as a green garden, filled with the different qualities of green,” Suzanne says. “It’s a beautiful thing in itself—low-key, subtle and simple.”
Violas from Scratch
Suzanne loves the rich hues, velvety textures and sunny faces of annual violas in the garden and cuisine. She starts violas from seed indoors—one planting in March for late spring to midsummer bloom, the other in July for fall through early spring bloom. “They prefer cool temperatures, and will overwinter,” she explains. “You often can see their bright faces surrounded by snow. By May, they’re going like gangbusters.”
Suzanne starts the seeds in her basement beneath fluorescent shop lights, using a moist seed-starting medium—“cover them with only a dusting of the mix,” she warns. A clear plastic dome holds in sufficient moisture for germination. The seedlings need 12 to 14 hours of light daily and a gentle mist of water when the medium begins to dry.
When the seedlings have their first true leaves, she transfers them to individual pots—one seedling per cell. “Violas are picky about having their own pot space,” she notes. By April, the first wave of violas can be moved to the greenhouse, where they grow lush before their final move to the gardens in May.
Outdoors, violas are a breeze to maintain. For a long-lived display, remove the faded blooms quickly to encourage bright new blooms to take their place, she advises.
Suzanne Dalton’s favorite suppliers include:
• A.M. Leonard Co.
(for landscape fabric)
Piqua, Ohio; www.amleo.com
• Pinetree Garden Seeds
(for greenhouse supplies)
New Gloucester, Maine; www.superseeds.com
• Chiltern Seeds
(for specialty seeds, including many violas)
• Thompson & Morgan Seeds
Jackson, New Jersey; www.tmseeds.com
Editor’s note: The Dalton-Foles property was purchased by new owners, who plan to maintain the gardens, greenhouse and garden tours. For more information about the gardens, see www.suzannedalton.com/Potawotami/ClydeandSuz/suzclyde.html .
Author Lori Hall Steele was a freelance writer and editor who contributed to dozens of publications. Sadly, she passed away in 2008.