Ann Palmer’s artistic organic water garden cultivates community and showcases the beauty of nature.
Huge lily leaves float like fluted saucers atop Ann Palmer’s giant backyard pond while, in the water below, koi flash through their prickly orange stems. Ann selected these Giant Victoria lilies for their bold, “almost primordial” appearance, as well as their unusual blooms. They are but one of many attractions in her captivating earth-friendly garden, one where the beauty of nature is on display and brings together Ann’s historic Kansas neighborhood.
Early on, Ann had no idea she could create such a site.
When she was 33, she decided she wanted to try something other than teaching, and her husband, Jerry, offered sage advice. Don’t consider talent or education, he told her; just write down everything you enjoy.
Ann drew up a list that emphasized physical work, being outdoors, and doing things involving sight, smell and touch. Tying together that wish list, she enrolled in Kansas State University’s landscape architecture program. Seven years later, with a hard-earned degree, she launched the garden that would become her artistic canvas, a test site for her new profession and the heart of her home.
Before beginning her career as a landscape designer, Ann didn’t think of herself as an artist. “If anyone had told me 30 years ago that I would ever do anything artistic, I would have thought they were crazy,” she says. But her long-hidden talent for design has resulted in a stunning home garden that enriches her community and is indeed a work of art. Beauty unfurls with the seasons. In late spring, an archway crowned with purple wisteria gives way to summer roses. Autumn turns hydrangea leaves deep shades of orange and magenta, and an arching red bridge stands stark against winter’s snow.
Ann and Jerry settled in Topeka’s Potwin Place 34 years ago. Victorian homes line brick streets in this historic district near the Kansas state Capitol, but the community is far from staid. Potwin is a vibrant neighborhood that elects its own mayor and runs a busy LISTSERV. “It’s an active place filled with clever, creative people; there’s not a better neighborhood in the world,” Ann says.
With their welcoming garden, the Palmers help keep it that way. The backyard has become a gathering spot for neighborhood parties and an open-air classroom. Ann serves notice when spectacular plants are in bloom and people drop by to enjoy them. The couple’s three grandchildren, who live down the street, gravitate to the fairy garden and a secret children’s hideaway tucked behind the enchanting pond.
In designing this site, Ann chose to limit grass, opting instead for large swaths of perennials and large trees, and kept most of the intricate design in the backyard.
The couple favored organic principles. “I had always been suspicious of lawn and garden chemicals,” Ann says, but a horrible experience with one of the couple’s young puppies made her forever ban chemicals from her grounds. She and Jerry had gone on vacation to Colorado, leaving their 3-month-old puppy at home with a house sitter. The couple’s lawn service company came to treat the lawn, using the herbicide 2, 4-D (2, 4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), and shortly afterward, the house sitter let the pup out onto the lawn, where he became terribly ill and had to be rushed to the vet. The puppy barely survived, and the severe lung damage he suffered led to his death at 18 months. After the incident, Ann became radicalized—not only would she ban chemicals from her own grounds, she would encourage others to do the same. Using her own garden as an example, she shares lessons of organic gardening with others in her community through programs at area organizations and by talking with guests on the many garden tours that frequent her home.
Ann offers this advice to her neighbors and others seeking to plant a sustainable landscape: Plant as much of your ground with shrubs and flowers as possible and eliminate grass. “We’re hung up on lawns,” she says. “Grass should be the smallest part of your landscape. It consumes water and fertilizer. If you use lawn as a jewel, like an element, you can control it, and it will be lovely.” For those who insist on expansive yards, she urges acceptance of nature. She points out that dandelions don’t mark the end of the world and that clover in grass is still green.
If you shun fungicides and herbicides, you can’t grow everything you like—but you can grow a beautiful garden by making wise substitutions, using native plants and sturdy perennials, Ann says. Daylilies, for instance, look lush and exotic but require no special care, and many modern roses flourish organically.
Ann tends toward native plants that thrive with little water. For variety, she pots ornamental cotton and, for texture and interest, she grows fig plants in containers that she wheels into her garage each winter.
The giant water feature is the centerpiece of Ann’s garden, both by size and function. The 1,200-gallon pond is 4 feet deep with a large, inviting ledge. “Every pond ought to have a seating ledge,” Ann says. “It’s good for conversation and for safety. If dogs and kids are running pell-mell, it makes them stop and think.”
The Palmers built the pond specifically for koi—large, colorful and frisky fish. Exotic aquatic plants lure neighbors by the droves. A huge draw are the Giant Victoria lilies whose oversized flowers open white at night, smell like butterscotch and turn pink the next morning. “They’re stunning,” Ann says.
This pond is the third the Palmers have built on the site. Though they had always wanted a striking look, at first they were afraid that building a huge water feature might dwarf the scale of the yard. So they started small.
But over time, Ann reconsidered those concerns. “If you want to bring something large into scale, you don’t decrease the size of everything around it—you increase it,” she says. They took the plunge. Behind the much larger pond they installed, she planted nine evergreen trees where traditional design would call for just three. “They give the pond a backdrop,” Ann says. “In a couple of years, the pond looked settled into the landscape. It fits.”
Pink, orange and yellow flowers permeate the garden, pulling all of the elements together. Summer features some 150 varieties of daylilies and dozens of coneflowers. Shaded areas brim with hosta, astilbe and ligularia. Textures range from bold-leafed cannas to lacy ferns, with trees providing a calming canopy of shade and structure.
Designed with entertainment in mind, the garden provides a perfect setting for intimate meals, large cocktail parties and family-centric gatherings such as Potwin’s traditional Easter brunch. Inconspicuous lighting provides a romantic atmosphere for elegant evening events. “You want to see the effect, not the fixtures,” Ann says. By combining her talents and desires, Ann was able to transform her career into one that gives her pleasure and brings her community together. And, with plants as her paint and her grounds as canvas, she has become an artist.
As they removed grass from their yard, the Palmers added an array of plants and, for structure, built pergolas, a dry streambed, archways, walkways and patios. Metal, wood and glass structures provide seating and add textural interest to the garden. Patios and pathways are fashioned with stone, bricks and gravel. Ann lays bricks in varied patterns, and she likes to combine materials. “It would be pretty boring to have only brick, only rock, only gravel,” she says.
To keep variety from turning chaotic, Ann emphasizes transition. She recommends these methods for creating a dynamic yet cohesive design.
• Use Color: In moving from brick to stone, she suggests selecting stone that picks up a color from the adjacent brick.
• Use Edging: Edge a stone patio with the same brick used nearby, or edge a brick or gravel path with stone. “You can’t make transitions abruptly,” Ann says.
Koi can turn a pond murky fast. But to keep their pond sparkling clean, the Palmers don’t rely on a single chemical. Rather, water circulates through a concrete settling chamber, an ultraviolet tube, bubblehead
filters then back to the pond via a beautiful gravel bog filter.
“I want to be able to read a dime in the middle of my 4-foot-deep pond, and I can,” Ann says.
A gravel bog filter is actually a small garden, typically planted to the side of the pond, that gobbles up scum while providing a splash of beauty of its own. Plants used in such filters (such as iris, taro, rush, ribbon grass and cannas) like their feet wet and their ankles dry; they can grow in gravel and thrive on a steady diet of dirty pond water. As perforated pipes slowly cycle water through their roots, the plants eat waste that would otherwise encourage algae to scum up a pond. The bog offers an opportunity to add a lush layer of tropical-looking water plants to the garden while keeping the koi pond clean.
Weeping Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus)
Willow oak (Quercus phellos)
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
False indigo (Baptisia australis)
Hosta of any kind (Hosta spp.)
Kobold gayfeather (Liatris spicata)
Veronica ‘Waterperry Blue’ (Veronica spicata)
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