Let memory speak

(Photos by Virginia Luppino)

(Photos by Virginia Luppino)

Landscape gardener Virginia Luppino herself becomes a mentor

A gardener lives with the rhythm of the seasons, re-birth and passing, often savoring the empty winter calendar. Universally gardeners have been assessing — taking pause, pulling back mulch, nicking the bark with a fingernail. The false start of spring is behind us. Time to make the rounds and assess the past winter’s toll. Were voles actively stripping bark below the snowline? Ash trees continue to decline dramatically, as do boxwoods. Only time will tell whether the butterfly bush survived.

My 30-plus years of gardening professionally in Ulster and Dutchess counties have provided me access to unique landscapes, many with jaw-dropping natural beauty and accompanied by extreme challenges. These remote landscapes were sometimes family camps, sometimes weekend getaways visited by bears.

Passing from zone 5 to zone 4, where spring arrives in fits and starts, you fall in love with native plants. You learn that less is more. Seeking the plants that thrive under the harsh weather and severe browsing, my plant quests ultimately resulted in a small palette of plants capable of reliably thriving. Using these well-tested plants as the backbone of my landscape have ensured blooms spring after spring.


Where the vista or other natural features steal the show, a light touch goes a long way. Employing spring flowering trees to lead the succession of blooms by planting in the transition zone from woodland to meadow provides a subtly beautiful show along the wood’s edge. Find a place for shadbush (Amelanchier arborea), witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) and star magnolia (Magnolia stellata). Know your trees.

Want a reliably hardy, show-stopping small ornamental? Check out Stewartia pseudocamellia. Own some good reference books. Does anyone collect a library of reference books any more? Field guides? I still have a wall of well-referenced books at my back.

luppino-HZT-If you garden-for-hire, you are required to have keen powers of observation. Clients expect you to know your stuff and be one step ahead of adversaries. Knowledge of invasive plants or pests is critical. Friends and neighbors pick your brain all the time.

I was lucky enough to become obsessed with gardening at a time when UCCC offered a degree in ornamental horticulture. Landscape architect Fred Hagy’s love for woody plants infected all his students. Alain Grumberg showed us how to grow any and every thing in the greenhouse and out. Find your mentors. Then become a mentor yourself.

Don’t be shy about advising a client that their planting plans won’t be successful. Draw upon your own experience. Be clear about maintenance and watering needs. Be clear about who will be responsible for what and at what cost, especially if you are guaranteeing the plants.

You will often be presented with pages torn from magazines and dog-eared books displaying mature landscapes in warmer climates. Stand firm in your knowledge of what works. Explain the difference between a plant’s ability to tolerate given conditions and when it can thrive.

Visit public gardens and arboretums to learn more. Go with other plant lovers. Observe the mature silhouettes of the woody plants. Understand their size in the landscape. A shrub planted with enough room to reach its mature size, as intended by nature, is more likely to thrive and please.

Without this practical understanding of size and spacing, many plantings are sabotaged. Visiting gardens seasonally feeds an appreciation for plants that offer three- or four-season interest, earning their real estate in the landscape.

Visit friends’ gardens. Share plants and seeds and show-and-tell. If you read gardening books and blogs you quickly understand that there is no one-size-fits-all in gardening. Technique varies. Find what works for you.

Plant lots of bulbs — the gift that keeps on giving. One of the best investments in the landscape is a bag of naturalizing daffodils. I don’t know how many times over the years that clients have messaged me in spring: “My daffodils are blooming, thinking of you. Let’s talk soon about this year’s garden plans.”

We never listen to music in the garden while working, opting always for the sounds of nature, the birds, the wind in the bamboo. I have never owned a string trimmer or a leaf blower and have always planned maintenance visits around the schedule of the mowing crew. The mowers will appreciate not having to work around your tarps and wheelbarrows. It gives them more room to manipulate their trailers around the driveway.

Invest in some good hand tools. Care for them and keep them sharp. My crew always made great use of the Italian grape hoe for preparing new beds. Smaller Japanese hoes were put to good use as well.

Know where the water goes, whether it is water from the roofline, the gutters, seepage from a rock face, or a seasonal spring. All drainage issues should be addressed prior to any planting. Pointing out drainage issues may delay plantings for a season but result in a better outcome.

“Begin by knowing the lay of the land and water. Study the works of past masters, and recall the places of beauty that you know. Then, on your chosen site, let memory speak, and make into your own that which moves you most.”

— Anonymous, Japan, 1000 A.D.

Be practical in your proposals. How much time can be devoted to maintenance and watering by the clients? How much water can be safely drawn from their well? These questions need to be part of any planning process.

Know your weeds and invite diversity in your gardens. Many insects prefer a native to chomp on. Leave Evening Primrose to lure Japanese beetles from your ornamentals, berries and beans. Purslane forms a mat that inhibits other weeds and is a prized edible. Never buy soil or compost without first seeing a sample. And always be kind to your back.