Meet the Gardener: Julie Witmer

Introducing a new series for our community: Meet the Gardener

Gardening is an often solitary practice. The quiet solitude I find in my garden is one of the greatest gifts it gives me. But a shared love of designing and cultivating, tending and harvesting is also a joyful foundation for friendship and fellowship.

A healthy community is fertile soil for personal growth–whether we aim to become better gardeners or better humans (or both!).

I hope to enrich the “soil” of our community by sharing interviews with some of the gardeners in our midst. I hope they teach you and inspire you. I hope they remind you that there is no single, right way to grow a garden. I hope they help you feel more connected to others in this online place.

First up is Julie Witmer, a woman whose garden and gardening practices I’ve admired online for years. I also encourage you to visit her beautiful website here. Julie even offers garden design services, and you’ll find all the details there.

Here is my friend Julie, in her own words:

Tell us about your garden.

We live in small-town northwestern Pennsylvania in a 95-year-old brick house, which we call Havenwood. It has an acre of garden around it that was mostly turf when we moved in plus some marvellous old trees and a few shrubs. Six years into our garden build, it has a good mixture of areas that are still being developed. Currently we have a British-inspired Cottage Garden with sun-loving perennials, shrubs and annuals; Birch Walk with cool white flowers and green yew hedging; boxwood Knot garden; Hot Border for tropical plants such as Bananas, Dahlias and Cannas; half-acre Woodland garden that wanders Trilliums, Epimediums and Hellebores back and forth under many large trees including several old White Oaks; low-lying damp areas for our little nature pond and bogs; Kitchen garden for veg, herbs, blackberries, and black currents; Fruit Tunnel; and the beginnings of a moisture-loving perennial border. I created a long-term plan we call the “40 year plan” over our first winter here, after taking stock of our place and planning views for out the windows. We hit the ground running and digging with shovels and wheelbarrow that first spring, planting some very long hedges and adding several dump truck loads of mushroom compost to give our clay soil the lift it needed. We have some pretty sizable projects coming in the next few years, such as a 40 foot pergola, a 20 foot long trellis wall, remodeling a shed into a summer house, and relocating our driveway for a better layout. Those will all take time! This is not something that will be done in a rush, and that’s ok.

Havenwood is our second garden. We are fortunate to still own and care for our first garden, Gilmore Gardens, which is a flower-and-foliage-filled tenth-of-an-acre around our rental house, which was owner-occupied by us for six years.

Why do you garden? And how did you begin?

I have always loved flowers – a childhood dream of mine was to work at a florist shop. But I had very little chance to be outdoors at all growing up, let alone gardening. When my husband James and I were married in 2002, we decided that I was going to take a year off from teaching and instead I worked part-time at a nursery owned by friends of ours. I went out into the fields on my first day of work to divide irises with the wonderful gardening matriarch of the family. She chatted to me about plants all day as we propagated hundreds of new plants for their existing pots. I came home sunburned, exhausted, and completely in love with gardening! It was instantaneous for me. I had been waiting my whole life to get to that moment.

I began gobbling up every gardening book I could lay my hands on at our local library. One author that drew me particularly was Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter, UK. He was an elderly gent who made his living writing and gardening in a style that he called “succession planting,” where one plant quickly follows another and so there are interesting things happening in a garden throughout all the months of the year. I made long equation lists of his plantings, but I couldn’t try any as we were still renters, though I did start growing cuttings on my windowsill, seedlings and potted things.
A few years later, when I had miscarried our first child and we were dealing with the crushing grief of a season of infertility, I offered to make a garden for friends of ours. It was in the planning, buying, digging, problem-solving, and planting of that first garden where I really learned the power that gardening held for me. I buried all of my grief as hope into those plants and paths. I finished planting that shade garden well over a year later while reaching over my large belly. It was another year before we had our own first garden at Gilmore Gardens.

“I buried all of my grief as hope into those plants and paths.”

When did you start designing gardens?

After three years at Gilmore Gardens, it was pretty apparent to everyone who walked down our sidewalk that I was a bit of an unusual, nutty gardener. I had planted up the curb strips, between sidewalk and road, along with the entire front and side yards so that our garden extended hospitality to every person who walked past our home. People would stop their cars to comment and ask about plants. And some of them asked me to come to their home and help them learn to make something similar. During that time I also studied for the British RHS horticultural certification exams, which I was able to complete remotely in Pittsburgh.

My style of business is very different than the typical landscapers. I love to help people create beautiful, intimate gardens. And I’ve realized that very often when people hire me, I can help grow both a new garden and its gardener. It is the education and empowerment of home-owners to create a space that will give new life to their relationships and ecological redemption to their places that really excites me. In the dozens of gardens I have designed since 2005, only one client has hired a landscaper to install it for them (and that for health reasons). All of the other gardens have grown from the finger-tips of real gardeners who are learning and creating more beauty around where they live.

“I had planted up the curb strips, between sidewalk and road, along with the entire front and side yards so that our garden extended hospitality to every person who walked past our home.”

What is the main difference between a garden made as it goes along and a designed space?

Plants are beautiful not matter what, but when they are choreographed into living architecture that you can walk through and experience, our interactions with plants rises to a whole new level. Walking through a well-planned garden can give you peace, or it can give you drama and excitement. It can give you direction and shelter. The planting combinations of color and form work together just like the colors and textures of a painting or a delicious restaurant dish. Orchestrating plants together looks better than do they alone, like planting forget-me-nots with tulips. Knowing a bit about the life cycles of plants gives you good hints as to how they will work together in plant communities, which are actually less work for the gardener and more ecologically sustainable! Gardens that are planned to keep blooming are also much better at sustaining healthy pollinator populations.

“Walking through a well-planned garden can give you peace, or it can give you drama and excitement. It can give you direction and shelter.”

What are your own hopes and dreams for this next gardening year?

We’ve all had a collective curve-ball this year with Covid-19, and Havenwood has as well. We were just days from signed papers for work to begin on our biggest garden project yet – moving the garage (demo and construction) and the driveway. That will unfortunately not be happening this year, but there is plenty to do in a one-acre garden. I’ve come to accept that some years are building years, and some years are growing on years. I see this year as a “growing on” year, which will mean enjoying watching all the dozens of shrubs and trees we have planted grow, working to make new perennial plants and plantings from what I already have, and looking for inspiration in the slower pace this year. We will be growing lots from seed, and maybe embarking on one of our smaller garden construction projects later this summer.

What is the best gardening advice you’ve received?

I have two bits! First, Fergus Garrett, head gardener of Great Dixter, says to always bring a notebook with you on your first walk around the garden before starting work. I like to do that same thing at the end of my gardening days, to remind myself what other things I saw while I was about. Even if you can’t do anything about the gaps that you have in your planting, or the lack of daffodils in a bed in April, you can make note of those things so that you may return to them later if you do get a birthday gift certificate or an offer of plants from a friend. Knowing where your gaps are is the first step to filling them. I like to use a date planner, as the garden and and the calender are intimately connected.
My second bit of foundational advice came from my nursery boss, who told me to not worry about killing something: “You are not a real gardener until you’ve killed a lot of plants.” Learn something if you can from a plants demise and move on!

What are a few plants that you love to grow?

Catmint (Nepeta) is a wonderful plant for gardens in the US. It has blue flowers and silvery foliage that many people mistake as lavender. But in the border, its a better plant than lavender as its cold hardy and very easy to care for by cutting it to the ground each spring. There are several species and cultivars to chose from now, but Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ is my favorite. Nepeta makes a great combination with Allium ‘Purple Sensation,’ which you can order as a bulb in the autumn for planting. Throw a short Sedum, such as Sedum acre, as a ground cover around the mounds of catmint and you have a nice little planting.

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