A Layered Look in a Little Garden

At many in-town homes, the area between the street and the house can be too small a patch to mow but too big to ignore. Summer residents Jay and Susan Kaufman gained maximum impact from their minimal space by layering a variety of plants on their tiny plot in Edgartown village.

In 1999, the Kaufmans bought the Cooke Street house of Martin and Carole Berger, who moved around the corner to South Water Street. The two couples became friends, and Susan asked Carole for decorating advice in the house. (Carole, a former partner of the Edgartown antiques shop Past & Presents, has an interior design service and works for a few friends.)

When Susan was ready to make her own mark on the front garden, she first asked if Carole would mind. When the Bergers lived there, a thick evergreen hedge obscured the front porch railing, and they had selected the small shrub Skimmia japonica to go in front.

“I wanted color and flowers,” Susan says. Carole approved, saying, “The skimmia is marginal for this climate and was beginning to die anyway.” Carole recommended that Susan call her landscaper, Jeffrey Verner of Verner Fine Gardens in Edgartown.

When Susan asked Jeff for suggestions, she says, “He was thinking of a cutting garden, but I didn’t need anything that labor intensive.” A golfer, Susan got some of her ideas from the landscape plantings at Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs, including variegated boxwood and crape myrtle. “I love those tiny pink blooms on the crape myrtle, and when I saw them at Farm Neck, I wanted one,” she says.

Crape myrtle is often associated with southern gardens, and Jeff says this is probably its northern limit. “It might take four or five years for them to reach their blooming strength,” he says. “But once they establish their root systems, they’re hardy here.” And because they bloom on new growth, winter damage is not a concern.

After many conversations, Jeff and Susan selected the plants to run in layers from atop the low stone wall along the street up to the porch: the annual ground cover Sutera cordata (commonly called bacopa), Ilex crenata (Japanese holly), dwarf ‘Pia’ hydrangeas with ‘Preziosa’ hydrangeas, and, hidden behind the hydrangeas in summer, variegated boxwood. To the left, by the corner of the porch, stands the graceful crape myrtle.

“She wanted a summer garden but didn’t want it to be too formal,” Jeff says. Both Susan and Carole thought hydrangeas were a perfect choice but the plants had to be dwarf size to keep from overwhelming the rest of the garden. “But I wanted a variety,” Susan says. “I can’t get enough of them.”

“It takes some careful pruning of the hydrangeas to keep them from encroaching,” Jeff says. “I’m trying to maintain the integrity of the boxwood and ilex.” The Kaufmans get a chance to appreciate the boxwood while visiting from their off-season home in West Newton during the winter, when the hydrangeas have died back and the underlying pattern of the layered garden is much more in evidence.

The Kaufmans bought the house next to theirs in 2003 and joined the two yards, but even with the additional space, Susan stuck with her plan of small, easy-to- maintain gardens, adding shrubs like rose of Sharon and viburnum. Carole admires the simplicity of Susan’s gardens, especially after having created a larger, more labor- intensive one at her house around the corner. She says, “When I lived on Cooke Street, I had a little fish pond in back – I could take care of it in a few minutes and had plenty of time left to sit back and read the newspaper.”

The two neighbors appreciate each other’s taste in plants. Susan saw the bacopa at Carole’s and planted one in her garden, and Carole liked Susan’s crape myrtle so much she added one to her yard. Seems like evolution in a garden can help a friendship bloom.