the top part of a decorative image showing garden flowers.

The Boston Globe Magazine

April 9, 2000

YOUR HOME: The Quixotic Gardener

Perfection, she came to realize, was just a lovely illusion.

By Lois Boemer

This spring, I am in search of the perfect garden. When I find it, I hope to incorporate ideas I find there in my own perfect garden. I want to gaze out of my windows onto the hillside in the backyard and enjoy all four New England seasons, with flowering perennials in the spring and summer, along with a few annuals for cutting, and colorful leaves or dried flowers for arranging indoors in the fall or winter. It seems my garden lacks a certain continuity as we move through the year, and by late July or early August, my garden starts to look, well, ratty. I want to change all of this, and of course, I want the final product to be low maintenance.

My quest has taken me to several friends gardens and lead to discussions with many a garden professional. From them, I have learned that I am on the right track when I plant my beloved flowering perennials. Where I've gone wrong is in thinking of my garden as isolated pieces instead of as a whole. And, not surprisingly, I have come to realize there are few things you can plant then neglect.

Pauline Runkle, an award winning horticulturist and principal of Floral Artistry, a floral design firm she started 30 years ago, has, with her husband, Joe, created what to any visitor would seem the ideal garden around their contemporary farmhouse in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

There was nothing planted on the 4-acre site, formerly a pig farm, when they bought it 15 years ago. Since then, they have planted approximately 2 acres with a full-sun perennial garden, an herb garden, plus a small miniature-fruit-tree orchard.

This is the ultimate cutting garden, one that Pauline Runkle uses extensively for her floral arrangements. She lavishly blends antique roses and fragrant herbs with chartreuse lady's mantle and bold designer leaves from hostas. (Some of the hostas leaves are as big as a frying pan, she says.) A hydrangea collection borders the meadow, and the plants are cut for arrangements during spring, summer and fall. From the herb garden, she cuts large bouquets of fragrant mock-orange. From the perennial garden, she plucks old-fashioned spirea.

The Runkle's sunny expanses only serve to remind me that I must work with what I have: a small hillside garden on a shady lot. I can't ever imagine my hostas growing large enough for a grand floral arrangement. Nor would I ever produce herbs enough for a houseful of fragrant bouquets.

Meanwhile, Joe Runkle maintains a vegetable garden and grows dinner plate size dahlias that Pauline uses in the huge tents she is hired to decorate for parties.

Last year, for their grandchildren, they planted half of the meadow with eight varieties of pumpkins and 10 varieties of sunflowers. "It was stupendous," says Pauline.

By mulching all their gardens with compost every spring and fall, the Runkles nourish their plants and keep weds down. Lady's mantle, planted along the edge of each individual garden, also stems weed growth.