Gardening for Fun

See how this couple created a backyard where learning and laughing go hand in hand.
Steve Bender

Gardening is all about having a good time for Eve Thyrum. She likes cutting the grass, enjoys mulching the beds, and even gets a kick out of weeding and watering. "I find that it's all fun, because there's always a goal, and I like goals," she says. "And you can't beat the exercise. It keeps you nice and limber."

From the looks of her Wilmington, Delaware, garden, no one has been more limber since the days of Harry Houdini. Roughly 2 acres in size, it consists of numerous island beds connected by grass and stone paths. Many of the beds have themes. You'll find a knot garden, cactus and succulent garden, and pond garden.

So many different plants could make for a hodgepodge. Fortunately, both Eve and her husband, Per, inherited artistic sensibilities from their parents. Over the years, the two have created a unique and very personal garden that pleases your eye, stimulates your brain, and brings a smile to your face.

Out With the Orchard
Things looked different in 1980, when Eve and Per moved here from Houston; an overgrown orchard consumed the backyard. For years, Eve worked to restore the orchard, until horticulture classes taken at nearby Longwood Gardens convinced her that fruit trees were boring and too much work. She lusted for all of the wonderful plants, both common and rare, that she was learning about. Down came the orchard. In its place, Eve and Per started planting island beds. They did everything themselves, including irrigation and stonework. The task continues today.

Echoes of Color
Tying it all together takes an eye for composition. A nifty technique Eve uses is called "color echo." This occurs when you assemble a group of plants containing a common color. Though varied in size, texture, and type, these plants have harmony and visual flow.

To add intensity to her plantings, Eve also pairs contrasting colors. "I love mixing yellows with maroons or oranges with blue or chartreuse," she says. "But be careful when using purple and maroon," she warns, "because if you overdo it, your garden will turn into a black hole." Foliage provides easier and longer lasting color than flowers, she notes. Proof of this abounds throughout the garden in the burgundy and chartreuse Japanese maples, gold-striped iris, blue- and yellow-needled conifers, gilded hostas, purple-leaved American alum root, and much more:

  •  'Velvet Night' American alum root (Heuchera americana 'Velvet Night')
  •  Red-veined dock (Rumex sanguineus sanguineus)
  • 'Husker Red' smooth penstemon (Penstemon digitalis 'Husker Red'),
  • Flowering giant allium (Allium giganteum)

The blooms of 'Carol Mackie' daphne really stand out against a backdrop of 'Fashion' azaleas. 'Spessart' geraniums add flowers and foliage.  An example of color echo in Eve's garden is yellow tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa 'Tria') with 'Zebra' sweet iris (Iris pallida 'Zebra').

 The Garden Tells All
Great landscapes reflect the people who make them. Every step you take in this one reveals more about who Eve and Per are. For one thing, they love being outdoors. You can tell from the many benches and chairs they've tucked away among plants, where they can sit, have a drink, and talk or watch a sunset. They relish surprises. Nowhere in the garden can you stand and see it all. You must walk a path, round a corner, and discover what awaits. They also like to laugh. Whimsical sculptures meet you at every turn--from dancing cranes to stalking chameleons to rocks perched in a tree (Per's handiwork). "We like to create things that make people smile," explains Eve. (Just don't shake Per's tree.)

More than 1,700 kinds of plants grow here. No wonder horticulture students from Longwood take final exams in this garden. Ordinary folks visit too. Novice gardeners come looking for ideas to try at home. Others return year after year simply to watch the garden grow. Eve enjoys meeting them all. "I tell them, 'Don't bother calling; you're welcome to walk through anytime,' " she says.

But if you do, watch out for Eve and her favorite toy. "I just got a brand-new lawn tractor for my birthday," she says, nearly bursting with excitement. "It has power steering and everything."