Joy in Bloom

Self-taught gardener Donna Hackman shares what she's learned: A work in progress can be a work of art.
Steve Bender

As dawn first lights the Virginia countryside, Donna Hackman is already thinking about plants. From now until the sun lies low in the west, she'll immerse herself in legions of flowers, trees, and shrubs as she does every day. "I love to garden," she explains. "It's endlessly enjoyable."

Evidence of this abounds in all directions. Divided by thickly foliaged borders into a series of outdoor rooms, her entire garden covers 3 acres. It is a garden of formal and informal spaces. Grassy paths invite you to wander and discover myriad native and exotic plants you may have read about but have likely never seen growing before. While most of us couldn't hope to duplicate anything so ambitious, Donna's garden teaches plenty of lessons the average person can put to good use at home.

 

Money Isn't Everything
Lesson number one is this: A fat wallet is not the most important factor behind a nice garden. "Money isn't as important as will," Donna states. "You just have to want it badly enough." This leads to lesson number two: Never pass up an opportunity to learn. "I read garden books and magazines all the time and visit lots of other gardens," she says. "Wherever I go, I take a notebook with me." If something puzzles her, she never hesitates to ask. "There's no such thing as a dumb question," she insists. "The more I know, the more I know I don't know--and the more I want to know. Asking is how you learn."

Obviously, Donna has learned a lot. The magnitude of her education sinks in when you discover that she designed every border, structure, waterfall, and walk you see here. "I'm totally self-taught," she says. "If I can do this, so can you. You don't have to go as crazy as I did--you can just have a normal-size garden. You can get there if you really want to."

Creating the Look
Donna describes her garden's predominant style as "very English." When asked to define this, she says, "Romantic, cottage-like, fragrant, soft, but with a bit of punch so it's not boring. I like formal structure but prefer the plants to look like Mother Nature was given free rein. I like for them to spill over into the paths and over walls and be really exuberant."

In this style, shrubs--both evergreen and deciduous--are every bit as important to the look as flowers. Shrubs give the borders year-round structure. They also provide Donna the opportunity to blend contrasting forms, such as upright, horizontal, and weeping, to create interest. "I especially like planting weeping things next to the water," she says. "It just feels right."

 

Advice for Beginners
A popular lecturer during those rare moments when she's not tending her garden, Donna offers these suggestions for beginners.

  • First, don't be afraid to rearrange things. "I always move my plants around--not necessarily because they are not doing well," Donna says. "It's just that I see a better combination."
  • Second, don't be afraid of mistakes. Learn from them. "As a noted horticulturist once said, 'You don't really know a plant until you've killed it at least three times,' " she observes. "Your garden will never be perfect. It will always be a work in progress, and you can always make it better. That's the way I look at it."
  • Third, plant for all seasons. "Most people get excited about gardening only in spring," she says. "That's why suburban landscapes all have the same things--forsythia, flowering cherries, and 'Bradford' pears--everything that is in bloom at the nursery on the day people go." Donna's garden, however, shines in every season. Autumn sees spectacular foliage and berry displays from crabapple, viburnum, beautyberry, and dogwood. Winter welcomes the blooms of Japanese apricot, winter hazel, and winter daphne.

Donna's Great Escape
Visitors to the garden often ask how she manages such a large landscape with only one helper. The answer is: She doesn't consider the maintenance to be work; she enjoys it. "Gardening transports you," she notes. "When I'm out there digging and planting and fine-tuning things, anything that might have been bothering me is gone." Which is why if this day ends like most others, Donna will be out playing in her garden until a chorus of crickets calls her home.