This Low-Maintenance Kentucky Garden is Bursting with Color
A pie-shaped, 1-acre lot in an empty field. A steep slope. No close neighbors. These factors would deter many prospective homeowners, but Mary Startzman was smitten. "I wasn't thinking about the house we had to build. I saw a sun-drenched garden with endless possibilities. Little did I know there was so much shale; it took years to amend the soil," she recalls.
Her goal was to create a pesticide-free, low-maintenance, organic garden with as little grass as possible. She began in her backyard with a bright blue gate, made by a local artisan, surrounded by a boxwood hedge. It's taken more than four decades, but a dense, vibrant garden now fills that area, even spilling into the front yard.
An Artistic Outlet
Any time the temperature is above 40 degrees, Startzman (now retired from a career in banking) and her four dogs are outside in the garden. It's her private arboretum, stress reliever, and creative outlet. She thinks of her many flower beds as "living art" where she combines colors, textures, and shapes. Her inspiration? Childhood visits to her aunts' gardens in South Texas. Inside the house, her husband, Gene (a retired professor), watches from a window as she presides over all her flowers.
Startzman says, "If I can do this, anybody can. It doesn't have to take a lot of money. Start small, create it piece by piece, and don't be afraid to change things. If plants aren't thriving or no longer work, try them in another location and see what happens. That's part of the fun." Here are her best ideas to get your garden going.
Picture your garden as a blank canvas. Look out each window of the house, and think about what you want to see. Find focal points in the yard, like a splendid tree or structure, to anchor each area. If they don't exist yet, build some. Repeat garden colors inside the house to help seamlessly integrate the interior with the exterior.
Incorporate Objects Too
Startzman uses vertical forms—like the many birdhouses; the tree house; and plantings on the pergolas, fences, trellises, and arbors—to not only lend height and places for eyes to rest but also to provide year-round visual interest, which is especially welcome in the winter. She also mounts mirrors and sets gazing balls on stone pillars to make smaller areas appear larger.
Engage the Senses
Paths set the pace of a walk around the garden. Materials also matter. She uses rough gravel for the satisfying crunch underfoot. Flat walkways quicken one's steps. Winding routes encourage visitors to meander, discover hidden areas around a bend, and take in the surroundings—the sound of water gurgling in a fountain, the fragrance of blooms wafting in the air, and the sight of tomatoes ready to be picked.
Spread the Wealth
When plants become overcrowded, divide them and swap with friends. It's a simple and economical solution to maintain order and share the bounty. It's also a fantastic way to enhance an existing garden, experiment with color combinations, or try something new for free. Startzman was the beneficiary of a sweet clump of Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica), a native wildflower that she now gifts to fellow gardeners.
A discarded door picked up on the side of a road and rusty bed frames occupy prominent places as whimsical "art" in Startzman's garden. A nonworking antique light fixture, scored at a flea market, hangs above her koi trough; an old metal gate divides the sunny side of her floral display from the shady part; and fallen logs woven into a rustic pergola are adored by visitors in addition to the squirrels and birds.
Make It a Hangout
Startzman emphasizes that a garden is about more than plants. A table and chairs for alfresco dining, a fireplace for warmth and cooking, spacious benches, and thoughtfully placed light fixtures are practical additions. She also believes it's important to care for the pollinators and other animals that inhabit our world. Clean water in birdbaths, well-stocked feeders, vegetation left intact to provide food, and places of shelter not only sustain wildlife but also give her pleasure as she watches the seasons unfold.
May Startzman's Most Spectacular Flowers
Over the years, she has developed a few favorites. She also loves planting flowers for cut arrangements. She suggests trying coneflowers for their long, strong stems. If you're looking for hummingbirds to visit, go with nectar-rich bee balm. If you want to add some color to your vegetable patch, mix in spider flowers to attract beneficial insects. If you're just going for impressive blossoms, choose salvia, and deadhead spent blooms for longer-lasting color.
'Raspberry Wine' Bee Balm
Monarda didyma 'Raspberry Wine'
Part of the mint family, it grows well in full sun or partial shade and spreads quickly with easy-to-control, shallow roots.
'Golden Splendor' Lily
Lilium 'Golden Splendor'
Producing 12 to 20 flowers that are 6 inches long and grow on 4-foot-tall stems, it blooms in mid- to late-summer in sun or partial shade. It's more drought tolerant than its relatives.
This fragrant lily hybrid, known as an Orienpet, is a cross between Oriental and trumpet lilies. It is an early bloomer that features large, showy flowers.
Mealycup Sage and 'Hot Lava' Coneflower
Pollinators love this heat-tolerant plant with blue or white blooms.
Echinacea 'Hot Lava'
Flaming orange-red petals lend jaunty pops of color.
This dwarf-to-soaring annual in white, pink, or lilac delights each year. For repeat blooms, check when buying to ensure seeds are not sterile. Sprinkle seeds directly into soil.
A fast-growing annual that thrives in warm weather, it is ideally grown in pots so it can be overwintered indoors. Or you can just replace it each year.
'Silk Road' Lily
Lilium 'Silk Road'
This Orienpet lily has 8-inch flowers on 4- to 6-foot-tall stems. Plant it in a sunny spot that has good drainage and is shaded by the leaves of neighboring plants.
'Ville de Lyon' Clematis
Clematis 'Ville de Lyon'
Clematis is a prolific climber with magenta flowers that have pale yellow stamens. Prune it in early spring just above buds that are a few inches from the ground.