Pamela J. Harper
by BOBBY J. WARD photograph by PAT HORTON
IN HER BOOK TIME-TESTED PLANTS, Pamela Harper writes that “the gardener’s world is a chain forged of many links that connects the past with the present and extends into the future.” I first met Pamela in 1992, when she spoke at a symposium in North Carolina celebrating the life of Elizabeth Lawrence. In that lecture Pamela paid homage to Lawrence and other past gardeners, remembering each one through the plants they had given her and the gardening advice they had provided.
Pamela arrived in the United States in 1968 with her husband Patrick, an automotive engineer, who had been transferred from England, where they had lived since marrying in 1953. When Pamela began gardening on two sheltered acres near the tidal creeks of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay 34 years ago, she relied on Lawrence and others’ wisdom about gardening in the Coastal Plains. Soils, mulching, rainfall, and summer nighttime temperatures there are all quite different from the waterlogged clay and hard, stony flint Pamela had tilled in her first garden in Buckinghamshire, England, where she was born and grew up. Her early interest in plants came from her father, who taught her to recognize rural wildflowers as well as old-fashioned garden plants, such as sweet peas, love-in-a-mist, and mignonette. Along with beginning to garden in Buckinghamshire, she also ran a nursery there for a decade, specializing in heaths and heathers, one of her passions.
Her first years gardening in Virginia’s acid, sandy soil marked an experimental time for Pamela. She says, “I didn’t see this as a problem, because it was a slow process of discovery for me.” She found her biggest mistake was failing to recognize how fast plants grow there. “Everything grew twice as fast and I didn’t have enough space,” she says, recalling that her garden in England received 20 inches of rain annually, while the one in Virginia got 40 to 50 inches.
Pamela’s experimental American experiences include gardening briefly in Connecticut and Maryland before settling in Virginia. Her year in Connecticut made her long for her homeland. For therapy, she wrote The Story of a Garden (1972), chronicling the development of her former garden in England. She continued to write, completing journal articles on heaths and heathers, and, gleaning from her English and American experience, she went on to write about rock garden plants. She keenly observed that the North American woodland forests help provide a distinctive American style of gardening, one that has naturally evolved in rocky, deciduous woods rich in wildflowers.
Pamela’s writing skills developed along with her stateside plant knowledge, and as her roots in American soil deepened and horticultural friendships grew, she wrote Perennials: How to Select, Grow and Enjoy (HP Books, 1982), her most popular book, now reprinted numerous times. In 1991 she wrote Designing with Perennials (Hungry Mind Inc.), in which she admonishes readers to forego a garden solely of evergreen foundation shrubs by adding the variability and diversity that perennials offer. The book is enhanced by her own photography, a skill that has allowed her to amass an impressive collection of horticultural slides.
In 1994, Pamela brought out Color Echoes: Harmonizing Color in the Garden (MacMillan Publishing Co.), emphasizing the principles of color, texture, and design for the garden—and adding the term “color echo” to the vocabulary of nurserymen and gardeners. Her most recent book, Time-Tested Plants: Thirty Years in a Four-Season Garden (Timber Press, 2000), is a retrospective of the plants that proved “their long-term adaptability for a decade or more.” Her narrative style is direct and concise, with no unnecessary words, yet warmly and sincerely written from dirt-under-the-fingernails experience. Pamela’s writings have earned awards from the Garden Writers Association of America and the America Horticultural Society.
In September 2003, Hurricane Isabel brought high winds and heavy rains to her Virginia garden. The resulting loss of a 100-year-old oak provided unexpected sunshine to formerly shaded areas. Undeterred, Pamela immediately began looking for trees to get the shade back as quickly as possible—no doubt looking ahead to many more years of gardening on soil that, she says, she has only temporarily borrowed from nature. H