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Adventurous Addictions: A Collector's Garden

It is only upon close inspection of the broad, curving borders embracing the house and front and rear lawns that one appreciates what a vast assortment of plants they contain and realizes that, however tastefully subdued the surroundings, this is, nevertheless, the domain of an adventurous — make that obsessive — plant addict . . .

SO DECEIVING. Tinged with moss and nibbled by ivy, the Fulton's somber-toned home, with its canopy of majestic water and willow oaks and its expansive lawn thickly bordered by layered shrubs, gives an immediate impression of verdant but uncomplicated repose. In back, multilevel brick terraces, so furred with moss as to seem ancient, provide a shady vantage point from which to view the downward slope of the lawn into the sunshine at the rear of the property, where a colorful flower garden beams through an arched doorway in a tidily clipped hedge. It is only upon close inspection of the broad, curving borders embracing the house and front and rear lawns that one appreciates what a vast assortment of plants they contain and realizes that, however tastefully subdued the surroundings, this is, nevertheless, the domain of an adventurous — make that obsessive — plant addict.

Lynn Fulton and her husband, Graham, bought their spacious "early fifties brick cottage" in the 1970's, on an acre lot in a serene Memphis, Tennessee, neighborhood. Apart from the mature oaks, the landscape consisted primarily of a foundation planting of cherry laurel and malnourished aucuba, and a couple of hedges: a see-through strip of Carolina cherry laurel at the end of the driveway and a band of runaway common privet barricading a half-dozen fig trees at the far end of the back yard.

Quickly subduing the out-of-control privet, Lynn and Graham grubbed out fig trees that refused to freeze to death in their USDA Zone 7a winters, hauled in railroad ties, and soon had a vegetable garden at the rear of the property. Lynn began to ease flowers —at first marigolds, zinnias, and other annuals— into the garden. Then, when her children entered college, her fondness for gardening welled into a passion.

Though Fulton has studied landscape design and completed a master gardener program, she credits her long-time consultant, Memphis landscape designer Tom Pellett, with giving her garden its strong lines and "keeping me in line," as she puts it. "Hers is a gardener's garden," Pellett has told me. "It is ever changing, always evolving. I try to provide structure for all the plants she loves, to find a place for them and maybe suggest plants that go with them." As a result, Fulton's garden projects more of the orderly grandeur of an English estate garden than the cluttered busyness often associated with a collector's garden.

"Lynn's Idiosyncratic Garden," as Pellett entitled his design for the former vegetable garden — because it defies categorization — was Graham's gift to Lynn for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. With trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, vegetables, and flowers galore, "It's got just every little weird thing that I want," she explains. Fulton had already positioned a boxwood and a crapemyrtle on either side of the gate leading through the privet hedge. Pellett added beds of perennials around them. Inside, where a narrow, rectangular vegetable and herb bed skirted the rear shrub border, she had constructed a circular, raised bed and planted it with roses and herbs. Pellett's plan surrounded this central bed with four irregularly shaped beds made of stacked landscape blocks. Now they overflow spring to fall with a succession of perennials and reseeding annuals and biennials and from fall through spring with yellow and purple pansies.

She aims for a constant succession of bloom. Thus the layered trees and shrubs at the driveway entrance are fronted by generous drifts of Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus (syn. H. flava), the fragrant yellow daylily commonly called lemon lily; black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta); and Hosta plantaginea, the old-fashioned hosta known as August lily, whose intoxicatingly fragrant, white flowers appear on waist-high stalks in late summer. "My lemon lilies bloom from late May until about the Fourth of July," says Fulton, "and on the day they stop blooming the rudbeckia starts. And after it finishes, the hostas bloom."

A more complex sequence of bloom and foliage interaction occurs on the northwest side of the rear lawn, where a woodland garden flourishes in the dappled shade of a high-branched elm, along a pine straw path entered through an arch entangled with Carolina jessamine, fiveleaf akebia, and Clematis 'Nelly Moser'. A great blueness prevails here in spring, when white disks of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) give way to a mist of Phlox divaricata, interwoven with Jacob's ladder (Polemonium reptans), scillas, and the most enormous specimen of blue star (Amsonia tabernaemontana) I've ever seen. The cool tones are carried into summer by silver-flecked pulmonaria, the ice-edged leaves of archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon), gray-blue Japanese painted fern, and steely blue hosta. In late May the hosta mixes with the exuberant yellow blossoms of Missouri primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa, syn. O. missouriensis), a stunning combination. The high-limbed elm provides protective shade for the sun-sensitive hosta, while letting in enough light to pop the oenothera into bloom

The pansies peak at what Fulton calls "yellow and purple time" in midspring, when they bloom with purple Siberian irises, Verbena canadensis 'Homestead Purple,' and Aquilegia canadensis 'Corbett,' a version of the eastern native wild columbine with creamy yellow flowers. The palette expands as spring advances and mixed-colored larkspur, foxgloves, and poppies are joined by roses, clematis, and the cornflower-blue, native Stoke's aster (Stokesia laevis). The prevailing scheme tends toward pastels in all but one peripheral bed, where hot tones predominate, with fiery butterfly weed; orange lilies, nasturtium and Zinnia angustifolia; flame-flowered gaillardia; scarlet Lychnis chalcedonica; cherry red yarrow; and miniature yellow daylily. "The older I get, the brighter I get," Fulton quips of her gradual shift in preference from pastel to brighter shades.

By fall the conflagration has been spread throughout the garden by crimson Salvia greggii; hot pink S. involucrata 'Bethellii;' the avidly self-seeding, lipstick-red S. coccinea; rusty mounds of 'Autumn Joy' sedum; and that cheery monster perennial sunflower Helianthus angustifolius, a Great Dane of a native wildflower, which Fulton calls by one of its most expressive common names, "stairsteps to Heaven."

One is particularly struck by the great number of southeastern native plants — over 140 species — that join more traditional garden plants and exotic rarities to make up this eclectic landscape. "I've always enjoyed native plants, because I've been out in the woods all of my life," says Fulton, a lifelong southerner. It was her involvement with the Memphis Horticultural Society and its co-sponsorship of the Mid-South Native Plant Conference, however, that opened her eyes to the potential of natives as garden subjects, an interest strengthened by her activity in the Little Garden Club of Memphis, a member of the Garden Club of America, which is campaigning to replace invasive exotic plants with natives in home landscapes and public plantings.

"I'm high on native trees," she affirms, listing sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), and American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) as favorites. Native shrubs, such as Viburnum nudum, oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia), Fothergilla gardenii, Clethra alnifolia, and bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), offer not only welcome flowers in spring or summer, but some of her garden's finest fall color.

I am particularly smitten with her adroit combination of native and exotic material along an extension of the front walk leading around the southeast side of the house. Originally envisioned as a thyme walk, the path of loosely spaced bricks has turned into a moss walk instead, but that suits Fulton, who is thrilled that the moss has proven a perfect germination medium for the infant Wherry's foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia collina) that have appeared among the bricks. In fall this path presents a rich tapestry of contrasting colors and textures. The yellow, paddlelike leaves of melting hostas and the rusting lace of arborvitae fern (Selaginella pallescens) contrast with the dark green fingers of Helleborus and the glistening needles of Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia). Fothergilla gardenii 'Blue Mist' simmers in shades of yellow, orange, and dawn pink, a veritable stew of heated color. Clethra alnifolia 'Hummingbird,' the compact, white-flowering selection of our native summersweet, drains to muted yellow, while the five-fingered leaves of the bottlebrush buckeye emit a buttery glow against the rubyesque gleam of a nearby dogwood.

The path leads through an arched gate to the rear terraces, where one is not surprised to meet one of the first plants Fulton ever owned, a three-foot-high, thirty-five-year-old Arisaema dracontium, the native (of course) green-dragon, vaguely menacing as it rears its thin, tonguelike inflorescence between a spiky frame of Mahonia bealei in a bed against the house.

Fulton allows that in general natives require little care and are tolerant of her "crawfish dirt," which she describes as "soggy in the winter and hard as a brick in the summertime." "I can't keep up an acre and have all these temperamental things," she explains. "I love to try everything, but if it takes a lot of pampering, I just have to give it up." Fulton has an irrigation system in the front, but waters the rest of the garden manually, as needed.

Fulton fears few aggressive plants. "I get in there and yank," she shrugs. And in this naturalistic portion of her garden, along with the tidy epimediums, dainty wild gingers (Asarum spp.), and stout clumps of Solomon's seal (Polygonatum spp.) and hardy orchid (Bletilla striata), she tolerates such galloping thugs as gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides) and even, to a degree, the profligate common blue violet, explaining that gooseneck loosestrife blooms in the shade when little else does and the violets are uncontrollable anyway.She smiles, "I sometimes tell people I'm studying the symbiotic relationship between weeds and flowers." Poison ivy is another matter. Slipping her hand into one of those long, plastic bags that the newspaper comes in, she extracts this least welcome of native plants, then peels the bag down over it and discards it.

Fulton employs an admirable technique for finding the right spot for a shrub: she sets the newcomer, pot and all, into the ground in the location under consideration and waits and watches until she's sure that both she and the plant are satisfied with the arrangement before properly planting it. Of course, sometimes she forgets to come back and complete the operation, but it's surprising how long Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet,' for example, the Ilex verticillata hybrid 'Harvest Red,' or even the lusty China rose 'Mutabilis' (Rosa chinensis var. mutabilis) can live in a pot and how large it will grow with its roots so constrained. Given its owner's blend of curiosity and tenderheartedness, Fulton's garden is, among other things, part laboratory, part orphanage, and part hospital. The ferns luxuriating in the mossy cool of the terrace area she started indoors from spores. Her ginkgo tree was adopted as an abandoned bonsai. She propagates so many shrubs from the softwood cuttings she takes in June that it's an effort to find suitable homes for them all. And how many gardeners could use dental floss to successfully repair a red buckeye snapped in two by a workman's boot?

Though she fertilizes and waters her idiosyncratic garden, Fulton never sprays. "I don't have time," she says. "I have a garage full of chemicals that have been sitting there twenty years." If a favorite plant gets covered up with bugs, "I wash it off with water and move on. You notice I don't have many roses any more except old ones."

Fulton may be short on needed time, but she's learned the importance of patience, pointing out that devoting time to proper soil preparation before planting, for example, is the best insurance against failure. Yet when pressed for advice to pass on to other gardeners, her reply is deceptively simple. "Just keep a sense of humor, and remember: Ultimately, you're gardening to please yourself."