Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Review: "The Layered Garden" by David L. Culp

"The Layered Garden"by David L. Culp was published last year, but is such a good garden book that I am going to write a review about it this year. It defies categorization among types of gardening books, being simultaneously:

1. A book describing Culp's own garden, Brandywine Garden in Pennsylvania (zone 6), and the process by which he and his partner made it since buying in 1990.
2. His thoughts about garden design, specifically how to "layer" planting for bloom from late winter through November
3. An overview of his passion for collecting several species of plants, namely hellebores, galanthus (snowdrops) and other small early bulbs, in the vein of a collector's and expert breeder's guide
4. A garden photo book of drool-worthy garden photos and flower closeup photos

This is one of the better garden books I read this year (I requested that my public library order it and wasn't able to read it until 2013), and have checked it out to re-read more than once.

His "layering" advice includes layers in both time and space. Beds can have layers of plants that bloom or leaf out at different times over the year for longer interest. They can also have short, mid and tall height (even climbers for extra tall) plants in them for physical layers. There can also be different areas of a garden that come into their own in different seasons. And whole gardens change over the years as trees mature, plants fill out (or die) and the gardener tries new things as her tastes change.

Culp also tells readers that they shouldn't be beholden to the various rules we hear should govern our garden choices, that we should plant what we like and borrow ideas from any garden that is appealing to us, as long as the plants grow well in our own soil.

But the thing that makes this book so appealing to me is that Culp is not afraid of flowers. Yes, half of his garden is a woodland area, but he has filled it with early-blooming bulbs, shrubs and perennials of the more ethereal sort. And yes, he has numerous other shady areas in his tree-surrounded garden, but he has not limited himself to foliage plants, even in these areas. And yes, he claims that the form of a plant is more important than the flowers as many "sophisticated" gardeners like to claim, but he grows so many glorious flowers in his garden that I really don't believe him.

My scan doesn't do justice to the glorious flowers in
Culp's borders. Now this is what a garden should be!
(It even has a white picket fence -- my favorite.)
It's true that Culp is a self-admitted plant collector and he does seem to specialize in very tiny flowers that can hardly be seen unless on hands and knees (he has a snowdrop named after him because he discovered it on a snowdrop-hunting expedition in an English wood, and his own hellebore hybrids which he breeds). 

But he writes that he is both a plant-obsessed collector as well as a garden designer, something that seems to be all too rare. Many collectors have patches of bitty, hodge-podge collections that enthrall them and other collectors of their particular favorite species (usually something that barely flowers), but which look less than impressive to those who love beautifully designed gardens. But Culp obviously knows how to plant a wide variety of flowers, bulbs, shrubs and trees for nearly year-round interest and still have a glorious show in May and June.

And he also has sections of his garden filled with such showy "common" flowers as foxgloves (which he openly admits he doesn't even grow from seed himself, instead buying the biennial plants in bud each spring!), irises, peonies, lilies and even that bugbear of environmental Puritans: roses (although he claims he does nothing to prevent mildew or even fertilize them, which we do have in common -- however, my reasons are less environmental and more laziness). I even saw begonias in pots! The man doesn't let garden snobbery limit his flowery delight.

The woodland hill area in his garden,
shown at three different times,
from late March to early May.
And he's not afraid of color either. He recalls arguing with the late Christopher Lloyd, the master plantsman of Great Dixter fame, about using strong and paler shades of flowers together (but didn't convince him that it was indeed OK to do this). In general, I believe David Culp has a somewhat renegade, anti-rules, anti-garden-snobbery streak to his character that is quite appealing to me, as a gardener who loves colorful flowers in abundance. 

I believe his overall message is to not restrict ourselves in our gardening, other than not growing what won't grow well in our gardens without cossetting and chemicals. He seems to believe that we need more flowers, more color, spread out over an even longer period of the year. This is a refreshing view in these times, when many "experts" urge us to grow only native species, or opine that flowers are a sign of failure in a garden, or that good garden design has nothing to do with mere flowers, especially brightly-colored ones. 

Not afraid of mixing bold and paler colors, despite what
Christopher Lloyd said.

And he laudably includes a garden map in the endpapers of his book! I just love garden books that provide a map or drawn plan of the gardens (which is one of the reasons I love Country Gardens magazine). Maybe it's just me and other readers don't spend so much time trying to puzzle out the layout of a garden, and which direction the sun comes from, etc., when reading about a garden. (I love literary maps as well; the maps in stories such as the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh, and the Oz books; my library wall is covered with framed literary maps such as these). A picture is worth a thousand words.

A garden map adds so much to a garden book.
Why don't more garden books have them?
If I have one complaint about the book, it is that many of the photo captions showing garden beds with multiple plants in them do not identify enough of the plants to make it helpful for those who like the look of a photo but don't know what to plant to replicate the look. Although last part of the book focuses on growing the signature plants in his garden, which is helpful, it still covers only a fraction of the plants shown in the beautiful photos of his beds and borders.

In fact, this might not be the best sort of book for beginning gardeners at all, since the advice given by Culp is not of the basic sort needed by new gardeners; instead, it will be more experienced gardeners who will be able to consider how he has planted his garden and take away ideas for their own plots.

I myself came away with several thoughts: 1) I would like to plant some early-flowering shrubs for late winter interest, as well as more early bulbs. 2) After reading his book earlier this year, I was greatly impressed with those magnificent foxgloves that dot his borders. I tried to start some from seed in pots last summer, but after planting them out in early fall, they mysteriously disappeared within the week, perhaps due to intense heat or drought. I believe I will try planting them again in spring, perhaps trying to sow them in place in early May. 3) I admired the fall-blooming anemones in his fall border, and will try to grow some of those, especially for cutting (although my cutting garden might be too full sun to grow them well...).

In summary, I highly recommend "The Layered Garden" for experienced gardeners or those who love beautiful garden photos.


  1. I have read this book, and as you say, it was refreshing to read a book that was written by a plant collector. So many times we are told to design, not just buy, but anyone that truly loves gardening begins to acquire more and more, and different and varied. The photos are fabulous, too. Great review. I think I'll re-read my copy!

  2. Thanks for visiting my site, and for your nice comment! It's certainly a book worth reading (and drooling over the photos) again. :-)