Through the Garden Gate: Such A Fun Way to Learn

Through the Garden Gate: Such A Fun Way to Learn

  • By Susan Martin
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  • February 2017-Vol.3 No.2
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One of my very favorite garden activities is to appreciate the creativity, work and weed-pulling of OTHER gardeners.  We are fortunate to have the opportunity to do just that through PMG’s Through the Garden Gate series. Historically, five gardens each year have been opened to the public from spring through fall. I met with Billie Dietz and Kathi Marshall, co-chairs of this amazing series, to see what they have learned from visiting so many gardens.

Q: How many years have you two headed up this wonderful project?

Billie: I‘ve been involved since 2008, which is 8 years.

Q: So you’ve been involved with over 30 gardens!

Billie: I guess I have!

Kathi: I’ve been working with Billie for about 6 years.

Q: As I understand it, you two are responsible for identifying potential garden gems, talking with the owners to see if they’d be interested in letting people visit, and then evaluating the gardens through on-site visits.  That’s a lot of volunteer hours!

Billie: It is, but we love doing it.

Q: What are some of the key characteristics that you look for when assessing whether a garden might be appropriate for the tour?

Billie: You might have an absolutely beautiful garden, but there are some very practical criteria that must be met.  It has to be accessible and have sufficient parking. It also has to be in Albemarle County.

Kathi: We also like to make sure there are some shady spots so that people can get out of the sun, enjoy some refreshments and rejuvenate themselves.

Q: So access, parking and shade are practical considerations. What about design elements?

On the tour . . .

Kathi: Each garden is different, which is what makes it so interesting. There is no right or wrong.  Each gardener makes it work for the natural setting he has and for what he likes personally.

Billie: That’s right. We’ve shown some really big gardens that are taken care of with professional help and have been co-designed by the owner and a professional garden designer. But more frequently, we’ve shown gardens that are owner-designed and -maintained.  Both are beautiful, but the second is a great way for gardeners to learn at a scale that’s  similar to their own.

Q: That’s true.  I’ve seen both types of gardens on the tour, and I’m always able to learn something from each. But is there some common design element that seems to stand out when you arrive at a new garden for the first time?

Billie: We probably look at about 70 – 80% of the gardens in the winter.

Q:  Really! That’s amazing to me. What do you see? The form?

Kathi: There’s just a flow. The owner can describe what plants are included, but we can see the garden from the structure and the flow.

Billie: We also feel the owner’s enthusiasm. True gardeners love to show their gardens. You can tell a lot about what a garden will be like from the owner’s enthusiasm.

Q: I guess you are each at least partially describing intuition, something you’ve learned by doing. Are there any tips you’ve brought back to your own gardens?

Kathi: I find it hard to turn down a plant! I love trying different things. One of the most practical tips I got came from visiting a garden that had lots and lots of bulbs. The owner said she used an auger drill, so I tried that. It makes planting bulbs so much easier. I also admired the way a Japanese maple was pruned and that gave me an idea.

Billie: I was really impressed with a red horse-chestnut tree (Aesculus x carnea).  (Here’s a link that describes the tree–it is impressive!)

Q: The gardens are shown in spring, summer and fall. Do you look for gardens that specialize in certain seasonal plants?

Kathi: That works out sometimes. We chose a garden for early spring that would be abloom with hellebores, some of which are quite rare. Another amazing garden featured fields of lavender, and so that was open in June. We give the owners the choice of when they’d prefer to be on tour, and so their specific interests come to the fore.

Billie: A really well-designed garden can be shown any time of the year.  The June garden for this year’s series, for example, could be shown in any season.

Q: Are there any new trends you’ve noticed? I’m sure people are using more native plants?

Billie: We certainly do see lots of native plants.

Kathi: What we mainly see is that gardens are personal and you have the freedom to do what you want with plants you like. Most people seem to think their gardens aren’t good enough to show on tour. But if you are really passionate about gardening, your garden probably reflects that.

Q: Well, I think that will be a very encouraging thought for our readers! If someone wants to offer his or her garden for the tour, how much preparation is required?

Billie: You have to make sure it is accessible, has parking and some shade.

Kathi: And you need to make sure that paths are easy to walk on.  You might need to smooth things out, or add gravel or something like that.  Just keep an eye out for what might be tricky for a visitor to navigate.

Q: Do you need to be a Master Gardener to offer your garden for the tour?

Kathi: Most of the gardens on our tour have NOT been owned by Master Gardeners. It’s a mix.

Q: When can we look forward to our first garden tour this year?

Billie: They are held the second Saturday of the month in May, June, July and September, from 9 to 12 noon.  Admission is $5. Please check the website at for more details as we get closer to the dates.

Q: Well, it’s just such a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning! We encourage our readers to consider opening their gardens. If interested, call the Extension office at (434) 872-4580 to leave a message for Billie or Kathi. And we should all thank Billie and Kathi for making such a fun, educational experience available. Let’s make sure to take advantage of the 2017 season!


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