The Garden Conservancy is a national, not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving exceptional American gardens for public enjoyment. Founded in 1989, The Garden Conservancy began its Open Days Program in 1995, which allows the public to visit some of the country’s best private gardens in various population hubs around the United States.
This past Sunday was the Open Day in my geographic region. I was already familiar with two of the gardens, but the third garden offering, belonging to Craig Bergmann, was one I didn’t want to miss. Bergmann is a local landscape architect and designer whom I’ve long admired, ever since attending one of the earliest Open Days that featured his garden, among others. The garden was like a tiny jewel box, and I immediately pegged Bergmann as a designer who had the same intuitive gift for stunning plant combinations as Rosemary Verey. Perhaps Verey was one of his inspirations, because he’s now recognized as the premier designer of English-style gardens for midwestern homes (using plant materials adapted to the climate of the Great Lakes region).
His success allowed him to purchase the residential living quarters of Elawa Farm, the former “gentleman’s farm” property of meat-packing magnate, A. Watson Armour, and his wife, Elsa. The property was designed for the Armours by David Adler, the chosen architect of Chicago’s uber-wealthy social elite for their north suburban estates. All of Adler’s work is exquisite, but Elawa Farm is particularly lovely with its red brick Georgian architecture. After years of neglect, following Mr. Armour’s death, the operating portion of the farm was purchased in 1998 by the City of Lake Forest and is operated by the Elawa Farm Foundation. In 2010, Bergmann negotiated for the residential buildings–the restoration of which had not been part of the Foundation’s mission–and, after substantial renovation to the buildings (main residence, coach house, and other structures), moved his home and his office to the new site. Work on the extensive residential gardens began at the same time.
Unfortunately, photos of this particular garden weren’t allowed. However, I always carry pen and paper, so I’ll share my notes, sprinkled with a few representative plant photos. To gain a visual perspective of Craig Bergmann’s work, I encourage you to visit his website. The photos of his projects, including his own garden, are worth perusing. Since most of Bergmann’s personal garden has been finished only recently, the pictures on his corporate website don’t do justice to the exuberance of his herbaceous borders.
One of Bergmann’s signature techniques is to combine copious annuals and tropicals in among perennials. Maintaining that kind of garden takes time and money, especially since most homeowners don’t have greenhouses for overwintering tender plants. Nevertheless, it’s fun to have a few favorite annuals from year-to-year, especially in pots. I recommend taking cuttings in late summer and then overwintering the cutting pots under a few grow lights during the darkest months of winter. By spring, start hardening off the plants and boosting growth with fertilizer.
Another signature Bergmann technique is to use antique-looking pots filled with annuals, often placed on simple cement pedestals (you could even use the base of a two-part birdbath). One such lovely patio planter contained nothing but a large Shrimp Plant (Justicia brandegeana). Other planters, repeated around entry doors, contained only red Dipladenia (Mandevilla sanderii), which Bergmann thinks blooms more profusely than its cousin Mandevilla splendens (Brazilian Jasmine).
In the herbaceous borders there were several silvery magenta Strobilanthes dyerianus (Persian Shield), some combined with fuschia-colored phlox, and some combined with tall pink and white lilies. Annual blue Ageratum (Flossflower) was combined with lavender-blue perennial Salvia and Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), and deep blue Delphiniums–all backed by a hedge of red, white and purple Sweet Peas (Lathyrus odoratus) rambling up a metal fence. There was also lots of Kale ‘Redbor’ planted among assorted perennials, the kale ranging in height from 2′ to 4′ (61 cm to 122 cm). An especially attractive perennial grouping in another corner of the garden consisted of a lavender Rose-of-Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), fronted by Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), and accompanied by deep fuschia Coneflowers (Echinacea) and yellow Daylilies (Hemerocallis).
Lastly, and, again, Bergmann signatures, there were some stunning colored foliage standards. One, planted at the end of a herbaceous border, was a Physocarpus ‘Diabolo’ (Ninebark) trained to a single stem. The naturally arching lower branches of ‘Diabolo’ made a spectacular presentation.
My favorite new plant idea was unquestionably the use of two Fothergilla x intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’ plants trained as standards, serving as sentries at the entrance to the main garden. They were exquisite. The foliage of ‘Blue Shadow’ is a rich glaucous color, and the leaves are pear-shaped with an undulating edge. As with other members of the Witch Hazel family (Hamamelidaceae)–think Liquidambar (Sweet Gum), Parrotia Persica (Persian Parrotia), Disanthus cercidifolius (Disanthus), and the various Hamamelis (Witch Hazel)–‘Blue Shadow’ provides reliably brilliant orange and red fall color. Whether trained as a standard or left to grow in their natural form, these Fothergilla would make a sensational pairing on either side of a home’s front entry.
‘Blue Shadow’ grows 3′-5′ (91 cm to 152 cm) tall by 3′-5′ wide in partial shade or full sun. It requires moist, very well draining soil, and, importantly, the soil must be acidic. If you don’t have naturally acidic soil, you’ll need to add elemental sulfur to the soil for a couple of years to bring down the pH.