fbpx Foreword by Allen Bush - On Walnut Hill


The skies were darkening, and it was chilly. But that didn’t matter. I was taking a walk through 40 years of warm memories.

forewardpic1This was All Saints’ Day, a good day to visit the Maryland garden of Penney and A.C. Hubbard. The tumbling pink daisies of Chrysanthemum ‘Hillside Sheffield Pink’ didn’t mind the cold at all. There was lingering orange fall foliage on a witch hazel and yellow berries on an American holly cultivar. The bright yellow leaves of the Japanese maple, ‘Sango Kaku,’ were spectacular.

It would be too easy to say that the Hubbards’ garden has been blessed. And yet I do think their garden is blessed. A blessing requires good fortune and devotion.

Good fortune arrived with Kurt Bluemel. The world-renowned garden designer, plantsman, and nurseryman, from Baldwin, Maryland, collaborated with the Hubbards on their garden for 40 years. Though known principally for introducing and growing ornamental grasses, Bluemel was an artist. There aren’t many nurserymen with his good design sense.

Forty years ago, Bluemel must surely have been thrilled to meet Penney and A.C. Hubbard. Bluemel had emigrated from Switzerland a few years earlier and was just beginning his career in America.

Penney had a few square vegetable beds. Bluemel ignored these and said, “Let’s begin with the perimeter. We’ll start with the backdrop. The middle and front layers will follow.” And he followed this with the advice that set the entrance to the house on an axis with pathways to accommodate two people side by side. The rest of the garden should be curvilinear, Bluemel recommended.

For the next 40 years they listened to one another — the Hubbards and Bluemel.

“The swimming pool will go here,” Bluemel said, driving a stake in the ground to mark the spot.

“No way, I’ve got conifers planted there,” A.C. protested.

Bluemel always had a remedy to a roadblock. “We can dig them and move them to a temporary nursery and plant them back when we’re ready.”

Bluemel was a confident garden visionary. And he didn’t mind taking control of the backhoe to ensure the job was done right. “For months the garden looked like a war zone,” A.C. remembers, laughing fondly. Ultimately, Bluemel’s pool design received national recognition.

The Hubbards are devoted to their garden. Devotion is hard work. A.C. dug Taxus, native azaleas, and rhododendrons from the old Towson Nursery, in 1975, when it was going out of business. The “digging privileges” worked out well. Those plantings are all big now — and impressive. So are the Japanese umbrella pines and Atlas blue cedars. There are magnificent walls and small boulders, and the rock garden A.C. built with his five-year-old-son, Crawford, in 1975.

Trees, shrubs, and rocks form the broad strokes. Penney took care of the small strokes. Bluemel taught her a few lessons. “My variegated Solomon’s seal wouldn’t do anything when I’d plant five or six,” she says. Kurt’s recommendation: plant dozens. They were happier in a colony.

Snowdrops, daffodils, bluebells, and trilliums are happy in the late winter and early spring, too. Soon they are followed by impressive groupings of Geranium macrorrhizum, ending in the autumn with late accents of the yellow, fall-blooming Kirengeshoma palmata. Weeping clumps of Hakonechloa macra hold them all together. Never heard of the little-known, long-lived perennial or the Japanese forest grass? Bluemel’s influence runs deep. The Hubbards understood clearly: you learn as you grow.

Bluemel was a plant collector, and the Hubbards fell under his spell. I hadn’t seen Ajania (Chrysanthemum) pacifica — a Bluemel favorite — planted in years. How could anyone not be taken with this durable ground cover, which has tiny golden blooms and gray-green leaves? There is no shortage of the grasses and sedges that the nurseryman knew well. Miscanthus, Pennisetum, and Carex are here. He propagated and grew them, and could discriminately site them where they belonged. Bluemel and the Hubbards have a knack for this.

But Bluemel’s fascination with plants wasn’t restricted to perennials and grasses. The Hubbards like a rich garden tapestry, full of textures and colors. Weeping beeches, sweet-scented Daphne, and early spring flowering Corylopsis are here, too. Just as there will never be another Kurt Bluemel, there aren’t many gardeners with the Hubbards’ passionate curiosity.

I’ve visited gardens all over the world. It takes only a few minutes to tell when one is loved. (No doubt about that here!) What is special about Penney and A.C.’s garden is that it’s so much more than a two-acre hillside garden in suburban Baltimore. Wander the footpaths, and time slows down. On All Saints’ Day, I wanted to linger. I was in no hurry. I was happy.

Allen Bush
November 1, 2014