The nationally renowned plantsman Kurt Bluemel is on our minds. This June marks the fifth anniversary of his death. Kurt helped us transform our Walnut Hill property into what it is today. He established the series of three courtyards and the two-person wide brick sidewalk that form the central axis around which all of our gardens revolve. He turned the children’s sledding hill into elegant terraces overlooking the Green Spring Valley. He did this just in time for a family wedding on the middle terrace, the only lawn on the property.
The woodland garden below the lawn was Kurt’s final project here. It showcases the New American style, which he pioneered along with his colleagues Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden. It’s full of bulbs (5000 at first planting) and swaths of perennials (Solomon’s seal, hellebores, ferns, perennial begonias, trillium, Allegheny pachysandra). They bring life, light and movement to this shady space.
Many grasses punctuate our gardens, including Carex elata ‘Aurea’ (Bowles’ golden sedge). The use of grasses was a trademark of this man, who was often known as “the king of grasses.” He circled the globe collecting rare plants and seeds. Another salute to Kurt in the garden is a Davidia involucrata (a.k.a. a dove or handkerchief tree), which also stands as a tribute to our friendship. Long after he had installed tons of artistically placed rocks with his prized backhoe, elegantly curved dry stack walls and truckloads of plants, Kurt phoned one day. “I have three Davidias,” he said with the pride of an inveterate plantsman. He wanted one himself. He wanted one for a dear mutual friend, and he wanted to know if the third might find a home here. Of course, it did.
The tree did not bloom that first year, or the year after, or the year after that. Those blooms, which resemble falling handkerchiefs and doves’ wings, came out for the first time the month that Kurt died, in June 2014. It has bloomed each year since and early this year, in late April.
Kurt had hoped to write the foreword of our book. Instead, his beloved wife Hannah introduced us to Allen Bush, then of Jellitto seeds. Bush, a well-known garden writer and plantsman himself, had travelled the world with Kurt, even during the last year of Kurt’s life. A few minutes after entering the garden, while standing on the top terrace by a stand of grasses and Sheffield daisies, Bush remembered that he’d been here before. And so his foreword became a tribute to our mutual friend. Kurt’s vision took our garden to a level we would never have imagined when, in 1969, we set foot on a property overgrown with shrub roses.
It’s not surprising that in a recent dream Penney envisioned Kurt as a gourmet chef and was asking him what herbs she should plant in the garden. Just as a fine chef is an artist, Kurt was indeed the consummate artist, with earth as his canvas and plants as his paints.
From public gardens, where he planted four million savanna plants, to our own two acres, Kurt remains a presence in the beauty he created.