From the rail of the second-story backyard deck, a handful of white-throated sparrows can be seen enjoying a midwinter breakfast from a fully stocked bird feeder in the formal gardens of Scott and Charlene Uhl’s Carroll County home. A cardinal alights imperiously on a bare, delicate branch of a nearby variegated pagoda dogwood. Come spring, the leaves will take the graduated shape of a pagoda — hence the name.
From this vantage point, the cardinal (and later, a visiting blue jay) surveys the winter-gray bones of two raised rectangular ponds, each covered for the season. The vivid hues of the birds’ feathers, their wings lit by the sun, are like drops of colored ink against the snow-covered tarps. Beyond the two wooden gates leading from the shaded formal garden, enclosed by Japanese barberry and inkberry bushes, the morning sun illuminates the white trunks of five river birches and the vivid green boughs of 20 white pines lining the east end of the 2.65-acre property.
“I think gardens are just as beautiful in the winter as they are in the summer … you just see it differently,” says Scott Uhl, whose formal patio area and informal English-style country garden earned a top spot in the 2014 Baltimore Sun Garden Contest. “When all the leaves are down, you can see the structure of the garden, the trunks, the lines of the trees and the bushes and where the plants really are [when] not covered up by foliage.”
With the four seasons’ natural beauty in mind, and the desire to have two distinct gardens, the Uhls designed and executed their plans almost from the moment construction on their house was completed. They moved in October 2001, and work began on planting the 20 pine trees the following spring.
“Our main objective was to have a private area where we could sit, entertain and read — that’s what the enclosed patio was designed to provide,” explains Charlene Uhl, a budget director at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Outside the formal patio, we wanted a place … that [felt] like walking in country fields and more natural areas.”
In time, and with hard work, the Uhls would achieve that objective — and more.
The three-tiered inner gardens, accessible from deck stairs and a pair of doors at the lower level of the house, were inspired by Winterthur, the Delaware home of the du Pont family, and Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. The couple also refer to this 1,500-square-foot, hardscape area as the patio. Stanley Bauman and his son Paul of Spring Glen Hardscaping in Woodsboro, Frederick County, installed the patio and ponds.
“The project turned out well,” Paul Bauman says. “We used interlocking concrete pavers and segmental retaining walls. As we were completing the hardscaping, Mr. Uhl was installing the pond liners, plants and fences.”
Scott Uhl shares some key wisdom for others considering the treatment for their own home gardens: “With hardscaping, there is a border of crusher stones right beneath the soil that goes out at least six inches from the stone,” he advises. “You shouldn’t disturb that at all, so design your plantings so they are at least that far away from the outside edge of the stones. Also, water drains between the pavers, so you don’t have to worry about plants getting enough water.
Two raised rectangular ponds with wide concrete tops allow guests to comfortably sit around the edges and enjoy the soft rumblings of the fountains within. The linear effect produced by the three tiers, the ponds and a large, wrought-iron table is tempered by large and small bushes planted along the garden’s periphery — common boxwood and Kingsville boxwood. Green pillow boxwood enjoys its own bed. Herbs like tarragon, sage, chives, rosemary, oregano and basil also grace the garden and flavor the Uhls’ meals.
Within the rectangular formal garden, the placement of the perennials offers a sense of peace in their order and simplicity, as does a Grecian statue of a woman and a concrete dragon. Soon, the rosebushes planted on the west side of the garden will bloom in glorious color.
Beyond this halcyon garden, the bulk of the Uhls’ property is emblematic of the respect they have for nature and the soft beauty of the trees, bushes and smaller beds of flowers they have planted over the years, many from nurseries like Behnke Nursery in Beltsville and Meadow Farms in Frederick.
At the west end of the property, stately Leyland cypress trees planted several feet ahead of a wooded area form a tractor route. In summer, when the woods are green and full, the path makes for a lovely stroll.
A sycamore tree and a tulip poplar cast spindly shadows on a light dusting of lingering snow. South of the sycamore, a fruit tree bed produces apples and nectarines. Within the bed there is also a cutting garden providing Shasta daisies, black-eyed Susan, yarrow, purple bee balm (to attract pollinators), delphinium, columbine, David Austin roses and honeysuckle.
Toward the south, the front end of the property, an elegant hedgerow comprises two white dogwood trees, a Japanese maple, three honey locusts, a sugar maple and a green ash. Interspersed among the trees are pussy willow, mountain laurel, yew, a Hinoki cypress, a white dogwood and a white crepe myrtle whose striking red bark offers pleasing contrast to a winter-blue sky. Vinca forms the ground cover in this area, which also includes Japanese holly bushes and a third white dogwood.
A growing garden
As in nature itself, no garden is perfect, and while the Uhls have created a visual masterpiece that gets pretty close, they have a bit of work to do this spring. To begin, they will likely replace the large boxwoods that line the front walk. Southern exposure comes with freezing, thawing and refreezing that is particularly hard on the English variety.
The Uhls also plan to replace some of the 20 white pines lining the east side of the property with hardier Austrian pines. White pines, they discovered, are prone to beetle infestations. The bug bores its way through this particular conifer, causing the tree to turn brown and drop its needles. On the other hand, Austrian, or black, pines have the same needle shape and structure but are less vulnerable to disease and insect invasion.
The couple consider their garden a joy in all seasons — when the weather is bad, they still relish taking in a different view of the garden from each window in their home.
“Even in this bitterly cold weather, we’re enjoying it,” says Charlene Uhl. “The windows are like frames on a picture.”
Her husband agrees, adding: “We’re looking forward to spring, when the daffodils come up and the red bud and dogwood start to bloom. Then the whole garden comes to life.”