Home-grown champs: Winners of the 2016 Baltimore Sun Garden Contest

For The Baltimore Sun
The winners of the 2016 Sun Garden Contest range from shady and spacious to compact and colorful.

Gardens are meant to be shared, the winners of this year's Baltimore Sun Garden Contest say.

Their outstanding gardens ranged from a tiny, colorful strip, to a whimsical fairy garden, to a lush, shady retreat. Regardless of the size or theme, their owners say they enjoy sharing them with friends and family.

Linda Migliore, who with her husband, Steve, created a shady oasis in Abingdon, entertains frequently, inviting friends to dine in their gazebo, sit around a fire pit and play games in the yard.

"We are so happy to share this yard with other people," Linda Migliore said.

Friends who visit Jim and Linda Elliott in Havre de Grace ask to sit on the deck that overlooks their small, colorful plot that blooms three seasons of the year.

"We have a glass of wine and cold beer, and we have the fountains running and we just relax," Jim Elliott said.

Shannon Katona, who lives in Northeast Baltimore, said she loves inviting neighborhood children to look at the fish in her pond and count the angels in her flower beds.

"I think a sense of community is critical, especially these days," she said.

Best large garden

Linda and Steve Migliore, Abingdon

The Migliores' garden started with a problem on their sloping, 1.5-acre property.

During storms, rain would cascade down the hill and into their basement. Their solution was to install gravel ditches to divert the water away from the house.

This tactic solved the drainage problems — and created the general outline of their future garden. The couple first planted hostas, banana trees, rhododendrons, azaleas, peonies, astilbe and ferns along the ditches. Then they began to add garden rooms and connect them with pathways.

From a gazebo came a path to a koi pond, and from the pond went a path to a fire pit. Along the walkways, they planted hundreds of hosta.

Today the garden features four ponds, a waterfall flowing from a retaining wall and numerous shady spaces in which to relax.

Linda Migliore said her parents inspired her love of gardening because they had a nice yard that felt like a lush, green room.

"That's how I've constructed my rooms," she said.

Her favorite space is what she calls her "secret garden." Tucked behind grape vines, wisteria, euonymus and grasses, the area includes a small fish pond, a hammock, and a swing beneath a trellis, where she enjoys reading.

Linda Migliore, a nurse, said she approaches gardening differently than her husband, who works in business development for a construction company.

"He's very meticulous," she said. "He writes up supply lists. I just dream and I look at things and plan things in my head. I have a vision in my head that is always changing."

Gardening, she said, has great benefits, both mentally and physically.

"It adds immensely to your life," she said. "What a great sense of accomplishment you get."

Linda's favorite plants: Catalpa tree and hosta

Steve's favorite plant: Begonia

Linda's advice: "My best advice is that you go with what is natural in the area. There are so many plants and so many failures, but if you go with what grows in this area, you can't go wrong."

Steve's advice: "Make a plan and do a little every day to avoid the burden of giving up your entire weekend. Enjoy your garden as you work, be patient and give plants time to mature. And most of all, don't be discouraged if the results aren't what you expected. Just change your thinking and go the way your garden leads."

Best medium garden

Shannon E. Katona, Baltimore

Shannon E. Katona's love of gardening is so infectious she planted gardens not only in her yard and the adjacent property she and her husband own, but in her neighbor's yard as well.

As with the Migliores' garden, some of Katona's features were born as a response to problems. When a large tree toppled onto an above-ground pool several years ago, she was left with a big, bare space adjacent to a wooden deck. Her solution: Create a fish pond.

When another large tree died in the front yard, she piled mulch around the stump and created a new flower bed.

Katona says her gardens have evolved without a plan.

"Gardening to me is a lot of 'keep trying to see what works,'" she said.

Motivated by a desire to create and share, Katona established a garden full of surprises and whimsy. In the spring, crocuses pop up to resemble a stream flowing across the yard. In one corner, a fairy mosaic of concrete and stone is placed amid moss and surrounded by containers of annuals that depict various scenes. One features a beach scene, another camping; toy Spice Girls perform for an audience of Legos in yet another.

Katona grows 30 varieties of hosta and 35 kinds of daylilies. Salvia, roses, hydrangea, coral bells, liriope, astilbe and crepe myrtle add color and texture.

"At this point, I don't feel like being out in the yard is work," said Katona, who works in the computer lab at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

Her latest project, a "magic kingdom" garden overseen by a seven-foot tall metal dragon, will be a memorial to her youngest son, Xander, who died unexpectedly last year of an undiagnosed heart defect. When done, it will feature a waterfall surrounded by a moat and plants.

"My gardening is a healing thing," she said. "My serenity comes from being creative."

Favorite plants: Hosta and caladium

Her advice: "Flexibility is huge," she says. "Nature and plants sometimes have their own ideas. … You have to be flexible and willing to try different things."

Best small garden

Jim and Linda Elliott, Havre de Grace

When Jim and Linda Elliott moved to their home in Havre de Grace in 1991, the front yard was a narrow strip of bare grass he called a "landing strip."

"I just freelanced it," Jim Elliott said. "The first thing I planted was a Colorado blue spruce. And it started from there."

The Elliotts' house has no backyard, but the entire front yard is a riot of bloom and foliage. Jim Elliott estimates he has nearly 500 plants in the 30- by-140-foot lot.

Daylilies and coneflowers bask in the sun, while ferns are tucked into the shady areas. The space includes hibiscus, a weeping cherry, roses, coneflowers, irises, gardenia and camellias. Small fountains gurgle in the beds and birds poke their heads out from birdhouses.

Both of the Elliotts work in health care. Jim Elliott works in supply services at the Perry Point VA Medical Center, and Linda Elliott works as a secretary at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center.

Jim Elliott said they learned how to garden by watching television shows and reading books and websites. He said he especially likes to plant unusual specimens, such as a green coneflower and a recently acquired yellow peony.

Although their plot is packed with flowers, Jim Elliott said the garden is still evolving. He hopes to install a larger goldfish pond in the future.

"Gardening is a great stress reliever," he said.

His favorite plant: A green coneflower with a raspberry center.

Her favorite plant: Lilac

Jim's advice: "Take your time and be patient. What's going to happen is going to happen. It's up to nature. If you wait, you will be rewarded."

Linda's advice: "Plant from your heart, be patient and relish in your success. If it fails, try again."

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How the contest was judged

Judges included Susan Reimer, a former Baltimore Sun columnist and master gardener; Christine Pfister-McComas, a horticulture consultant at the University of Maryland Extension's Home & Garden Information Center; and Liz Atwood, the Baltimore Sun's former home and garden editor. The gardens were judged on plant variety and health, overall design and sound environmental practices.

More garden info

The Home & Garden Information (HGIC) website, extension.umd.edu/hgic, gives free, science-based help with gardening and pest management. Ask a question by clicking on "Home Gardening" and Ask an Expert." You also can locate a master gardener plant clinic where you can take samples.

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