From the curb, the gardens on Harry and Durant Bauersfeld's quarter-acre just outside Annapolis look like immaculate set pieces -- not a leaf or a blade out of place.
The front beds are coiffed, the low hedge could pass muster with a carpenter's level, and the topiary shrubs are so meticulously sculpted they look as though they were done with nail clippers and calipers.
"Harry's an engineer," Durant says, laughing. "He's in charge of anything that looks precise."
But while their property is, in Durant's wry words, "all gardened up," it's not so perfect that it's intimidating. There is a strong whiff of English cottage in the perennial beds that frame the backyard and enhance the garage and driveways on either side. Roses scramble up an arbor and along the white picket fence.
Sprawling lady's mantle (Alchemilla) shares space with lavenders, alliums, and volunteer foxgloves (Digitalis). And there is clematis everywhere. Eighteen varieties froth up tuteurs, clamber over trellises and blanket the pergola that Harry built to shield the patio and support the plants.
"We needed to add height to the gardens," explains Durant.
But when they first moved in, they needed a lot more than height. Photographs of the property "before" look like a construction site. The soil was "stinking clay" with standing water that had killed the few spindly pines.
They started the transformation from the ground up. After scraping off bucket loads of clay, they replaced it with truckloads of topsoil to which they added plenty of peat moss. Then came the design. Because the houses are set village-close, they felt a little exposed.
"We wanted some privacy and a sense of enclosure but didn't want a huge fence," she explains.
Durant had made "extensive" plant lists, but wanted professional help with the design though not with the installation, which they wanted to do themselves.
Then they found Stratton Semmes, recently graduated with a degree in landscape architecture. Her dapper plan included a white picket fence that acts as visual partition between houses and also backstops the perennial beds. Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia), star magnolia (M. stellata), and Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata) anchor the gardens and help screen without making the yard feel claustrophobic.
Eighteen years later, the bones of the original design remain, though much has changed. One chunk of perennial bed has been replaced with a small brick patio and teak bench that act as a focal point at the foot of the yard. This year, they yanked out the scruffy heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) at one corner and replaced it with a 'Sky Pencil' holly (Ilex crenata) and shade-loving perennials. The work is constant, but it's also a creative outlet.
"We redo something every year," says Durant. "It's fun for both of us."
Before you start, have the soil tested, so you don't spend money on plants that won't thrive.
Brick mowing strips bordering the beds preclude the need for trimming and keep bed edges sharp.
For team gardening, it helps if each member has his own areas of interest or expertise. "Harry's the rose person," Durant says. "I'm in charge of bugs -- I spot one and say: Get out and spray!"
While Durant enjoys the combination of English cottage look and her husband's geometric shrubbery ("Harry loves his square tree"), she doesn't have a rigid gardening philosophy.
"I find plants and stuff them into a hole," she says. "I want it to look pretty and I want to have something to pick."
She buys plants wherever she sees a good one, whether it's the National Arboretum's annual sale, or the grocery store.
National Arboretum 3501 New York Ave. N.E. Washington, D.C. 20002-1958 202-245-2726 usna.udsa.gov
Main's Greenhouse 3659 Riva Road Davidsonville, Md. 21035 410-798-6980
Patuxent Nursery 2410 Crain Highway Bowie, Md. 20716 301-218-4769