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What's Up Magazine

Back to the Future in the William Paca Garden

Nov 22, 2017 09:00AM
By Janice F. Booth | Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.

Looking down over the terraced garden, you wrap your woolen cape more closely against the wind; your silver-buckled, serviceable shoes and knit gloves keep you warm. It’s late autumn of 1770, and you’re admiring the garden at your feet—its green, gold, and russet expanse of parterres (pär’ te ər: formal, often symmetrical gardens) rolling lawn, and shimmering pond.

The wind loosens dry leaves from the willow oaks, river birches, and myrtles. A few roses and lavender spikes, shaken by the wind, release and mingle their fragrances.

But wait, you don’t have to imagine all this. Those antique gardens still flourish as they did in 1770. The William Paca Gardens of Annapolis are perfect for seeking inspiration for your own garden.

These carefully groomed, lush flowerbeds were once the pride of Governor William Paca, signatory of the Declaration of Independence. In Governor Paca’s portrait, by Chas. Willson Peale, the gardens are used for the background. It is, in part, from that portrait that the gardens have been restored to their original grandeur. And now, like Governor Paca did 250 years ago, you can find inspiration among the trees, and flowerbeds.
The terracing and parterres are classical solutions to difficult garden terrain. The two acres that became the Paca Gardens are steep, and at the lowest point, a stream intersects the garden with a predictable boggy area. These natural limitations dictated, to some degree, what trees and plants would thrive.

The upper terraces contain geometrically designed flowerbeds, made popular by 16th century, French aristocrats and adopted by English country houses—roses in one, cutting flowers in the second, holly trees and boxwood in the lower terraces.

Below these stylized, Classical areas, the Paca garden’s “Wilderness” rolls down toward the stream and fishpond. A picturesque bridge and two-story summerhouse are focal points, reflecting the Romantic vision of unfettered nature. A bald cypress (Taxodium Distichum), lush swamp magnolia (Magnolia Virginiana), an exuberant bottlebrush tree (Callistemon), and evergreen Leucothoe with blossoms resembling lily-of-the-valley all tumble toward the water and entwine their branches along the edge of pond and creek, making a beautiful riot of texture, color, and even fragrance.

Looking at the Paca Gardens for ideas offers both traditions in garden design, Classical and Romantic, from the elegant simplicity of the upper gardens to the wild exuberance of the lower garden.

I asked Joe Kuchuk, Head Gardener, and Mollie Ridout, Director of Horticulture, what lessons they’d learn from this 250-year-old garden’s design and the 40-plus years of its present incarnation. They talked about the garden’s delights and idiosyncrasies as one might speak of a dear but crotchety old aunt or uncle.

Here are some of Joe and Mollie’s hard-won insights from this beautiful, historical garden:

Joe: “Start with native plants. They may not be the show-stoppers, but natives will thrive; they’re less susceptible to weather and mold.”

Mollie: “We have a tall hedge of Canadian hemlock—lovely, but it suffers with our weather and invading insects.

Mollie: “Wax myrtle and bayberry (two varieties of Myrica Cerifera) become beautiful hedges; they have a lovely fragrance and can even handle brackish water.”

Joe: “Avoid boxwood hedges. They’re slow growing, susceptible to insects and disease, not the best choice…If you like the look of boxwood, the Japanese holly (Ilex Crenata) looks like boxwood but is easy to manage and train for hedges.”

Mollie: “We have some interesting old varieties of roses in our rose parterre. The swamp rose (Rosa Palustris Marsh) has long, arching branches and simple, pink flowers. The really old-fashioned, Noisette rose is the first rose bred in America, South Carolina, actually. I like Maiden’s Blush (Rosa Alba); the flowers have a sweet fragrance and pretty, pale pink color. The French name for the rose loosely translated as “Nymph’s Thighs,” so the English had to change that to “Maiden’s Blush.”

Joe: “Arrowood Vibernum with its big, white blossoms grows well in almost any soil. It’s lovely, but if you let it, it’ll get huge.”

Mollie: “Spiderwort (Tradescantia) is a great wildflower for any garden. It has small, profuse, purple-to-blue flowers from spring through mid-summer. It’s easy to maintain and both the plant and the blossom are lovely.

Joe: “Come to the Paca Gardens and think about the sizes and settings. The shrubs and trees you may want to plant now may seem perfect. But how big will they be in a few years? Are you going to be planting something too close to your house or garage? Does the shrub you like respond well to pruning or does it get woody?”

Mollie: “If you’re thinking about fall foliage colors, the buckeye and the hydrangea look good together. The leaves of the oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea Quercifolia) turn a reddish-maroon color. Plant a sweet buckeye (Aesculus Flava) nearby; its leaves turn yellow.”

Joe: “Don’t put oyster shells or crushed shells around your plants. We used to put them around the shrubs and plants. The hot sun reflected off their white surfaces and burned the undersides of the plants. And, the lime and calcium from the shells leached into the soil and harmed the plants’ roots. For our trimming and paths we use mulch, pebbles, or woodchips.”

The Paca Garden’s experienced gardeners remind us that gardening is fun. Do a little homework. Then, don’t be afraid to experiment. When you see something working, enjoy it. Don’t worry if it’s not the way you’d originally envisioned the garden or flower bed. No one will know that but you.