The Garden Club’s July road trip took us a short distance north of Lake Geneva to Northwind Perennial Farm, a former dairy farm purchased by three friends twenty-three years ago. Sharilyn Smage, our tour guide/floral arranger, described the three owners: Roy Dibik the philosopher/plant man/author known for his low-maintenance style of gardens; Steve Coster responsible for the unique wood plants, for master pruning, and for creating the hardscape on site—including a huge stone pyramid; Coleen Garrigan the antique guru responsible for the merchandising barn. (Some of the antiques Coleen featured are just to be admired, as Norma found out when she asked about purchasing an urn with a beautiful patina. Sorry, not for sale).
.The business grew utilizing the strengths of each person, and like the three friends that have harmoniously grown the business, their demonstration gardens have evolved into a kindred community with similar needs but a vastly different vision. As the gardens were originally designed and planted, Roy did what most of us did twenty years ago: piled on the mushroom mulch, rototilled or turned the soil over and planted his favorite flowers, fertilized them to death, and lastly, added a couple of inches of wood chips. (Oh yes, plus the belief that most bugs were evil and had to be destroyed with pesticides.) Today he uses a couple of inches of locally composted leaf mulch around each new plant. The following spring around March, he cuts down (or mower mulches) the plant material and lays it around the plants to provide their own organic matter. A large drift of early spring bulbs are planted to come up and cover the debris, and then the new plants cover the bulb’s decaying leaves. A little hoeing every couple of weeks in the spring eliminates most of the weeds. If that approach is too wild looking for your taste, remove the cuttings and use composted leaf mulch in lieu of wood chips. According to Roy, wood chips cause weeds to flourish and new varieties of weeds to enter your garden.
But that is another story.
After growing more than half a million plants, Roy has narrowed his scope to approximately 300 varieties of regionally sustainable plants. We have heard the dictum “Right plant, right place.” Roy’s philosophy about a low-maintenance garden can be summed up in his “know”-maintenance garden: know your plants needs for light, soil, and water and plant compatible plants close to each other. A little knowledge about the plant’s growth habits helps to develop a beautiful intermingled garden with little open space for weeds to grow. One example I recall hearing about is a spreading blue star Amsonia paired with the vertical clump-forming grass Sesleria. (The plant botanical names were flying out of Sharilyn’s mouth faster than I could record them and how they were combined in this garden. We will need to study the pictures.) I will say I recognized an abundant variety of alliums, asters, campanula (bellflower) coreopsis, Echinacea (coneflower), geranium, hemerocallis, nepeta (catmint) and salvia, to name a few. It was the variety of these plants combined with grasses that played up their textures and colors that were so lovely to see. We would frequently do a 360˚ turn to appreciate the light and color from all viewpoints. For shade areas they were utilizing hardy Carex, a sedge that comes in a variety of shapes, textures, and heights. With sedge, we no longer have to rely on hostas to do all the work in the shade.
Dibik’s gardens are informal and rather like a display of family pictures highlighting the best of each participant and appreciated in all seasons. Out buildings on the farm are left unadorned and used as they are needed. In front of the “Swallow’s nest” building that had recently been used for assembling bridal bouquets were the largest flowering common milkweed I have ever seen accompanied by a relocated, self-seeded Giant Hog Fennel (Peucedanum Verticillare). The original seeds had been given to Roy by Piet Oudolf (Lurie Garden designer from the Netherlands), and broadcast in another area of the farm. The Giant Hog Fennel was thriving here so no need to remove it. The gardens looked like they had been there forever untouched by human hands, although that is not the case. Occasionally they get the attention they need; a little thinning, weeding, water, whatever is necessary to keep the balance. If Mother Nature contributes another pleasing design, so be it. Gardening is a symbiotic relationship.