Schuylerville resident Susie Kane-Kettlewell, owner of Garden Masters, has established breathtaking gardens around her hillside home.
An artist and garden designer, she has created garden rooms that flow from formal to relaxed, with plantings that range from the expected to the exotic.
What makes Kane-Kettlewell’s garden so successful is the combination of interesting plants, an appealing layout, lots of variety in color and foliage and the placement of strong focal points — sometimes plants but often statuary.
This is the time of year when the successes and failures of our own gardens are fresh in our minds. It is also a time when we can make improvements, plan changes, buy plants at the fall sales and get a few new elements into the ground before winter.
In a recent interview, Kane-Kettlewell shared her secrets and offered advice on garden design that will help you perfect your plantings.
The biggest mistake most homeowners make is buying single plants, this British native said. It is much more visually effective to grow three, five or seven of the same plant, she added. This creates a mass of color visible from a distance.
In Kane-Kettlewell’s garden, the best overall view is from a second-story deck. This bird’s-eye perspective lets you see almost the entire backyard at once as well as dissect the elements, including a formally designed parterre lined with trimmed boxwoods and featuring “Knock Out” roses.
Many sizes, textures
Her flower beds — and there are many — are a series of carefully laid out plantings from small plants to tall, with the largest specimens in the background.
These background plants are often dramatic. Two striking examples are a 71⁄2 foot tall yellow blooming Heliopsis with a profusion of bloom and a Miscanthus giganteus grass that will reach a staggering height of 12 feet in one season with plumes that wave in the slightest breeze.
The cascading form of grasses and daylilies — including an unusual variegated daylily — appeals to this gardener.
“I like the form they add to the garden. It’s flowing,” she said.
She also likes to incorporate different textures for visual interest.
“To me, gardening is an extension of painting,” the abstract artist said.
When designing, she has the line, texture and overall tapestry of the garden in mind much as she would if she were standing before a blank canvas planning a painting.
“The garden is 3-D art,” she said.
In her garden, you’ll see spiked foliage next to the soft, succulent gray leaves of the Stachys x “Helene Von Stein” or spiked foliage backed by the feathery form of a Russian Sage.
“They are completely different in structure from one another,” said Kane-Kettlewell. Yet, they work.
Persuading clients to grow plants for foliage over flowers isn’t always easy. Yet in her own garden, it is the foliage that sets the stage and performs consistently over the entire season, whereas flowers give fleeting interest.
Wise use of space
There are other lessons to be learned in Kane-Kettlewell’s garden, such as the use of space.
First, the edges of the beds do not strictly follow the rectangular perimeters of the fenced yard. Instead, the flower beds flow forward, partially obscuring what lies behind and making it impossible to see the entire garden when you enter.
The result is that this modest space — only a small portion of the acre and a half property is gardened — feels larger than it is.
Another example of using space well is a circular bed planted entirely with very short plants.
“This was deliberate. You can see over the plantings to the bed behind,” she said.
The result is the illusion of depth. There’s a lot to take in. Your eye stops, rests on one bed and then continues to the peach, pink, yellow and white of the flowers beyond.
Maintaining the garden is an ongoing process. If plantings grow into one another, Kane-Kettlewell recommends thinning in the spring and adding a layer of compost “because the most important thing is the soil.”
The fresh compost replenishes the soil nutrients, improving the health of soil and plants. This is vital, as a “healthy plant can resist disease,” she said. She also feeds with Plant-tone in early spring.
To keep the garden thriving, Kane-Kettlewell recommends keeping a sharp eye for any problems. “Walk in the garden and look around. It is much easier to control problems when they are caught early,” she said.
Tending the plants is just part of what it takes to keep a garden looking presentable.
In Kane-Kettlewell’s garden, she used bricks to create an edge between the lawn and the flower beds. “If the edges are sharp, it looks neat and tidy,” she said.
She also uses large statues to create focal points and specimen trees for color and shape, including native plants such as the staghorn sumac, considered a weed tree by many but with wonderful clusters of red drupes at the end of branches and a rich history, having once been used as a dye by Native Americans.
Perhaps because of her background in the fine arts, Kane-Kettlewell is bold and daring. A red orange “Amadeus” daylily makes a flaming statement set among dark greens, a “Sun Power” hosta adds a punch of light to a shady area and a grouping of hostas, Golden Hakone grass and Ligularia combine attractively “purely using texture and foliage color.”
Kane-Kettlewell plays with the unexpected, too. An example is the garden growing beneath the two-story deck. This space is often neglected by homeowners who don’t know how to use the space. Kane-Kettlewell embraced it as a shade garden, terraced the ground and is growing shade-loving plants including expected plantings of hostas — although her hosta choice is a puckered leaf blue variety — along with an unusual Rheum, a member of the rhubarb family with massive green leaves on stems of a complementary dark red.
As she walked about her Monument Drive garden, Kane-Kettlewell pointed out a few of the workhorses: “Knock Out” roses, daylilies, phlox, monarda. Some of the plants are invasive, but Kane-Kettlewell said they are shallow rooted and as such are easy to remove and give such prolific bloom that she doesn’t consider them a problem.
“The bee balm, evening primrose can be managed easily,” she said.
If you haven’t been happy with how the plants look together this year, move them, Kane-Kettlewell said.
“When should you move plants? When you’ve got a spade in your hand,” she said.
Get as large a dirt ball as you can manage.
“That’s the secret. If it’s too heavy, put it on a sheet and drag it to its new location,” the indomitable gardener suggested.
Another tip as you work in the gardens is take photographs and note where you felt the garden was lacking this summer. Then, when the garden catalogs start to arrive this fall, you can refer to the photographs and order plants to add color and texture to your backyard. Then next year, your landscape will be as much a pleasure to behold as Kane-Kettlewell's.