The owner of Wildflower Designs steps out of the studio to arrange her garden
flower: Sybil, I’m dazzled as I look around your garden. It seems your artistry with flowers is not confined to arranging. Which came first, gardening or arranging?
Thank you so much! Picking flowers as a child came first. But I discovered that when you grow up, you have to grow them yourself before you can pick them!
Can you tell us a bit about how your floral design translates to your garden and vice-versa?
It all revolves around what is pleasing to my eye and the path my eye travels, whether I am arranging flowers in a vase or in the garden. As in my floral design, my garden is constantly changing and evolving from year to year. There is always something else to try or a new color palette to explore—the bones remain the same, but everything else can be played with. I also have to mention all of my garden statuary, etc.—this is my love of whimsy and one-of-a-kind pieces. I have calmed down the interior of my home, but I still have to junk it up out here!
This is something of a challenging space, with most of your garden situated on a slope ending in a retaining wall. Can you share with us your original vision?
Challenge is the key word! When we bought this house 17 years ago, this garden space was covered with big shade trees, English ivy grew over everything, and it was all held together by concrete-block walls and steps. It was so dismal, I did not even want to come out here. I didn’t have a true vision—I just wanted it to be pretty. So it took time, saving, and then spending money and hard, hard work. First, we had all the ivy removed; second, we came in and removed several trees to open the space up to sunlight; and third, Linda Sue Johnson (whose garden captivated me) brought a man, Mr. Bales, over with his concrete machine and truckloads of rocks. Mr. Bales was probably here for six months building all my stacked-stone walls and patios and walkways—he is my hero! The garden began taking shape. The garage loomed over the back, so we painted it a soothing green and planted Boston ivy to cover it, and it became part of the space (people think it’s a wall in the summer) instead of taking over.
Are there some tricks you used and recommend for meeting the challenges of a hillside garden?
Just take control by creating various levels, and use steps and pathways to gain access. We had to find and capture the sunlight. You have to live in a space for a while before you truly understand what plants will grow best where. The level out here that is the brightest started out as an herb garden and has now become my rose garden.
Who or what are some of your garden-design influences?
I am embarrassed to admit that I haven’t been one to study traditional garden design. Just like with my flower arranging, I do not have training—I just shoot from the hip and try what I love. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. I have always enjoyed visiting gardens, but I am not a huge fan of too much structure. I suppose I lean more towards the cottage-garden or country-garden style—splashed with whimsy!
Great description of your garden! Sybil, I know you’ve loved flowers your whole life. Are there some plant materials you’ve selected for this space that have any particularly sentimental significance?
So many old friends! One of my first memories as a child is the pink climbing roses over my grandmother’s garden gate—their petals all over the ground—so I have recreated that over my back gate. I just love it! A great family favorite is fresh figs—so even though they create tons of summer shade, we love our fig trees. My middle granddaughter, Hattie, can’t wait for the figs every summer! I diligently try to get lily-of-the-valley established in this garden.
How would you distill your gardening philosophy into one sentence?
My garden is truly an extension of me, my sanctuary that has been built through hours of hard work, years of trial and error, and survival of the fittest.