Weekend gardens are notoriously difficult to manage. While homeowners are busy doing everything but gardening Monday through Friday, weeds grow into bushes, deer chomp prized flowers, and sudden storms can flatten a flower bed in minutes. It's a problem that Bill Noble knows too well. As director of preservation for the Garden Conservancy, a national organization that preserves America's gardens, he divides his time between his work in Cold Spring, New York, and the home he bought in 1991 with his partner, Jim Tatum, in the Upper Connecticut River Valley of Vermont. In addition, his job frequently keeps him on the road visiting historical estates and gardens that are being reviewed for conservation.
Noble's solution: to use planting techniques that allow room for a little imperfection. Aside from a rock garden and several shade borders, the main feature of his garden is a group of mixed borders of shrubs, perennials, annuals, and biennials. The plantings may look complex, but they're actually a labor saver. "All the shrubs are good citizens," Noble says, explaining that most need just a yearly pruning. At midsummer, the four beds overflow with classic characters of a New England flower garden: phlox, mallow, and monarda. Their bright pastels are set off by dark-leaved shrubs, such as Berberis 'Royal Cloak' (not invasive in his area, he says), purple-leaf sand cherry, and Gleditsia triacanthos 'Ruby Lace.' The sturdy branches not only give support to delicate flowers, which would otherwise need more staking than the minimal version he does each spring, but also nudge the proper shades toward a more daring palette. In less experienced hands, all the diverse color and leaf texture might look like what the English unappetizingly call "the dog's breakfast," with one of this and one of that competing for attention. But with his natural artistry, a planting plan that strives to be fairly low maintenance, and a few long weekends sneaked in during the season, Noble keeps things looking harmonious.
As the sun's rays hit his jewel box of a garden, the setting is as idyllic and golden as the hilly Italian landscape that inspired the artists in neighboring Cornish. "Everyone loves a good view, but when you're trying to create a garden space, that feeling of being on the edge of infinity can be a problem," says Noble, who edged the planting with a row of poplars. The leafy screen does its job, generating a sense of peacefulness -- and refuge from the demands of a long week.
For more garden inspiration, get our mixed border garden bed tips and plant recommendations.