A Glimpse of the Garden: A Love Of Plants And Plants To Love

Photo: Nancy Crevier

A red pygmy maple, center, is flanked by a low growing Well’s Special false cypress on the left and a snow cypress on the right. Barbara O’Connor enjoys placing unusual specimens in her gardens.

“A Glimpse Of The Garden” is a seasonal miniseries focusing on the heart of a gardener’s work — a special spot, an extraordinary plant, a place of respite, or a place that evokes a heartfelt memory.

What is down the garden path of your friends and neighbors? What is down your garden path?

Thirty-nine years of employment with Planter’s Choice in Newtown has given Barbara O’Connor a sampling of nearly every kind of nursery work, as well as the opportunity to sample of some of the more unusual plants and shrubs gardeners lust after.

Many of those less common plants have found their ways into the landscaping of her one-acre property. Some are “rescues,” plants too damaged for the nursery to sell, or spindly specimens that need extra TLC to thrive.

She has accumulated other varieties at the annual Connecticut Nurseryman’s Association summer silent auctions, received them as gifts, or picked them up at the Town & Country Garden Club spring plant sale.

“We always have our member grown perennials there,” said the longtime T&C Garden Club member, “so I have collected many plants from my friends.”

Her love of plants is apparent as she walks about her yard, naming each shrub and flower by its scientific name, and then more fondly, by its common name. The names roll off Ms O’Connor’s tongue as if she were speaking about her best friends.

“If I’m dividing stuff up and there’s a scrawny plant, I’ll stick it in a pot. I hate throwing it out,” she said. She’ll find a new home for it, either in her garden or a friend’s.

“I do all of my own yard work. I do the transplanting, and I plan my own gardens,” she said, although she admitted that some have turned out “a little haphazard than I intended” due to her work schedule. One goal she has always strived to achieve is to insert plants into her landscape to provide a succession of blooms, from March through October. Semi-retired from Planter’s Choice now, she is able to devote a bit more time to her gardens.

Approaching her home, visitors are greeted by a linear roadside garden boasting yellow and green striped Japanese forest grass, hayscented fern, black-eyed Susans, sedum, hosta, and white Siberian iris. Dwarf spirea spreads in front of a small golden oak leaf hydrangea. Magenta and white wild phlox peek out from forsythia bushes, and an elegant fothergilla shrub reaches up behind a stand of daisies, its frizzy white flowers long gone in mid-summer, its fabulous autumn color yet to come.

“This is an interesting plant,” she said, pausing by the evergreen Stransvasia that anchors the driveway end of that garden. Its white springtime flowers attract many kinds of pollen-seeking insects, she said. “It has berries, which I believe the birds eat, and then it has beautiful mahogany red leaves in the fall,” Ms O’Connor said.

Numerous varieties of hydrangea, azaleas, rhododendrons, hosta, cypress, and dogwood wrap around the foundation of Ms O’Connor’s home. Most come with a story.

“These are my newest additions,” she said, pointing out two large potted plants, yet to be placed. The variegated hydrangea and the leucosceptrum “Mountain Madness” were just too good to pass up at the recent summer plant auction, particularly as the Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, which she greatly respects, grew them. The variegated leaves, Ms O’Connor said of the hydrangea, will give a sense of light in a shady area.

 Behind her home, she cherishes the lion’s head maple for its fabulous fall colors of yellows, oranges, and reds, and the delicate fronds of the butterfly maple. The “Crimson Queen” lace leaf maple is a large bush of threadlike leaves, now a green-tinted red; but in autumn, the leaves will turn a brilliant red, she said.

Ground cover campanula spreads across a path and edges up to a garden where annual begonias brighten a rocky area framed by Boulevard cypress. Three large clusters of Paul’s Glory hosta, acquired at a long ago auction as just one plant, spread out from the foundation. Opposite the hosta is a grove of dwarf conifers, although many did not, said Ms O’Connor, remain dwarf. A snow cypress towers to one side of a red pygmy maple, with a Well’s Special false cypress on the other side.   Ground cover azalea spreads at the feet of the four other cypress varieties.

Pygmy andromeda belies its name, stretching tall at the back yard’s wooded border. Behind it, a fringe tree hovers, known for its fragrant lacy clusters of flowers. Spring Snow andromeda, with upright blossoms hugs the Lutia false cypress.

“And I love the Cornell Pink azalea,” said Ms O’Connor, pointing out that it is more rhododendron-like than other varieties. “It has early pink blooms and golden yellow leaves in the fall — just beautiful,” she said.

The Waltham rhododendron came from Planter’s Choice, and while the nursery no longer carries it because it is a poor bloomer, Ms O’Connor exclaimed over the thick, clean foliage it produces.

Variegated dogwood is a sprawling shrub as one rounds the corner of her house. Next to that, is a yellow magnolia, a birthday present from her employer, Chuck Newman. “Appropriately,” she said, “it is called ‘Golden Gift.’”

Deutzia “Pride of Rochester” has attractive exfoliating bark and “cascades of white flowers in the spring,” Ms O’Connor said. The Seven Sun Flower also boasts the shaggy exfoliating bark. That tree-like shrub blooms white in summer, and in the fall, the flowers’ rusty red sepal add color to her garden. Variegated andromeda, one of only a few plantings in place when Ms O’Connor bought her home 24 years ago, leads the way back to the front of the house, where a Kousa dogwood blooms outside the front door. “It took a beating in that fall snowstorm a couple years ago,” Ms O’Connor said, “but came right back,” as did the boxwood that border the front of the house.

There is still more to this plant lover’s gardens. Up a stone path behind the house is a wooded area where the very first blossoms of spring appear in her yard. “The Madison Snow rhododendron has huge white flowers that I can spot from my back yard in March,” she said. Next come the flowers on a newer rhododendron in her collection, the New Patriot,” and then the pink blossoms of Balta.

How could her garden be complete without the hardy “Barbara” azalea? Variegated leucothoe and the pink and white Devault azalea are joined in the woods by more hosta and tiarella, flowering closer to the ground.

“I love spending my free time in my gardens. I’m not tired of it, even after working all day at the nursery,” Ms O’Connor said. “I think it’s the love of it and gardening’s great therapeutic value. Seeing things grow and nurturing them,” she said, “is a reward.” 

More stories like this: Glimpse of the Garden, Barbara O'Connor
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