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On beyond azaleas

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Like their homes at either end of a River Ridge street, Carol Mendel and Hilda Boger's gardens are at either end of a spectrum. Both are vast — Mendel's spilling down a sunny sloping expanse that has the Arkansas River for a backdrop, Boger's acres lush and shady. It takes a lot of plants, shrubs and trees to green up so much land, and master gardeners like to shop for plants, everywhere and anywhere, including seed catalogues. In fact, it might be said that there is no plant place at which they do not shop, and that includes every town they happen to pass through.

But nurseries in Central Arkansas and various outposts offer a great selection, if these yards are any example, of plants that with the right color thumb can thrive in our own Zone 7.

“We're no longer working from what our mothers taught us,” Mendel said. “The plant world has been turned upside down genetically.” Plants are being engineered to live in a wider variety of climates, and nursery stock is different from years past.

Boger's front and back yards, for example, include 35 varieties of Japanese maple alone, and is a lesson in how wide is the variety of beauty in the world of shrubs and trees. She likes to shop at Arkansas Nursery, River Valley Horticultural Products, Custom Landscape in Hot Springs and Carden-Harris Azalea Nursery (in Branch, up in Franklin County) for her woody wonders, and says if the nursery doesn't have a plant she needs, they can often get it for her. She's created an uncommon and often fragrant forest in her front and back yards with such trees as Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica), which has fall color and small winter flowers; fragrant Styrax (Styrax obassia); and the flowering Dove tree (Davidia involucrate). The native shrub Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus), whose red petals look carved from wood, lines her driveway.

Boger's garden blooms at ground level as well, thanks to a wide variety of shade plants (and a good sprinkler and drainage system). Many of the hydrangeas in her yard — oakleaf, big-balled Annabelles and varieties that grow on vines — come from Cricket Hill Farms in Conway. Many of the shade-loving perennials and native plants that thrive in her side and rear yards — peacock moss, hellebore, orchids, bear's britches (Acanthus mollis), native columbine, epimedium, clethera — come from the Good Earth and native plant specialist Pine Ridge Gardens in London. That mandevilla? Home Depot. That enormous pile of mulch yet to be spread? From Burnett's, in North Little Rock.

Boger (and Mendel too) have a problem most city gardeners don't: Deer. Boger pointed to nibbled hostas and sighed. She finds that a little Milwaukee sewer sludge — which she gets from the Farmer's Coop — helps keep the deer away.

On the sunny side of the street, Carol Mendel has expanded the garden in her home of seven years down the great sloping acreage that is her back yard. It features, along the way, three decks and other places to sit and enjoy the view. Mendel, an interior designer whose garden combinations are her own, shops from the same nurseries as does Boger; and like Boger is wild about Japanese maples, which she finds at Green Tree Nursery as well as Arkansas Landscape. She loves White Wagon in Maumelle for what she said is an “incredible” selection of herbs and perennials, and Botanica Gardens and the Good Earth for the annuals that provide hot-season color. Her flower of the moment is the white-flowered hydrangea Blushing Bride that blooms on new wood all summer.

Standing among a profusion of sun-loving asters and coneflowers and gaura and cannas in a patch set off by antique metal gates, Mendel makes the point that a garden is about “stuff” as well as nature. Ornamentation punctuates and defines sections of the garden — and when your garden is more than an acre that's a good thing. Unlike Peter Rabbit, Mendel's rock bunny, from Botanica, adds rather than subtracts to her garden.

Mendel also likes not to shop. Mulch is free from the city of Little Rock, and “they're very good about delivery.”

 

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