reading the garden’s layers with an eye to enhanced design, with david culp

DESIGNER DAVID CULP sees the garden in layers. But not just the most obvious landscape ones most of us do—meaning the canopy, the shrub layer and ground-covering plants. His view of the garden is more like 3D chess and then some: layers of color, texture, shape, and even the layer of time. He’s here to offer us advice for looking at our garden’s many aspects with an eye to strengthening the overall impact.

David Culp has been making his own 2-acre garden in Pennsylvania for about 30 growing seasons, yet he still looks to tweak it regularly, to continue to fine-tune. David, a longtime teacher at Longwood Gardens, is lately teaching online in popular monthly webinars, hosted by Jim Peterson, the publisher of “Garden Design,” with their next one coming up November 11th.

David is the author of “The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage,” and a follow-up book last year, “A Year at Brandywine Cottage: Six Seasons Of Beauty, Bounty and Blooms.”

Plus: Enter to win his most recent book, “A Year at Brandywine Cottage” by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the November 8, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

reading the garden’s layers, with david culp



Margaret Roach: Hi David, how are you?

David Culp: Good morning, Margaret. It’s a hub of activity here around the cottage.

Margaret: Yes, I know, right? [Laughter.] It’s time, because we’re having frost, aren’t we?

David:  Exactly.

Margaret: Oh, so I hope you’re ready to help us all needy types with some of your garden design insights so that helps us with some of our issues. So as I said in the intro, you see the garden as a place of many layers and that was the subject of your 2012 book, “The Layered Garden” [affiliate link]. So what are all these layers? [Laughter.] Do you really see, you have some kind of special glasses on.

David: Yes, I think I do, but there’s nothing that I have a patent on. I think everyone has them at their fingertips. They just need to be aware of them, O.K.? And I’m just helping, trying to give you something to think about—possibilities when looking at your garden.

Margaret: Yeah. So layers, meaning again, not just the canopy and the middle layer and the groundcover layer, the physical layers, but color, layers of color and layers of what else?

David:  Well, when Timber Press asked me to write this book and suggested “The Layered Garden,” I thought, “Well, gee, there are some obvious answers to that, but would you let me address all the layers that I can think of?”

Which had to do with first, maybe, succession planning. Now, that’s an obvious layer, is succession. But then there’s layers of the space. As you mentioned, the ground layer, the herbaceous layer, the shrub layer, the small-tree, the large-tree layer. All those spaces need to be addressed, either making compositions within that layer, but having those different spatial layers relate to one another as well.

There is the layer of time. My garden looks, and I’m sure all of us who’ve been gardening for a while, looks different through time. Not only the way plants live, grow, and die, but the way our taste level changes in time, too, we’re all constantly being influenced by what we see.

So you look at your garden, what are the possibilities when you plant that perennial, when you plant that drift of bulbs, that tree, what’s it going to look like in relation to your garden five years down the road, 10 years down the road, 20 years down the road?

Margaret: And boy, oh boy, don’t we, a lot of us, and I hate to use the word “mistakes” because it sounds critical. And it’s just, a lot of us don’t think about that layer as you’re calling it of time, and we plant too close or plant too much, get a little over enthusiastic [laughter]. So thinking about that as well—not just the now, but time, both, all the different seasons to come and how the plants will look in those, but then also as they age, right?

David:  Absolutely. And we’ve all done that. Gardening is a process, and I like that process. So yes, I agree with you. I mean: Don’t look at it as a mistake; look at it as a way to garden, a way to learn. Think of all the cooks who burnt toast before they made it to the kitchen. O.K.? We all are learning things. Even after 30 years, I’m still learning things. And that’s what I like about our profession.

Another layer, I think, it’s the emotional layer, dare I say that? What your garden conveys as an emotional response to viewers. You need to think about that as well. And that’s going to vary to every listener here today, because you’re putting your own idea of what you want in your garden.

I guess a way to start on that one is find out what you like best about nature and try to reestablish that thought or emotion in your garden. So that’s the layer of emotion.

There’s some things in the garden that go beyond vision. There’s an emotional response that you have to looking at a thistle, “Oh, ouch. I might get pricked.” [Laughter.] There’s things like that. Those are all different layers that you can consider, when making a garden. [Below, in spring David repeats a single plant, forget=me-nots, at the edges of beds around the garden.]

Margaret: Right. So in a way, what I’m hearing, so there’s layers of, as you say, succession, and there’s layers of time in the sense of thinking into the future, as things grow, there’s this emotional layer, there’s layers of color, of shapes, of textures.

So shapes is an interesting one. And I’ve confessed this to you: You told me when we worked on a, for people who don’t know, we worked on a, maybe a month or so ago, a “New York Times” garden column together about layering the layers of the garden and so forth, and about your work. And afterward I was thinking, because you shared with me in that that you have a lot of vertical, linear shapes in your garden. And I’ll ask you to explain that in a second.

And I was thinking, “Well, what’s my signature shape in my garden?” And I confessed to you that it’s amoeba [laughter]. Margaret’s Amoeba Garden.

But by that, I mean, and again, in reflection, after talking to you about signature shape, it sounds silly, like I’m making fun of myself, but I’m on an undulating, very hilly, sensuously curved site. Right? So if I tried to make Versailles here 30 years ago, with rigid linear geometry, it wouldn’t have worked.

So everything I’m attracted to is lumpy-shaped plants and beds with irregular curving edges, and it kind of fits. So, that’s one of my layers [laughter].

David:  Well, that’s exactly what I want people to do, is first of all, you assess the site, what are your strengths? Move forward from your strengths, something that you like, and shape is very, very important.

As a plantsman, my tendency is to plants, but we need to find things to give our gardens unity. You probably heard of a thousand times, to give our garden unity. You can do that with color, by repetition of color. You can do that by repetition of shape or by repetition of a certain genus, that helps string your garden together and give it a theme. That was often overlooked due to the ’90s garden writers about colors. Color is very important to me, absolutely, but there’s also the underlying physics and geometry of a garden.

I had a lot of trees. I had a wooded lot. I had a vertical to begin with. The lines of my house were somewhat simple and plain. So I decided to put a vertical shape as a signature shape. Not so much that you would say, “Oh, what are all these spiky things in the garden?” But it makes everything a little more unified, which is especially good for gardeners here in the Northeast, because we have snow in the winter, and a vertical shape will stand out in the wintertime as well as the summer.

So I did that repetition of shape throughout the garden, actually, a repetition of color as well. And I think verticals to me, link the earth to the sky. They’re one of the most dramatic shapes that you have, think of, hold up your thumb, it’s a very strong, vertical shape. So if you want your garden to have a lot of statement, you’ll perhaps think about adding vertical elements to it.

Margaret: Right. Exclamations. So they came from not only some linear plants, but they came from other choices, like the way that you stake and support things and so forth?

David:  Well, it’s again, repetition. Sorry; when they said that. I have a picket fence, how iconic Americana, right?

Margaret: Right.

David:  But it’s a vertical. I have in my Veg [what he calls his vegetable garden]; I have vertical elements like my bean poles. I have rose pillars, I have rose tuteurs, which are rather slender and vertical. I have a large selection of vertical plants. I had a friend come over and say, “Well, at least you’re consistent.”

Margaret: [Laughter.] Me with the amoebas, you with the verticals.

David: And I’m on the hillside. I have a horizontal hillside. So the intersection of the vertical with that hillside gives me lots of energy in my garden, I feel. So it’s those intersection of planes that I like to consider as well in my design.

Margaret: Right. Right. So we have to, when we go out and look around, we have to really think about things that may have been unconscious when we first started doing it. But in a way we have to make it a little bit conscious in order to improve upon it. Right? It has to be a little more deliberate to do the tweaking, I think.

David:  Oh, it’s refine, refine, refine.

Margaret: Right. Right. And the color, the layer of color, I think you told me that at Brandywine Cottage, your color palette changes through the seasons, which makes sense. Where do we look for clues to improve or strengthen our color story in our gardens? Where do you look for… I mean, in some design books it might say, “Oh, the color of the house, the color…” [Laughter.] You know what I mean? But where do you look for clues?

David: Well, I do like change. I would be bored to tears if my garden never changed. The last thing I want my garden to be is my least favorite four letter word, it’s D-U-L-L, dull. So I like change.

I think we tend to repeat colors that we like, subconsciously. If you look around your home, you’ll see that you tend towards pastels, you tend towards brights. That gives you an idea of the colors you would like outside; you’ve probably already given an indication on the interior. So you start there.

And I think it varies seasonally as well because of the angle of the light—the bright, clear light of early spring, to the raking light of fall, helps lead you to different color choices. Now, your idea might be to contrast them, your idea might be to repeat them—but that’s where the personality of the gardener comes in.

Margaret: Yeah. Years ago, friends who are garden designers who were visiting said, “Oh, you have this big…” Well, big-ish, I’m in a state park, surrounded by sort of state park and forest and stuff like that, so there’s a lot of long views.

And they were like, “To lead your eye to the long views, why don’t you use some gold foliage things at a distance?” And along the way, mark the allee, so to speak, these viewsheds, and pull the eye out to the distance to say, “Hey, look over here. Don’t just look close up; look out here.” And that was really helpful to me, the idea that gold color—I mean, I think I might have overdone it with too much maybe [laughter]—but it does.

Certain colors scream, right? And certain colors are quieter and they can help you make a space feel bigger or smaller too, I think.

David: Absolutely. I did the same thing. I have a white Pennsylvania stucco farmhouse, so I used the color white, which to repeat and delete the, white’s a very, very, very bright color. Also, like you used yellow, I used white that way, because I was repeating what I had in the color of my house.

And I live in a little valley, so I needed a bright color to just lighten things up. As you used yellow, I used white. It scares a lot of photographers because it’s a hard color to capture. And I know it’s not, but white is just so bright—it lightens up things that it’s next to, O.K.? You put it next to a pink and just, everything appears brighter with the use of white. So that’s what I use.

And you’d have to consider the time you view your garden, the time of day you view your garden the most. If you’re a 9-to-5er, now a lot of us are at home. You want the colors that are cheery and reflect the time of day, that stand out in the evening.

Margaret: True, true. I didn’t think about that, but yes. Yes, you’re absolutely right.

David:  And if you live in an area with lots of rainfall or that’s cloudy, or not like we have in the unpredictable Northeast, you’re going to select colors that work in that climatic area, the climate—the Pacific Northwest, for instance, would use a brighter color palette.

Margaret: Right. A few weeks back, I was thinking about you because I noticed, and I don’t know if this happens in a lot of your clients’ gardens or in your own garden as well. I was thinking about our earlier conversations about color, because you had said something when we were doing the Times story, I think it was about at this time of year, like looking up to the canopy layer and you might see a particular shade of gold happening at this time of year. And then looking for perennials at the lower layer that complement that. Like you might see, say, Amsonia, that might turn color the same time as some of the maples do. And it would be a harmony from top to bottom and so forth.

And I had this moment where I noticed, and of course they were nowhere near each other in my garden, but I noticed two plants that were doing a similar color story at the same time. Phlox ‘Jeana,’ with a sort of orchidy lilac-purple-color, flower. And far away, in a different area of the garden, Sedum ‘Lidakense,’ which has blue leaves, and then the same orchid-purpley-pink flowers. And they were flowering at the same time.

And I thought, “Well, Margaret, why are they 50 feet apart [laughter]? Why don’t you make a color story with these?” And I was thinking of you because you were kind of saying, “Go out all the time and look for those things and then unite them.” Right?

And pump up the volume, so to speak. So I don’t know; that’s just my little example. So you taught me that. [laughter].

David:  Well, thanks. That’s what this is all about, is gardeners sharing. That’s why I like these conversations, because we’re always learning something and it helps to relearn certain things as well. Repetition of color—I always take my cues; I like to look around at mother nature. What’s going on in the outside world? And again, like you just explained, uniting those, you’re maximizing your effort, because you’re using what mother nature gives you or what your garden gives you, and then working from that, like the color of the phlox.

Margaret: Right. And moving-

David:  Or an Amsonia up to a sugar maple, you’re just uniting… You’re taking advantage of the larger view to your garden.

Margaret: Right. And doing some digging. And of course, we all put things in some place and it takes about, sometimes 10 times before we figure out where they really belong. So we have to be O.K. with that [laughter].

David:  Yeah. I tell people my plants think they’re on roller skates sometimes. I move them so many times. It’s not like you’re painting with pastels, this is a living, growing… You have to adjust things. It’s a very flexible non-static art form.

Margaret: Right. Well, and I want to talk about collecting. And you hinted at this about the getting into a genus of plants or whatever, and making that one of the layers that helps things hang together. One of the elements of repetition, and you’re a, shall we say, passionate collector: You have collections of Narcissus and hellebores [below] and snowdrops, Galanthus, and lots of collections. But you didn’t collect them to then line them out, like in a farm setting to be some study collection or reference thing. Right? You’re incorporating them. So give us the pitch for why we want to collect something as gardeners.

David: Collecting something, that is a topic that is very near and dear to me. I am a of plantsman. And I’m guilty as charged, I have a lot of collections. It’s like I like Margaret Roach, so I like all of her family [laughter]. So they’re all at Thanksgiving dinner. If I like a Galanthus, I tend to like all of them, and try to explore them, but I don’t want my garden, and I hope it doesn’t. I don’t want it to read like a plant zoo.

It’s not about that; over all, garden comes first. So I chose to house my collections in a particular style. I would guess you would describe my style as a cottage garden with a naturalistic planting. But I want it to look more like plant communities that relate to one another, not like a botanical garden per se. Nothing’s really labeled in the garden except the Galanthus collection.

I want to take it as the larger view of the garden, to make it look, the picture of what I’m trying to achieve. And then I house my collections within that. I work the collections in, where they fit in the space and where they fit in the garden due to environmental conditions. Like the drier collections go in one area, the wetter collections go in another.

I’m constantly amazed by what plants do, and how they relate to one another. Take the Geraniaceae, the geraniums. If you see lots of geraniums in your garden, that is a form of repetition as well.

Now there’s a fine line between being boring and repetition. You don’t want to be boring. You want to repeat that in a clever way, by putting it with another plant, putting it with another texture. There’s so much you can do with it. I’m not afraid of collecting. It’s just how you put them together that I want people to consider.

Margaret: Right. So not, as you say, making a zoo, where they’re in their individual displays, segregated, so to speak, but integrating them. And you even use them in pots and so on and so forth.

I just wanted to dig a little bit more into that. When we did the Times story, you said, “If there’s something you love, do a little exploration of that genus and then extend the bloom time of that favorite plant.” So it’s another way to stretch the seasons.

Like how many weeks or months of Narcissus do you have, or of your snowdrops, of your Galanthus, or hellebores, you have the longest possible enjoyment of that favorite item, right?

David: It’s about how much pleasure you can wring out of one space [laughter], and out of one genus. And you just try to do that. I have snowdrops blooming now, they will bloom all the way through the winter until April, May. I do the same thing with iris, they start early on and go all the way to June. They’ll start in late March perhaps, and go all the way to June. So again, if you like something…

I started out planting everything early. Now, I’m planting everything late, just trying to extend the season of what I love.

Margaret: Right. Right. Do you have any new plant obsessions that you’re beginning collections of? Or are you just digging deeper into the established ones?

David: Oh, I’m still-

Margaret: Confess. Confess [laughter].

David:  … I’m still probably spending more than what I should on Galanthus.

Margaret: Oh yeah. Yeah. Well, they’re expensive. The snowdrops are so expensive. Oh, my goodness.

David: Then there’s other things. I have a lot of flirtations with other genera. And then I become captivated with them. But they’re like hellebores, that obsession’s been with me forever. But there’s always new plants. I’ve been, recently for a lot of my clients, doing meadow gardens. So some of the grasses I’ve been exploring.

Margaret: Oh. Well, I’ll want to talk about that the next time we get to speak, because that’s something that I’m definitely very interested in, and don’t know enough about.

So David Culp, I’m so glad to catch up with you. And thanks for the tips, because I think it’s a super important time to have one look, garden as we take it apart—one more look at the garden as we take it apart. Right? And make our spring to-do list.

David:  Absolutely. That’s why I’m madly planting bulbs. I’m paying forward into spring. And I’m just always, unless you’re enjoying now and thinking about what’s to come, both, you’re behind the 8-ball. And I’ve enjoyed this morning, talking with you, after being in the garden, the next-best thing is a gardening friend talking about the garden.

Margaret: And I’ll also give a link to your November 11th and your other ongoing “Garden Design” webinars, which are totally fun. So people can join you on that as well.

David: Fun, fun, fun, because I’ve just put the final touches on the November garden webinar.

Margaret: Oh, good.

David: Yeah. It was great. I’m up way too late doing it.

Margaret: Oh, I can’t wait. All right, well, I’ll talk to you again soon. Thanks, David.

David: Thanks, Margaret. Always a pleasure.

(All photos by Rob Cardillo Photography.)

enter to win ‘a year at brandywine cottage’

I’LL BUY A COPY of David Culp’s “A Year at Brandywine Cottage” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:

Do you have a signature shape in your garden’s design–or a signature color? Tell us which of David Culp’s “layers” is working at your place.

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in,” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll draw a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the November 8, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Bess Simons says:

    My signature shape in my garden design is curves (dramatic curves!) that contradict the straight lines formed by our house, street and driveway. And the colors I layer tend to be pinks, lilacs and blues in the spring; purples, oranges and reds in the summer, and fall foliage with blue and red berries in the fall. Mostly natives. Still evolving

  2. Marie says:

    In the past I worked with circles (beds, bricked patios, containers..). In my most recent location (3 growing seasons) we had alot of geometric squares and rectangles with some curves. I worked with what I had at the time, but in hindsight I’m realizing I like the curves of circles and the “amoeba” shapes. I will be moving to a new location in a couple of weeks and will have to wait till spring to see what I will be working with but from what I can tell – the current (previous owners) style was amoeba. shapes and very low. I will be incorporating some vertical elements and trees, trees, trees :) – so exciting

  3. Janice B Smith says:

    Purples, shades of lavender and purple, are the colors of my gardens….
    and you know what? I still have opening blooms, purple, on my 20 foot long passionflower vines…on November 13, in upstate NY! I love purple….

  4. Susan Krobusek says:

    In the interest of full disclosure, as they say, I am a rubbish garden designer. If I have any layer, any unifying force, it’s that I lean toward – well, I hate the word “pastels” – softer versions of primary colors. And thankfully, they nearly always seem to work out where they’re shoehorned in. I’ve even managed to come up with some color combos that have elicited admiration from people (also known as sheer dumb luck).

    1. Jane Harris says:

      Thanks for having David Culp on the show, Margaret. Have heard him speak on bulbs and also the layered garden. Enjoy his assessment at the end of summer. What did well and what didn’t? Then yanking out what didn’t and repeating what did do well with an eye toward no watering (yes!). Would love to pour over his book. Also share his love of hellebores, surrounded by deer and no possibility of fencing.

  5. Judi says:

    Just watched David’s November webinar. Very informative as always. Plan on using a couple of his recipes over the holidays. He speaks to two of my passions.

  6. Laura Turner says:

    My “signature colors” – really, just the colors I am drawn to – tend to shift through the year. In the spring I love cool tones – pinks, purples and yellows. The colors trend warmer through the summer, and in the fall I love golds, burgundy/wine shades and soft oranges.

  7. Leslie B. says:

    A total mishmash of colors, leaning slightly to the warmer hues. Would so love to enjoy the book and learn, learn, learn! Thanks Margaret and David. Gardening has been our salvation; more now than ever.

  8. Karen L says:

    This has been my first year gardening. I didn’t plan on a signature color when I started. I was going more for shapes and sizes. Turns out the signature colors made themselves known after I started planting. They are red and purple.

  9. Dolores Hennessy says:

    I like low mounding shaped plants next to tall backdrops. I didn’t realize this until I looked closely at my garden after listening to this podcast.

  10. Judy Heppelle says:

    Very interesting conversation. Over the last few years I’ve been doing more color pictures in my garden ………and packing in a lot more shrubs and perennials into my small back yard, slowing filling in all those layers. I like a ‘full’ look to my perennials beds with repeating shrubs and perennials. Love purple and yellow with orange punches of color. Not a color scheme for everyone but pastels are not my thing. Except for white. Would you call white a pastel? Not really.

  11. Judy Steinhauer says:

    I guess our signature garden shape is linear which includes raised vegetable beds & adjoining native flower beds. We do have some curved areas also.
    I enjoyed this podcast. Thank you.

  12. LuAnne Mikos says:

    Love to use curves in the garden! I also layer in flowers of pinks, purples and accents of gold in the foliage against the background of green.. Love the English woodland cottage look in my neighborhood of manicured shrubs. My latest challenge is my own personal challenge of starting a Japanese garden off the patio! Gardeners are NEVER done! Loved his comment that his plants were like on “roller skates.”…So are mine, not only within my garden here but when we have moved!

    I am becoming more of a foliage person than a flower person. Guess that is the piece that led me to try a Japanese Garden at the patio.

    Love to be further inspired by “A Year at Brandywine Cottage.”

  13. Kyenne M Williams says:

    I’ve just moved to a brand-new setting with a very small footprint, so finding the right layers or shapes is a work-in-progress. Which is why this book about Brandywine Cottage would be so marvelous!

  14. Deborah Yeary says:

    I have a signature color-green! And I have as many shades and textures and shapes of green (mostly leaves) as I can get ahold of. Flowers are the punctuation to all this texture. The flowers are tall and bright and something is always in bloom. It’s lovely!

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