As spring moves into summer, this two-acre garden in the Brandywine Valley is a little like an opera. Tall foxgloves and giant purple alliums in the wide borders will soon give way to black hollyhocks, yellow rudbeckias and bronze paddle-shaped cannas. The wooded hillside, an acre of snowdrops and hellebores in winter that blooms with white dogwoods in spring, is now alight with white hydrangeas and magnolias, and little waves of golden Hakanochloa macra, or Japanese forest grass.
In the midst of all this ebullience, the white-plastered walls of the 1790s farmhouse offer relief, like a moment of silence in the music. “Lots of people say, ‘Why don’t you put a vine up there?’” Mr. Culp said, standing by the sodden rose border, looking toward the house. “But I don’t want to. I want that simplicity.”
As the vice president of sales and marketing for Sunny Border Nurseries, in Kensington, Conn., Mr. Culp, 62, also oversees plant research and development, so he is often on the road. But at home, the plant collector is a master of design.
Over the years, I have trailed after him through well-known gardens, crouched over the tiny petals of rare snowdrops (many of the thousands that bloom here he bred himself) and listened to him lecture on the art of the winter garden (he breeds his own Brandywine Hybrid hellebores, too, in dark reds, apricots, spotted pinks, pale greens). Last fall, Timber Press published his first book, “The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty From Brandywine Cottage,” written with Adam Levine, with photographs by Rob Cardillo. I devoured it.
Now I was with the wizard again, as another rain poured down on our umbrellas.
“What would a garden be without rain?” Mr. Culp said valiantly, raising his voice above the din.
Sloshing toward the vegetable garden, we paused to gaze across the expanse: the forested slope to the north, stretching 400 feet from one end to another; the voluptuous borders surrounding the vegetable garden with its white picket fence; and the white facade of the house, glimmering beneath ancient spruces. As if that weren’t enough, there is a ruin, too, with flowering vines and perennials tucked into the crevices of its stone walls and cracked floor.
“I do think a garden should be seductive,” he said. “The strength of any garden is its ability to take you away.”
Mr. Culp was born into a Pennsylvania Dutch clan, in Reading. But his mother’s family hailed from the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. “We used to take the train from Reading Terminal and go spend the summers in the Smokies,” he said, on a farm that belonged to his grandparents.
He started gardening when he was 9 and his grandmother gave him a bag of tulip bulbs. He planted them in military rows down her flower border, and “from that moment I knew I was a gardener,” he writes. “The Layered Garden” is his attempt to do for others what his grandmother did for him: “Empower people to garden,” as he puts it in the book.
You will probably kill a lot of plants along the way, he warns readers, but there is no alternative: “Sometimes the way we learn best is by following our impulses and then sorting out the resulting messes by ourselves.”
When he wasn’t gardening at her farm, he occupied himself with the pony and chickens he had there, and played in the surrounding fields and woods. “I never wanted those summers to end,” Mr. Culp said. “I think you recreate what you love.”
So when he saw this simple farmhouse tucked into the lee side of a wooded slope two decades ago, “it was more than love at first sight,” he writes. It “struck a chord that reached back to my ancestors.”
The interior was a dumping ground used by a succession of occupants, full of old tires, water beds, chairs hanging from the thick ceiling beams. The walls were painted a sickly green. “I almost gutted it,” he said.
The huge hearth is now open to a white-plastered living room, and his bedroom, three floors up, looks out over the vegetable garden.
We stood at the entry arbor to that garden, trying to ignore the way the double pink roses of Sarah Van Fleet hung their heads.
“Philosophically, it seemed right to me that the heart of the garden be a veg,” Mr. Culp said.
It’s a nod to his ancestors, and all those settlers in the Brandywine Valley, who planted their food gardens on axis and close to the house. Straight lines and rectangles are important, he reminded me, “especially if you have a proclivity to an ebullient planting style.”
The geometric vegetable garden is closely aligned to the house, and matches its footprint. “The center of the garden is a rectangle,” he said. “And the garden moves out in a series of rectangles.” Even the stone birdbath at the heart of the garden is a rectangle.
Mr. Culp rarely sets foot in there, however. It is the domain of his partner, Michael Alderfer, a designer for Guaranteed Foliage, a company that specializes in indoor plants, in Lederach, Pa. He designs container gardens as well. And he loves to cook.
Mr. Alderfer is also good at pulling out invasives, by hand and with the tractor. And hauling rocks. The two men built the low stone walls and the steps leading down to the house, which nestles in a sunken courtyard beneath the trees, as well as the dry stone wall along the hillside and the stone steps leading up into the woods. They often worked at night, Mr. Culp said, illuminated by the headlights of his old Subaru. “I was younger then,” he said with a laugh.
When he bought the place, in 1990, the old black walnuts, the spruces and the Seckel pear tree were already there, which contributed to the sense of place. One native cherry tree in the woods is so old that Mr. Culp plans to put a crutch under its ancient limb.
“I don’t take down any existing trees, unless they are falling down,” he said. “My general rule was not to change anything about the site. No grade changes. Whenever I found evidence of a wall, I put it back.”
He doesn’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers either. “When people on a tour see black spot on my roses, I’m proud of it, in a way,” he said. “I can live with that. I can’t live without the sound of birds.”
As we climbed a path into the woods, I ducked under a buckeye tree, taking in the trilliums and drifts of Solomon’s seal along the path. “How many plants are here?” I asked him.
Mr. Culp said, “I stopped counting at 3,000.”
At the foot of the hill, a Forest Pansy redbud arched its dark branches, with their heart-shaped maroon leaves, over the drive. Confederate jasmine climbed 30 feet up two black locust trees. “That’s 15 years of growth for a plant that’s not supposed to be hardy here,” Mr. Culp said. And to think that his initial intention in planting all of this was simply to screen out the subdivision on the other side.
“This is my ‘Wild Garden,’ after William Robinson,” he said, referring to the Irish horticulturist and his 1870 book that wrenched England away from bedding plants. But Mr. Culp’s wild woodland is deeply American, with its mix of natives and plants from around the world that can thrive in dry shade and lean soil.
As staggering as this garden is in its complexity, its components are surprisingly accessible. A beginner could study one part of the rose garden to see how a huge blue-green agave anchors the blowzy roses, or how familiar plants like nepeta (or catmint), campanula and dianthus can transform a stone wall with rivers of blues and violets.
Mr. Culp led me around to the ruin garden, made from the remains of an old stable whose roof had fallen in. Instead of tearing it down, he pulled yards of English ivy off the stone walls and began experimenting with plants that could take full sun, little water and the alkaline conditions of the mortared walls. Now the yellow flowers of corydalis and the little pink ones of soapwort nestle in the crevices.
Mr. Alderfer took a sledgehammer to the concrete floor, opening up space for euphorbias and mints to ramble. Variegated agaves, sedges and hens-and-chicks are planted in tufa troughs, creating a medley of mini-gardens within the walled space.
“This is a perfect garden for an urban space,” Mr. Culp observed.
I thought of all those shady yards in Brooklyn, those scraps of concrete waiting for a sledgehammer and a gardener willing to kill some plants — just to find the ones that will make a garden.
Seeds of Wisdom
Spending an afternoon with David L. Culp at his garden in the Brandywine Valley in southeast Pennsylvania revealed a trove of garden wisdom collected over a lifetime. Here are a few ideas that might help this summer.
When you start gardening on any piece of land — even a tiny backyard in Brooklyn — begin by carefully pulling out the weeds and invasive plants so that you can see what is growing underneath. Observe the lay of the land, where the light moves, where water pools after a rain and whether the ground is heavy clay, sandy soil or just paved concrete (in which case, a ruin garden is for you).
In the same way, gardeners plagued by deer should watch where they move and which plants they prefer.
Mr. Culp, who does not have a deer fence, uses various sprays to repel the deer. “I know how they move through the garden, and I spray those areas heavily, every week, to push them in another direction,” he said. “Think of it as your evening walk.”
He likes a brand called Deer Stopper (it’s my favorite, too). But he changes to another brand every few weeks so that the deer won’t get used to one.
Do you have trouble growing anything near that black walnut in your yard? The tree’s roots emit a substance called juglone, which inhibits the growth of many plants. Instead of cutting down his black walnut trees, Mr. Culp spent years experimenting with (and killing) a lot of plants before he found the ones that could survive nearby: false Solomon’s seal, ginger, lungwort, lily of the valley, hellebores, hostas, black cohosh and snowdrops, to name a few.
Similarly, how many gardeners struggle to find plants that can survive in dry shade? Mr. Culp recommends a few favorites: epimedium, trillium, lily of the valley, wood ferns, cinnamon ferns, dwarf cherry laurels and deciduous azaleas.
His book, “A Layered Garden”, contains a wealth of ideas, as well as images of plant combinations that are striking in their form, color and texture. His Web site, DavidLCulp.com, will soon offer information on fall lectures and next spring’s garden tours.
This story was originally published in The New York Times. It was written by Anne Raver.