Explore idea-rich gardens on Chapel Hill spring tour

CorrespondentApril 25, 2014 

  • Take the tour

    What: Chapel Hill Spring Garden Tour features seven private gardens, plus events at the N.C. Botanical Garden and the Carolina Campus Community Garden.

    When: Saturday, May 3, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday, May 4, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

    Bonuses: N.C. Opera will perform at 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. in the courtyard of the N.C. Botanical Garden, 100 Old Mason Farm Road. Performances are free.

    • Composing demonstrations will be 1 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Carolina Campus Community Garden, 200 Wilson St. A bee-keeping demonstration is also planned. No ticket is required to visit this garden.

    Cost: Advance tickets are $25. Get them at chapelhillgardentour.net and at these Chapel Hill businesses: Southern Season, Wild Bird Center, Victoria Park Florist, N.C. Botanical Garden, The Courtyard by Marriott.

    •  On tour days, tickets are $30 and available only at tour gardens.

    Info: 919-962-0522 or chapelhillgardentour.net

Every other spring since 1996, as the weather warms and the dogwoods bloom, the Chapel Hill Garden Club holds a garden tour.

The event opens up a variety of cultivated plots in town, ranging from more traditional grounds populated by statuary and ordered plantings to rambling slopes of guided native growth and subtle sculpture. And while the annual event benefits the N.C. Botanical Garden, many tour-goers are looking for ideas they can bring home.

“We feel it brings the public into private gardens and they can get ideas and bring them back to their own gardens,” says garden tour chairwoman Char Thomann, gesturing at the Noell Garden’s carefully terraced stone entryway in a wooded neighborhood near UNC’s main campus. “They may not be able to do this, but they can do it on their scale in their own home.”

Many of these are practical ideas. Participants will find ideas for unobtrusive deer fences or deer-resistant plants. Water management and erosion control are key, and hosts will share tips on keeping a garden growing year-round. Accordingly, even with this year’s late spring, the seven mindfully planned gardens on this tour will be ready: In a talented gardener’s hands, a backyard can maintain nuance and depth of color and texture, no matter the season.

“I have things in my garden, it blooms all year long,” says club president Christine Ellestad as she gives a tour of the Noell Garden on a chilly April morning. Even in sweater weather, though, rich pink azaleas bloom while green-white hellebores, alien-looking euphorbia and unusual plants like Thailand tree peonies offer smaller splashes of color. With almost geometric symmetry to some of these plantings, it’s classically pleasing – like a Monet painting, Ellestad says.

In a garden like this, too, designers have to keep seasonal symmetry in mind; plants that bloom in the fall, say, are often grown right next to those that flower in the spring or summer.

“You can find plants that bloom in the winter, too, and the winter plants are pretty neat because they generally are more odiferous, more fragrant,” Ellestad says. Cold weather means fewer pollinator insects, so plants have to work harder to attract their attention: thus, the fragrance of flowering shrubs like Daphne odora and Edgeworthia chrysantha. “You also want to think about succession of blooms.”

The language of gardening, too, reflects the precision and detail involved: succession of blooms, borrowed landscape, companion plants. And when Ellestad and Thomann mention a plant, typically they say its common name and then its scientific name; here, Latin is still spoken.

The Tenney Farmhouse, built in 1810, is another stop. Homeowner Elizabeth Pringle’s garden takes advantage of rich soil, heritage of a farm that once took up at least the entirety of Tenney Circle.

The garden, which has been featured since the inaugural 1996 tour, forgoes obvious order in favor of park-like paths wending around ferns and jack-in-the-pulpits. A low bloodroot plant has spread where ants have transported its seeds, which the owner allows. A fenced wildflower garden is accessible to rabbits and other small animals. Barely visible metal wiring running a few feet above the fence deters larger animals, Pringle says, carefully avoiding the d-word.

“Deer fences don’t have to be ugly,” Ellestad notes, touching on an endemic challenge to gardening in the Piedmont.

Gail Norwood, whose garden on Sturbridge Lane is on this year’s tour, studied the animals’ behavior and spaced two 4-foot-tall fences four feet apart to prevent deer from jumping over and dining on her plants (the animals can jump high or far, but not both simultaneously). The Noell Garden’s terraced entry features mostly deer-resistant plants: Instead of grass, the ground is covered with pachysandra. Similarly, Pringle’s yard has no grass, and neither homeowner has to mow.

“I think people feel like they have to throw chemicals at grass,” Thomann says, looking at a patch of pachysandra, which stands only a few inches high at its tallest. “It’s low maintenance, low water, and this is how tall it gets.”

While not every garden tour participant can re-create the classical elegance of the Noell Garden or the park-like quiet of the Pringle Garden, they may take home valuable horticultural ideas. And then there’s the sheer peaceful nature of these well-maintained outdoor spaces.

“It’s symmetry, it’s repetition,” Ellestad says, standing among the Noell Garden’s various flowers while birds sing and flit nearby. “It creates a sense of calm.”

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