In Chester County, A Garden Continually In Bloom
Author and prolific gardener David Culp has transformed the grounds of his Downingtown home into a beautiful, layered garden.
At a time when many neighbors are still dragging their Christmas trees to the curb, David Culp is outdoors, preparing his garden for spring. For many of us, spring starts with the first burst of blooms in May or June. But Culp has other ideas.
Each year, the renowned gardener and his partner, Michael Alderfer, work to remove tattered foliage from a hillside of hellebores. Technically, this hardy evergreen perennial can be left alone (it’s virtually disease free and deer proof) but Culp likes to set the stage for what he calls the “main show” of continuous blooms from late February to early May.
Culp’s Chester County home lies within the watershed of the East Branch of the Brandywine, near Downingtown, where a summer day can often feel like a steam bath. The aptly named Brandywine Cottage is comprised of many levels of gardens—“micro-climates,” as Culp calls them. The hellebores, for instance, are part of the buttercup family. Here they grow in a diverse number of environments that include a woodland hillside, a so-called “dry” gravel garden and a sunny cutting bed.
Culp has developed many of his hellebores under the trade name Brandywine Hybrids. He says they have a certain “coyness,” with colors ranging from apricots and pale greens to spotted pinks and dark reds. They resemble a congregation of bonnets on the hillside.
Now that it’s summer, the “tapestry of colors” is gone and a new garden interest appears. The hellebores’ dark-green, leathery foliage adds texture and depth to the hillside, which is layered with woodland ferns and disporum, a graceful flowering plant commonly known as fairy bells or Solomon’s Seal. It’s a genus found in Asia that can tolerate shade and attracts butterflies. That makes it the kind of multitasker Culp looks for when he travels as a plant researcher with Sunny Border Nurseries in Connecticut, one of the country’s largest perennial growers.
Culp is also vice president of sales and marketing Sunny Border Nurseries, and he maintains a busy lecture and plant convention schedule, along with writing for national gardening publications, teaching at Longwood Gardens and designing for high-energy clients.
At home, Culp jokes that the garden benches and resting places scattered through the property are more likely to be used by the resident “garden overseer,” bulldog Ella. At this stage in his career, Culp mostly knows what works in his garden. His days of trial-and-error experimentation were spent creating a list of plants that could override some of the property’s obstacles— like the native black walnut trees that exude a natural plant-killing chemical.
The gardening area Culp calls “dry shade” is sheltered by four ancient spruces and a towering cedar tree—the kind of old-growth plantings that tend to get bulldozed and typically stand like sentinels guarding some old Chester County farmhouse. Here they are left alone as a testament to Culp’s respect to the historical character of a landscape.
Depending on the time of year, each garden bed, much like a polite guest, takes its turn showing off blooms against the backdrop of Culp’s home. Viewed from the back garden, the 1790s whitewashed stone farmhouse is an understatement of simplicity. It’s also part of the working canvas that is the subject of Culp’s first book—a garden that considers both seasonal layers of plants and the landscape as a whole.
In the spring, Brandywine Cottage sits in the middle distance between a hillside of blooming white dogwoods and an ephemeral bed of white tulips. By summer, the view is more about the intensity of greenery and tree canopies that form a circle of blue sky above the sunny perennial gardens. And there are more flowering plants that bloom into fall.
As Culp sees it, the main purpose of having so many layers of plants and garden “rooms” is to ensure that everything doesn’t peak at once but instead evolves throughout the year. Culp’s first book, 2012’s The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage, is now in its fifth printing. Elegantly documented by photographer Rob Cardillo, it’s organized by chapters that include “signature plants through the seasons,” explaining more than the traditional succession planting approach.
“I like the challenge of seeing how much beauty and pleasure I can wring out of a space,” says Culp from his immaculate home, where nearly every aspect of the décor reflects his appreciation for artistry and handmade craftsmanship.
Our freewheeling conversation covers everything Culp’s interest in color theory to his habit of visiting an art museum whenever he’s on a nursery road trip. Culp also reflects on how gardening has changed over the years. “The old school of gardening might have restricted you to the idea that it begins around Mother’s Day, when you put your geranium pots on the porch,” he says
Culp likes to be a “horticultural cheerleader” to encourage people to see gardening as part of a creative life, not a seasonal activity. That kind of “blurring the line” between gardening and the indoors is also the focus of Culp’s upcoming book, tentatively titled Living with Plants. A personal testimony to gardening as a way of life, the book will include photographs of the cottage’s interior, along with garden recipes, floral arrangements and other ways of promoting the “gardener’s way” of living. “I think we’re only limited in our garden by what we ask of it,” says Culp. “They say you can’t have garden beds under black walnut trees—but I do. They say you can’t garden on a roof or a wall—but those are two places where I have gardens.”
When Anne Raver of the New York Times visited Brandywine Cottage, a downpour had flattened Culp’s collection of heirloom roses, and she wrote that they were “draped like drenched silk ball gowns over the arbors and fences.” There was plenty more to write about, as she counted “3,000 plants and then some” in Culp’s gardens. Spanning two acres, the property seems relatively small for a professional plantsman who has developed what he calls “respectable” collections of his addictions or signature genera. Aside from hellebores, they include galanthus, or the common snowdrop.
With the layered garden approach, you don’t need a lot of space—only paths to take and explore. Everywhere you look at Brandywine Cottage—whether it’s down mowed paths or flagstone corridors—you’ll find something that demands your attention.
Newcomers who pull into the upper driveway and look down a flight of stone steps may do a double take when they see the jutting roof above the home’s entry, which hovers over more gardens running the length of the house. The roof garden was Culp’s first project when he bought the house in 1990. The decaying wood shingles have proven to be a perfect medium for opuntia, or prickly pear cactus. Today, the flowering bounty includes low-growing sedum, dicentra formosa (bleeding heart) and Japanese roof iris.
Culp’s vertical gardens are found in the ruins of a former carriage house that has partial stone walls, forming an enclave for plants that love the heat and sun. A nationally known expert on herbaceous (non-woody) perennials, Culp grows succulents in a seemingly endless series of configurations like dish-sized agaves with bell-shaped flowers. Flowering plants hang from wall crevices and overflow from an array of clay pots and stone troughs.
For Culp, the “Holy Grail” has always been to find “plants of beauty” that push seasonal boundaries. The epigraph of The Layered Garden is a quote by Francis Bacon, who wrote in 1765 that “there ought to be gardens for all months of the year.” Culp points out that Bacon only needed to discover herbaceous perennials. Each plant group has at least one early bloomer that extends seasonal boundaries. “I basically have three or four months of irises,” Culp says, citing examples such as German bearded irises and the smaller woodland irises he first saw as a child on hikes near his grandparents’ home in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Culp continues to gravitate toward such overlooked perennials as snowdrops, which he describes as tiny “exclamation points” accenting a dreary winter day. Remarkably, one cultivar he discovered in a remote woodland in England was later named after him by the Royal Horticultural Society. Culp still calls the discovery, Galanthus “David L. Culp,” a group effort with a few fellow “galanthophiles” on the hike that day.
Even in the summer garden, when bold flowers compete for attention, Culp still finds a way to get you to “consider the lilies of the field and how they grow”— or so goes the Bible verse. Though he favors a naturalistic philosophy, he does maintain a colonial-style vegetable garden surrounded by formal and geometric shaped beds that keep “exuberant” plants in check. The garden is treated with the importance it was given in the 1700s. Instead of rows, the vegetables are planted in 16 square beds, with the outer borders set on an axis and close to the house.
Culp, who grew up among Quaker and Pennsylvania Dutch traditions in Reading, Pa., finds it easy to channel the practical mindset of the early settlers. He was a “child gardener,” who grew up digging in the dirt and watching the creative efforts of his two grandmothers —one a rose grower, the other a begonia enthusiast. He later worked in the retail trade at the former Waterloo Gardens, relying on a series of gardening mentors who seemed to appear at times when Culp needed them. Now, whenever Culp sees a flowering plant cultivated by a mentor, the stories of those human connections come back to him like “ghosts in the garden,” reminding him that he also must “empower people to garden.”
“My job is to acquaint [gardeners] to the possibilities,” says Culp. “ I like to think that there are many ideas out there—and that gardening should be about what you can do, instead of what you can’t.”