A Northern Garden with a Tropical Feel

One Peterborough gardener has created a colorful and lush landscape with a wide variety of plants.From her kitchen window, Laura Trowbridge of Peterborough can look out on her 165-foot-long, curving perennial border and beyond to the hills of neighboring Dublin. While performing everyday chores such as cooking and washing dishes, her attention often is drawn to her garden and she finds herself mentally shuffling plants around, making additions and subtractions, and envisioning new combinations of plants. “I am not afraid of moving plants around,” Trowbridge says. “Everything in that border has been moved at least once. I view this garden as a giant painting that is constantly changing throughout the seasons.”Even under a blanket of snow, the garden has winter interest through the trees and shrubs Trowbridge has used to provide a backbone. “I had to learn how to make a winter garden,” she says. “Winter is so long, I didn’t want to stand here and look at it all white for months.”The addition of evergreens such as ‘De Groot’s Spire’ arborvitae, boxwoods and a ‘Gold Cone’ juniper lend color to the scene. “I leave seed heads standing like coneflowers, sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, baptisia and the ornamental grasses. Even things that lose their leaves, like the deciduous shrubs and trees, have something of interest to offer in the winter,” Trowbridge says.Garden growthTrowbridge and her husband Jamie moved to their 1763 Cape fourteen years ago when their four children were just two, four, six and eight years of age. “There weren’t anygardens here when we moved in, just some ancient shrubs near the house,” Trowbridge says.Behind the house is a small open field that levels out at an old stone wall before sloping downhill. “When we first came to look at the property, I thought that this stone wall should have a garden planted along it,” Trowbridge says. At first it was a narrow strip of flowers but got wider through the years.She kept the huge white clethra, the laurels at the corner of the house and the Japanese tree lilacs out front, while adding other small trees and shrubs, such as a redbud, Carolina silverbell, seven sons heptacodium, katsura tree and a pair of stewartias near the house. “More than half of the plants came from family and friends,” Trowbridge says, “and each one has a story attached to it.”Four years ago, Trowbridge decided to go really big and enlarged sections of the garden to be up to twenty-five-feet wide. “This view needs a deep border with larger plants,” she says. She created a new outline in the fall, using her garden hose to give it a curving shape; covered the sod with newspapers and dirt to kill the grass; and in the spring was ready to plant. She moved everything in the existing bed to new locations in the larger bed. “I didn’t need to buy too many plants,” she says. “The ones there were so crowded, I could just spread them out and give them some room. I edited out a few plantsand was given some more from a friend who was moving, and then I could fill in the blanks with new plants from my favorite nurseries. The border is now so big that I can do large-leaved plants and stand at the kitchen sink and see them.”Bringing the jungle northHot colors brighten the border in summer. Oranges-including ‘Profusion’ zinnias, tithonia and Trowbridge’s favorite crocosmia ‘Lucifer’-and yellows-like senna, tall elecampane and ‘Tiger’s Eye’ sumac-turn up the heat. Trowbridge says sheloves tropical plants with a jungle feel. “I wasn’t sure how I could grow them on a Colonial property, but when we built a new kitchen addition to the house, it made a smooth transition from the old to the new.”The same transitions work in the garden: as it turns the corner to the patio at the back of the house, the garden goes from calm, traditional plantings to big-leaved tropicals, such as cannas, colocasia, datura, castor beans and a tall banana canna-what Trowbridge calls the zany and loud plants. “Sometimes I wonder what I am doing trying to grow tropical plants in cold New Hampshire, but I love the challenge,” Trowbridge says. “They are as high-maintenance as a pet.”Since these plants are not hardy in her zone 4 garden, Trowbridge has to winter them indoors. Some are cut off and go right to the basement for a period of rest, or the bulbs are dug up and stored inside for the winter, but others keep right on growing. She rearranges the furniture in her house seasonally to make room for the plants that she brings in each fall. The new kitchen addition has plenty of windows so the plants seem right at home, and she is glad to be surrounded by her indoor jungle.”Winters are long here,” Trowbridge says, “and if I could, I would go to jungley places. We have been to the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica before, but we can’t do it every year.”Working togetherLike many gardeners, Trowbridge sustains her love of gardening over the long winter months by reading about gardens and by visiting local greenhouses and botanical gardens, such as the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College and Tower Hill in Boylston, Massachusetts. “I love to be surrounded by plants and growing things, so I force bulbs to bloom indoors over the winter,” Trowbridge says, “and I always have something coming up. Fragrant cut flowers are a must also.”She has five sisters, and all are gardeners. They trade advice and even shop for plants together. “We grew up in a farm setting, and our mother was an amazing, incredible gardener. She had vegetable gardens, berries and fruit trees, and she made jams and canned everything she could,” Trowbridge says.With a family of six to feed, Trowbridge followed her mother’s example, growing a vegetable garden, fruit trees and raspberries along with her perennial border. “Eventually I was so busy with the kids that I had to let the vegetable garden go. Jamie was shocked and said, ‘But what are we going to eat?’ We had grown so accustomed to having fresh organic food that he decided to take over the vegetable garden, and he has done a great job with it, better than I did!” Trowbridge says. The family also has chickens, and a local man brings beehives to the Trowbridges’ property and they get a share of the honey.Along with caring for her own gardens (she does all the maintenance and mowing herself while Jamie, who refers to himself as the “undergardener” mans the weed whacker), Trowbridge is part of a group of volunteers that maintain the community gardens in Peterborough. The volunteers care for six gardens located around town, and Trowbridge says she has learned a lot from that group.Gardening allows her to express her creative side, but she also enjoys the practical side of learning what each plant needs to perform well as well as the design aspects necessary to put it all together. “It’s easy to garden here because of that sky, the layers of ridges beyond and the full sun we get,” Trowbridge says. “There is so much that I can play around with and do here. It is easy to make it look good and it’s fun.”<