Gardens and Nature

 Gardens and Nature

The Smiths took a special approach to creating their large garden.

By Carol Siyahi Hicks

When someone asks Pat Smith what the secret of a great garden is, she answers without hesitation, “Passion.” Then she adds, “and a willingness to live and learn,” and a lot of hard work.

And a great garden is what Pat and Jerry Smith have created. When they bought their Bellbrook home 16 years ago, the house’s landscaping was a blank canvas. Their house sits atop a steep hill overlooking 10 acres that back up to the Little Miami River, which periodically floods the lower acres. 

But the Smiths relished the opportunity to create a landscape that incorporated a very large, perennial garden, which spilled down the hill from the house and had walking paths and sitting areas at different levels throughout the garden.

The garden’s design began with Pat laying down ropes and hoses to describe where the garden should be planted and what its outside shape should be. Then she consulted Knollwood Garden Center to get their analysis of the soil and water conditions, as well as their thoughts about what plants they should consider. Then she and Jerry went to work.

They installed 600 feet of drainage tile themselves all down the hill and laid walls and steps using 22 tons of stone. They also had stone retaining walls put in around the back of the house and large, stone steps leading to winding, wood-chip-covered paths. The paths wend through a stunning shade garden with thousands of plants of different varieties, colors and textures, including 120 different types of hostas—Pat’s favorite plant.

And at the bottom of this display is a massive, iron gate—roughly 15 feet high and 15 feet wide—that they found in a salvage yard. They had it secured to two stone posts by a man who “just shook his head,” Jerry says, when they told him where they wanted the posts set. 

But the unusual placement of the large, intricate gate is what makes it so special. It is at the bottom of the shade garden, instead of the top, and serves as a transition to the grassy area between the shade garden and the river. 

The organizing motif of the garden is “texture and curves,” Pat, a master gardener, says, “and scale,” which includes tree heights, as well as that of the foliage, flowers, fountains, planters and statuary. 

So what are Pat’s gardening tips? Only water perennials minimally, she says—generally two or three times in a normally dry summer. Perennials rarely, if ever, need fertilizing, and then, she adds, only with equally balanced fertilizers. She takes care with initial plantings, placing compost in the bottom third of the hole, then adding native soil for the top two-thirds. “It’s very important to stimulate root growth in perennials. Healthy roots make healthy plants,” she says. And if you have problems with deer, she recommends putting packaged, dried animal blood around the plants. “I haven’t had any trouble with deer since I’ve done this,” she notes.

“And don’t worry about everything being just perfect,” Pat concludes. Experiment and enjoy might well be Pat’s motto.