Photos are compliments of The Friends of the Arboretum.
April is National Garden Month, so we decided to invite a particular garden design guru to one of Wilmington’s most beautiful gardens for a quick interview.
Tracy McCullen, of Tracy McCullen Design, has been a landscape designer and outdoor visual artist in Wilmington for nearly 30 years. The New Hanover County Arboretum showed up on the Wilmington scene about the same time, in 1989.
We arranged a reunion of sorts in hopes of getting some good garden juices flowing for the big month ahead.
In our recent tour of the Arboretum garden, McCullen’s passion visibly bubbled to the surface every time we turned a corner. Along the way, he revealed some of his preferences, a few secrets, and more excitement about certain elements of outdoor spaces than most of us express about anything. Here’s a segment of our interview for your reading and gardening pleasure:
The Shake: Why does improving and developing the landscape around your home matter?
McCullen: Aside from the benefit of pure enjoyment, if you do it in a way that is well thought out and planned, it can add a tremendous amount of value to your property.
The Shake: What do you think most attracts people to a garden?
McCullen: That’s a good question. I’d actually like to make a list of all the things that attract people to a garden…. Some people have extraordinary gardens without flowers. And, some people need color everywhere. For a lot of people, though, gardens provide a place that’s more relaxing to them than even the inside of their own home (he says as we’re passing the Arboretum’s Asian garden, with water trickling from a small waterfall near the stone pathway running between ferns and dwarf pittosporum). Areas like this, for instance, with a meandering path, waterscapes, and ferns and low-growing shrubs leading you through. Or, in a perrennial garden that you’re always cutting from and adding to. Fragrance is another aspect that lures people to a garden. Personally, though, I like to create gardens that take you on an adventure. For me, it’s not about decorating with plants, it’s about creating a sense of space that’s either restful, or it takes you on a journey, or both. For instance, outdoor rooms, or a bench placed along a path. As you’re sitting in that space, you see a stone walkway, or a long pebble pathway and you’re led to another adventure…. You know, I’ve never thought about it quite like this, but I think I like to create my gardens like I like to live my life – full of adventure.
The Shake: What is your personal design style?
McCullen: I like clean, simple elegance, with some boldness sprinkled in. I don’t like to make gardens too busy. Lush, yes, but not busy.
In the extended garden away from the house, I use mostly large trees and ground covers beneath – usually ornamental grasses and ferns. When you have a lot of ornamental shrubs, a garden can feel too full. Ironically, the people who are most passionate about plants have the busiest gardens. And, I love that. I love to see people do that. Because, you know they just love plants so much that they can’t get enough.
I do like to create flowing areas of lawn like this (he points to the left, directly across from a gorgeous red anise at the back of the Arboretum); but I also like to build lawn terraces – long rectangular spaces – that are both architecturally pleasing, and utilitarian; with beds running along each side. They’re more like outdoor rooms. You can entertain there. The kids can play ball. It’s essential in some cases to have a space like that.
The Shake: What is one of your favorite landscape plants?
McCullen: My newest favorite is the limelight hydrangea. It blooms and blooms and can be planted in full sun. I love to plant it in masses…. I’m not afraid to say that camellias and hydrangeas are two of my favorites. They’re hardy, and easy, and they bloom like crazy. They’re staples for a reason.
The Shake: Are there edibles you’d recommend planting among traditional landscape plants?
McCullen: Rosemary, of course. I think every garden should have Rosemary. It’s incredibly hardy. And, figs! Who doesn’t love a fig in the summertime? And, they do so well here. Oregano is also a good one. Let’s see…oh, blueberries. Blueberries do great here. They do have soil requirements, of course, but they’re pretty easy. I also love to plant grape vines on trellises and on tunnels built over pathways.
The Shake: What do you love most about what you do?
McCullen: I got into this because I loved having my hands in the dirt, and being outside. But, what I do now feeds me more creatively. I get to design gorgeous outdoor spaces for people, and I get to see how much pleasure that brings them.
Sponsored by Tracy McCullen Design.