John Hershey usually advises gardeners to simplify and add fewer plants in larger masses. His own garden in a tidy historic lot in Strasburg has an eclectic mix of more than 350 types of plants. There’s a good reason why he doesn’t take his own advice.
As a landscape architect, Hershey’s home is his own trial garden to learn more about plants: how they grow, and what they look like in the dead of winter and the heat of summer. It’s good to know more about these plants before suggesting them for a project.
“This is a bit of a laboratory if you will,” he says.
This living lab will be on display on the Strasburg Garden Tour on Saturday, Sept. 19, and Sunday, Sept. 20. Postponed because of the pandemic, the tour will include 11 homes throughout Strasburg, plus Strasburg Community Park. The tour will have lots of ideas for gardeners and raise money for Strasburg Heritage Society.
A different palette
The society’s organized holiday home tours and summertime garden tours as fundraisers for more than two decades. The group usually holds the garden tour in June but COVID-19 stopped those plans.
Instead of canceling, Hershey along with tour co-chairs LaJune Ranck and Marilyn Weaver decided to hold the tour in September, when the weather’s nice and there’s a different palette of plants.
Perhaps touring gardens is more important in these times.
“It’s a great year to be having a garden tour as long as people wear masks and respect distancing, because gardens have always, throughout history, been a source of solace and inspiration,” Hershey says. “With all that we’re dealing with, the pandemic, social unrest, economic troubles, touring gardens is a great antidote to all of that.”
Plants, trains and a piano
The dozen gardens on the tour cover a broad range of styles. One garden includes an upright piano that now plays a different tune as a water feature. Another one centers on trains with a G-scale model train and a kiddie crank car track. A garden on the outskirts of town has an amazing view of the surrounding farms.
The one thing each garden has in common is the fact that the spaces are maintained by the homeowner.
“You don’t see any fancy gardens where landscape contractors come in and do all of the pruning and mulching,” Hershey says.
His home, on East Main Street, is the former home of the first president of the heritage society.
Fred Williams was a traveling salesman who visited Williamsburg, Virginia, as it was becoming a destination for American history, Weaver says. There are more historic buildings in Strasburg, Zimmerman said. That history needs to be preserved and the society was born.
Zimmerman’s own home had a long history. Built in 1769, it once served as an inn on the important Conestoga Road.
Hershey and his husband, Doug Zander, moved into the home in 2014. Outside, they’ve replaced a patch of turf grass with a kitchen garden. They replaced boxwoods with a hedge of walker’s low catmint and bluestar dotted with allium. In the front, they added lilies so fragrant that people stop to sniff.
A sign from next door
The first plants Hershey added were some of his prized snowdrops just after moving in March.
He took them to the rear border, put the shovel to the frozen ground and at that moment, organ music poured out of the church next door.
“I took it as a sign,” Hershey says. “This is going to be a great garden.”
The rear garden bed is shaded and not too far from a neighbor’s walnut tree. These trees produce a chemical called jugalone, which can hurt or kill some plants. That was another lesson in the plant laboratory.
Luckily, the snowdrops thrive in that garden bed, along with hellabores and a dozen different kinds of epimediums. Just in time for the tour, several kinds of toad lilies should be in bloom among the nodding grass of the Northern sea oats. Underneath them lies a carpet of Virginia bluebells waiting to bloom in the spring.
With hundreds of different plants, it’s hard to pick favorites. Zander is partial to ferns and planted a fernery on one corner of the yard. He and Hershey point out maidenhair ferns and Korean rock ferns. Wood asters bloom white frothy flowers that last for months in the fall, and mountain mint is a pollinator magnet with a beautiful silvery sheen.
Phlox Jeana’s purple-pink flowers last a while and has resistance to powdery mildew.
Molinia Skyracer is a bright yellow grass that’s delicate enough to see through.
In this lab, every plant has a story.