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A Tour Through a True Plant Collector’s Garden

On a rainy day early in October, I was invited to a Four Seasons Garden Club event to tour former long-time Behnke’s employee Jim Dronenburg’s garden in Harper’s Ferry.  Along with partner Dan Weil, Jim has transformed what was once a humdrum yard with exactly seven shrubs and lawn to a wild, plant-lover’s paradise.  They’ve been there 26 years and it shows with myriad garden beds, trimmed with railroad ties, arbors, a pond, a greenhouse and a bird house (home to chickens and peafowl!), all connected by brick walkways and grassy paths.

Jim leading the way through the garden

Jim gave me a brief tour of the gardens then left me to wander in awe of just how much has been packed into the space.  When asked if any of it had been planted with a design in mind, he replied “no.”  As a plant collector, he said, he looks at one plant and then looks at next, not really at the gardens as a whole.  As an observer, I did find that was the best way to view the gardens.  You could stand in one spot and continually discover more and more plants that you hadn’t originally noticed with just a perfunctory glance.

“Hellebore Alley” just waiting to burst into bloom come late winter

The list of plants is endless, with rare specimens mixed in with more well-known plants like hostas and hydrangeas.  Jim does seem to have favorites though; repeated throughout the gardens are fig trees, many different kinds of amaryllids and wintersweet (he actually calls the house “Wintersweet House” due to the high proportion of wintersweet).  He said he tends to plant for winter, preferring plants that put on their best show when temperatures dip, like hellebores and the aforementioned wintersweet (you can read articles he’s written for the Behnke’s blog on trees and shrubs for winter here and perennials for winter here).

an arbor that lends a wild, fairy tale quality to the garden

tucked into one of the beds is this little pond, bordered by carnivorous pitcher plants

there were a number of white beautyberries on the property, proving that berries can be just as showy as flowers

Bulbine frutescens (zone 9); Jim says they’re a great bedding plant that overwinter like geraniums

And how does Jim care for so many plants?  He said he believes in the “grow, dammit” method of gardening.  This means, amend the soil within an inch of its life, plant your plants, then walk away.  Case in point, the new bed pictured below was put in after a recent addition to the house.  Though it’s not overly large, Jim said he worked two pickup truckloads of compost into it before planting it with perennials.  Judging by the established flourishing gardens surrounding it, this growing method seems to be working.

newly-planted garden bed

One of my favorite parts of the garden was the greenhouse, complete with salvaged stained glass windows.

an outside look at the greenhouse and its beautiful stained glass windows

inside the greenhouse, the first thing you notice is a giant brugmansia growing against the back wall

a happy Gerbera daisy found in the greenhouse

I like the way the pots have been set into this stone wall, lining the walkway between the greenhouse and bird house

I couldn’t help but take a look inside the bird house, sadly the peacock was not showing off his plumage

I also got to take a look around a new addition to the house which includes a bewindowed atrium with access to the back garden and a working library, brimming with garden and plant books.

the library, set up for lunch guests; those books? all plant and garden books

books on display in the library

Thanks to Jim and Dan for letting me wander around their magical, plant-packed paradise!

by Adrienne Neff, Behnke’s Graphics Department

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