Sense and Sensibility
The Jan Barbo garden

Garten Praxis, February 2006

Jan Barbo has some strong opinions about the structure and design of the expansive garden that she has developed and tended for the past twenty five years on the outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Armed with a degree in Business Administration, but no formal training in horticulture, Jan simply followed her instincts, putting the garden together as she liked in order to achieve what she and her husband, Paul, wanted from the space: an ornamental haven for family and wildlife, an abundant harvest of flowers and fruits and a healthy, outdoor recreation space.

In northern New Mexico, the Rio Grande valley is framed by the 13,000 foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the east and the volcanic Jemez Mountains to the west. The views are measured in miles and landscape is high and dry. The Barbo’s six acre garden retreat borders the ancient Santa Clara Indian pueblo down on the flood plain of the river, where the land is flat and the native flora is scant. Fewer than twelve inches of moisture fall annually in the Zone 5 garden, but the Barbo’s land is vested with water rights that allow generous flood irrigation, a legacy from the historical Spanish colonial system of hand-dug ditches, or acequias, that have been in place for over 400 years.

“I have always gardened wherever I lived,” Jan says, “But I never had enough time, money, water or land to garden on a grand scale.” When she came to New Mexico, this small country estate offered her all of those things. After years spent in human resource management, working primarily with people, Jan found she could finally pursue her long held dream of doing something in horticulture.

“I wanted a garden that was inward looking and secluded, and one that I could fill with lush ornamental plants to provide abundant fresh flower bouquets for my home and those of my friends,” she says. “I wanted it to be a very personal space, not designed for passers-by or for a public show.”

Jan’s first step was to frame and contain the area, much as an artist frames a canvas. Fences were erected to establish a sense of privacy, and also to provide a visual background for the garden. Grape vines, roses and other climbers were used to close in the split rail fences and to soften the tall metal “hurricane” mesh. The house sat far back from the entry gate behind the remnants of an aging apple orchard, which helped to preserve a sense of privacy.

Initially, Jan was faced with this large orchard, bisected by a 300 foot long gravel driveway which looped from the public road down to the front of the house, lassoing the mid-space into a large teardrop-shaped island. Visible from all sides, this area contained four old, badly pruned Johathan apple trees corralled inside a large, unsightly grassy knoll. “Gardeners everywhere are reluctant to kill plants, especially trees,” Jan confesses, “But that is often the simple solution that is needed. So I cannot tell a lie – I chopped down those forlorn apple trees.”

Thousands of daffodil bulbs, brought from Jan’s childhood home in Arkansas, were added to this reformed, central island bed, beginning her quest to evolve a colorful season-long design inside that space, which forms the central heart of the garden. A low lava-rock wall was built to surround the entire bed, and large flagstone slabs were then informally placed to serve as pathways and to divide the space into three sections. These paths meet at the center of the island, delineating a focal point where three rusted wrought-iron tuters serve as pillars for a cluster of climbing ‘William Baffin’ roses.

This area comes alive in late February, with massive displays of daffodils, in all shades of yellow. Tulips and alliums soon follow, trailed by intermediate and tall bearded irises. By May, the space is also jumping with orange hued Oriental poppies ( Papaver oriental.e.

During the hot, dry summer months the blooms of the climbing roses, along with bee balm (Monarda didyma), various yarrows (Achillea millefolium ‘Summer Pastels’, A. filipendulina ‘Coronation Gold’ and A. taygetea ‘Moonshine’)provide swaths of color.

Shasta daisies ( Chrysanthemum maximum , speedwell Veronica austriaca teucrium ‘Blue Char’) garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’) also add to the mix.

Russian sage ( Perovskia atriplicifolia), prairie sage ( Salvia pitcheri) and maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ ) carry the garden into autumn. The maiden grass is left standing, where it catches winter snowfall, swooping low to the ground and then rising again as the intense sunlight quickly melts the weight of the snow away. It is finally cut back to a few inches when the daffodil foliage begins to sprout in late winter.

The big central axis planting was the first of several large ornamental beds and borders borrowed from the orchard spaces or carved in serpentine lines along the boundary of the property. “Variety is the spice of life for me and it is absolutely essential to a healthy , appealing garden,” Jan declares. “My garden spaces are packed with an extensive array of bulbs, shrubs, perennials, biennials, trees, vines and a few cherished annuals, such as sunflowers (Helianthus anuus) to provide interest throughout the growing season, to provide food for wildlife and to soothe the eye during the dormant season from October to mid-February.

Many of the borders include sculpture appropriate to a country garden. There is a 1936 John Deere tractor swimming in Heliopsis (Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Summer Sun’) and coneflowers in summer, a rusty hay rake and a trio of life-sized mariachi musicians crafted from discarded pieces of metal. “The plants are so lush and abundant that it’s easy to become hidden while working in the garden, so we’ve named each area – the tractor bed, serpentine border, the compound, the teardrop, and so on – so I can tell Paul where I’m gardening in case he needs be before or resurface on my own,” Jan laughs.

Jan and Paul’s back yard is parsed into smaller areas that include Paul’s workshop and a little-used swimming pool. In every case, Jan has festooned the structures with vines, such as trumpet vine ( Campsis radicans) and honey suckle, or allowed pretty pests like dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis ) to fill in the niches. A coyote fence, a made of tall, rustic juniper poles separates the back garden boundary from the remaining orchard and the river. There, more beds are planted with daylilies ( Homerocalis spp.), bee balm, Russian sage and phloxes.

Jan had so many flowering plants, suitable for bouquets, that it proved to be more than she and her friends could possibly use for arrangements. Jan also liked to keep the garden tidy by constantly removing spent blossoms. “I decided it was time to embrace what I call ‘early deadheading’ by cutting fresh flowers to sell at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market,” she states. “I soon discovered that by selectively harvesting from different planting areas, the blossoms are seldom missed and a taking out a truckload of flowers twice a week allows the necessary pruning and deadheading that keeps the garden lively,” she reveals.

When Paul once commented that he was glad that no one would want the hollyhocks as a cut flower, so they could be left standing for him to enjoy, Jan searched out several new varieties. Jan has also planted over 150 types of roses, which she does not try to sell but keeps to support with her vision of the overall design. The garden also teems with other perennials that are not used for cut flowers, such as obedient plant ( Physostegia virginiana ), asters and daylilies.

For structure Jan chose to incorporate a large panoply of shrubs as well, such as beauty bush (Kolkwitzia), American cranberry ( Viburnum trilobata), snowball viburnum (V. opulus), common lilacs (Syringia vulgaris) and sand cherry (Prunus besseyi), manyof which she also cuts for occasional inclusion in the cut flower bundles. Mockorange (Philadelphus ), blue mist spirea ( Caryopteris cladonensis) and butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) are also good for a burst of color during the doldrums of mid summer.

As the demand increased for a large variety of unusual cut flowers and flowering branches that Jan grew, she often found herself delivering five truckloads a week. “A saner person might have decided to move to the back forty and grow in straight rows that more effectively use space and facilitate the harvest,” she says, “ But I am committed to the concept of having large, mixed ornamental beds, not to efficiency.”

“I became keen on the idea that I could have my cake and eat it too,” she mused. “ There is no reason why the garden should sacrifice beauty or personal style or whimsy for the sake of some commercial enterprise. On the other hand, why not take advantage of the opportunity to harvest share the abundance? I also found I was able to let the garden help pay for itself as well. The only drawback is that it is a lot of work, which, of course, I thoroughly enjoy,” she concludes.

Jan’s garden remains primarily an ornamental one rather than an agricultural one. Branches of shrubs and trees that are cut for sale are always pruned correctly rather than lopped off or subjected to abuse for the sake of a floral arrangement. This same passion for focusing on beauty as well as horticultural integrity holds true for each and every plant in the garden. Simply put, Jan has discovered that with a little forethought, commercial harvesting and growing for personal pleasure can be compatible

It’s really all about Jan’s passion for the plants and for having a garden bursting at the seams with floral abundance. In a play on Alan Greenspan’s famous catch phrase about the economy, Jan has dubbed her design style “Irrational Exuberance”. Maybe Alan Greenspan could learn a thing or two from Jan Barbo about balancing beauty with business.

Charles Mann