A Shared Passion

What do professional horticulturists do in their leisure time? They plant a glorious garden, of course.

Adam Levine November 4, 2013

Peggy Anne Montgomery and Dan Benarcik are both talented horticulturists, but this is more than the story of the beautiful garden they nurture in Wilmington, Delaware. It is a story of new love found in midlife; of a garden, created by one partner and offered to the other, now shared with friends at every opportunity.

When Dan and Peggy Anne decided to get married last May, both for the second time, they knew it had to happen in the garden. “Our home garden is us,” Dan says. “It’s where we entertain, it’s where we begin and end the day. It’s the most precious thing I had to offer her in my courtship.”

“It’s our favorite place on earth,” Peggy Anne concurs. “It’s our rest and our work and our joy, our dining room and our laboratory. It’s the place we are the happiest.”

Take a tour of Dan and Peggy Ann's garden

For the past 20 years, Dan has been a gardener at Chanticleer, in Wayne, Pennsylvania, one of the most exciting and innovative public gardens in the United States. He grew up in Wilmington, his mother a florist and his father a partner in one of the area’s first do-it-yourself home centers, an upbringing that contributed to his love of both horticulture and woodworking. Peggy Anne lived for many years in Holland, raising a family and working as a landscape designer, then moved back to her native Minnesota to work in marketing for Bailey Nurseries. She now works for American Beauties Native Plants, based in nearby Hockessin, Delaware, a brand created to help consumers identify and understand the benefits of growing natives.

Dan and Peggy Anne call the property they share “the smallest house with the biggest garden” in a 1950s suburban development. One glance from the street lets any passerby know that hard-core plant lovers live here. The first clue comes in late spring, by which time the one-story ranch house is mostly hidden behind the profusion of plants; the second clue is that few of these plants are the usual specimens. The rectangular lot is about 100 feet wide by 375 feet long, nearly an acre, but the house sits only 50 feet from the street, making this front garden just a teaser. The much larger back garden can be glimpsed through the glass front door, which provides a view out the French doors at the rear of the house, across a central lawn, through the middle of a meadow garden and all the way to the seating area around a fire pit at the far end of the property.

When Dan and his first wife moved here in 1998, the property was mostly lawn with only three large trees—a pin oak in front, a linden on the north side of the house, and a Kentucky coffee tree centered in back. Out of this blank slate of mostly grass, Dan carved sweeping beds in front and back, to which he added scores more trees and shrubs, many with unusual variegated foliage. Behind the house, these plants have grown up to create a solid screen that makes visitors forget that this secluded oasis of greenery is actually a rectangular slice of suburbia, with two neighboring houses closer than a stone’s throw and an office park over the fence at the back.

Dan’s favorite woody plants could fill a book, but he has a soft spot in his heart for a cutleaf chartreuse staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina Tiger Eyes), since this is one of the plants Peggy Anne was selling for Bailey Nurseries when they first met at a trade show in 2005. He loves winterberry (Ilex verticillata) for its bright berries that birds feast on in cold weather, and has planted a number of Hinoki cypresses (Chamaecyparis obtusa), “which anchor the winter landscape,” he says, “with their richly textured evergreen foliage.”

Take a tour of Dan and Peggy Ann's garden

Among trees, Dan favors long-lived, slow-growing “legacy trees” that support a wide variety of wildlife, including the native mossycup, white, and willow oaks. “These are trees that we’ll never see reach maturity but will ultimately fill this garden and provide us shade in the autumn of our lives,” he says. To provide both stature and shade in the present, he has planted numerous specimens of two fast-growing deciduous conifers, the native bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and its Asian counterpart, dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides).

“This garden reflects my long-standing interest in trees and shrubs, even though at Chanticleer the areas I tend rely on a lot of seasonal or annual color from perennials and annuals,” Dan says. “Peggy Anne, at Bailey Nurseries, came from a tree and shrub production background, but she has always been drawn to herbaceous plants. Between the two of us, we make one complete gardener.”

Dan had been gardening here for almost a dozen years when Peggy Anne moved east from Minnesota to share his life and his garden, and her fresh view of the place was welcomed. “She renewed my confidence in my own aesthetic,” Dan says. “She showed me how a collection of ‘onesies’ can be acceptable if there are masses or sweeps of other elements. She helped bring some sense and order to a landscape on which I’d been working for years.”

Take a tour of Dan and Peggy Ann's garden

One of Peggy Anne’s techniques for tying an assortment of diverse specimens together is to select a single variety of plant to mingle repeatedly throughout the bed. “In the borders by the front of the house, I used Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ on both sides of the path to unite the two beds,” she says. The perennial ‘Caradonna’ bears slender violet flower spikes for many weeks in late spring and summer. “I planted them a little bit randomly so they seem to have grown up naturally, like tossing out a handful of bulbs and planting them where they land. In front of the fern bed, I planted Pulmonaria ‘Raspberry Splash’ for spring interest and a contrasting foliage texture.” In the shrub borders, she added large groups of groundcovers that suppress weeds and weave the garden together.

“This sounds terribly clichéd,” Peggy Anne says, “but I think what I did was put the finishing touches—the woman’s touch—on things.” She added rectangular granite paving stones to the gravel garden; took a group of nine metal fiddlehead sculptures that Dan had collected and “planted” them outside the kitchen door, where they provide the common denominator in that ferny, shady part of the garden. She tied the areas of the front garden together with large pots, provided a table and chairs for outdoor dining, conceived of the fire pit as a focal point (both visually and for entertaining), and added more herbaceous perennials to bring the colors and textures of Dan’s woody plant collection right down to earth.

Take a tour of Dan and Peggy Ann's garden

“It’s all about the details,” she says. “The garden had great bones and a unique collection of plants, but it might not have been what you call cozy. You can put furniture in a room, but it’s the details that make it a home.”

One new direction Peggy Anne has taken the garden is to share it widely—with horticultural organizations and tour groups, but mostly with friends. She and Dan entertain in the garden often, fending off mosquitoes with citronella torches and sprays, wining and dining in the midst of the greenery, conversation and laughter accompanied by the insect buzz and birdsong as the sunlight fades. Such openness was not Dan’s instinct before—perhaps working so many years in a public garden made him crave a little solitude at home—but he has wholeheartedly embraced Peggy Anne’s need to share the beautiful place they both love so much.

Sharing the wealth is Peggy Anne’s way—not just the garden but good food and ideas, intimate thoughts, a beautiful view. Two sets of eyes looking at it, two minds thinking about it, two hearts loving it—“I really believe that everything in life is better if it’s shared,” she says. Every day they can, she and Dan end their day with a stroll around the garden, two 50-year-old soul mates holding hands, seeing what there is to see, and talking about what is to come.

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Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, December 2013/January 2014