Flower Power

Flower Power 01How does this garden grow? From hand-sown seed, and TLC, and nothing at all in a row.

“My whole life, I’ve never been without a garden or a dog,” says Randy McManus.  These days he actually needs a pair of pooches–two varmint-chasing terriers–to help him watch over his equally shaggy fields of wildflowers. Randy’s garden is filled with a potent mix of annuals and perennials that he coaxes up from seed around his weekend retreat in the mountains of Dugspur, West Virginia.  “I wanted an English-cottage-garden look, but I also wanted the garden to roll right into nature,” says Randy.  Hence the woven rhododendron arbors, the overgrown flower beds that spill onto pebbled paths, the rustic weekend cabin, and, above all, the sod-covered roof.  The roof, in fact, is the entire garden in miniature, with an ever-changing display of more than two dozen wildflowers–from early-blooming Johnny-jump-ups to late-summer black eyed “Susies”–that Randy has collected and sown entirely by hand.Flower Power 02

Cultivating plants from seed is a skill that the McManus family has practiced for generations.  “My grandfather insisted on growing all of the family’s food,” says Randy.  “When he had a plant that did really well, he’d make sure to collect its seeds and sow them the next year.” Now Randy does the same thing many times over, only with poppies instead of peppers.

He gathers new seeds during the long walks through the Appalachian Mountains, while visiting friends’ gardens in Greensboro, North Carolina (where he tends his floral designs business during the week), and on occasional trips abroad to England and Mexico.  And he collects as much seed as he can from his own flowers to renew the garden each year.  What was only a thimbleful of seed four years ago has grown into a 3 1/2-gallon reserve.  Most of the land is covered with a mixture of all varieties.  “Then I’ll pust some blue bachelor’s buttons here and some scarlet cosmos there,” says Randy of his laid-back planting style.  “It’s sort of like painting.”Flower Power 03

In the middle of the five-acre canvas is a cedar-sided two-room cabin with a wisteria-and-rose covered porch and a chimney made of river stone.  Randy and his partner, John Washburn, built the structure on the site of a fallen-down barn.  “John drew up the plans while I kept my hands dirty outside.” They gave the salvageable barn wood to neighbors, who in return helped clear the site of invasive species like sumac and blackberry that would compete with a carpet of flowers.  Then Randy laid down a thin layer of peat moss where the soil was heavy with clay and started to sow.

Flower Power 09The only thing the sunny, secluded spot was missing was the sound of water.  So Randy and John built a stepped waterfall that spills down one side of the property and ends in a small pool stocked with koi, native cattails, and huge pink-and-blue blooming lotuses that guard their seeds inside thick chartreuse husks.  (“To get to those seed you’ve got to grind the pods against the pavement,” says Randy.) They also added a small jug fountain near the entry to the garden and planted it with marsh-loving horsetails, water hyacinth, and Jack-in-the-pulpit.

Randy didn’t want to sully the view of the garden from the hilltop above by putting a ten roof on the cabin, so he decided to camouflage it with sod.  This meant beefing up the rafters and adding exposed timber collar-ties to help support 700 square feet of sod, which weighs some 3 1/2 tons when wet.

“Everybody thought I was crazy,” says Randy–including the framing contractor, who eventually threw up his hands, wished Randy luck, and politely excused himself from the project.  

To keep the turf from sliding off the steeply pitched roof, Randy and John built up the roof edges by 3 inches and nailed strips of 2×2 material from gable to gable, spaced at 2-foot intervals, on top of the plywood roof decking.  This created “trays” for the sod.  Then he glued rubber membrane over the decking before laying down the sod, and tacked chicken wire over the grass to hold it in place until it established itself. 

Of course before long Randy grew bored with just plain sod and decided to sow some of his wildflower seed mix up on the roof.Flower Power 08

Although the mountain climate brings regular rain showers, the garden does require a bit of supplementary watering.  The roof in particular is exposed to direct sun, so to keep the thin layer of soil and sod moist, Randy installed four pop-up sprinkler heads–one at each corner of the roof–that run for a few minutes every day.  The runoff collects in an old whiskey barrel and is piped out to the flower beds.  He also has a tall tripod sprinkler he occasionally sets spinning over the fields.  But most of the flowers have to wait until Randy has a chance to uncoil the hose and water them by hand–one reason he shies away from planting thirsty ornamentals like impatiens or begonias.  “I wanted this garden to be low-maintenance, and wildflowers are pretty sturdy,”says Randy.  “If I don’t make it up there one weekend, its’ not a big deal.”

The plantings are dense enough to shade out weeds and native grasses.  He fertilizes them lightly with enough phosphorus to produce good color but not so much nitrogen that the plants get stalky and the roots go crazy.  And while his terriers, Hopkins and Bernal, patrol for groundhogs, voles, and the occasional deer, a clutch of bantam chickens keeps the Japanese beetles at bay.

To encourage the garden to renew itself, Randy scalps it down at the end of the summer. “A neighbor tried to sell me a billy goat to clip the roof, but a weed trimmer works just fine.” He leaves the cuttings on top as seed-rich compost to help jump-start the next season’s blooms.  it also lends the roof a thatched look, which matches the garden’s earthy yellows and browns heading into fall.

The cyclical–and unpredictable–nature of gardening is something Randy appreciates more and more. “I used to get caught up thinking everything had to be green all the time,” says Randy, “but now I just steer the garden as best I can and hold on for the ride.”  Flower Power 07

Text by Ryan Robbins

Photos by Charles Harris

Written for “This Old House” magazine

2 Responses to “Flower Power”

  1. 1 candywwgm May 29, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    WOW! I am left speechless (a rare occassion lol!) as I look at the pics of your garden. Absolutely stunning – simply beautiful. Your article did such a great job of seemingly transporting the reader into the very garden itself.

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