Garden Choreography

Susanne Clark designed her Chilmark garden based on the land, her home, and an elaborate scoring system. A new garden book tells the tale.

Susanne Clark’s garden was planted on a slope in front of the house and the native stone was used for walls that form this terraced garden. Susanne and her husband, Ben, selected their Chilmark lot because they loved the agricultural setting, the decent soil, and the south-facing hillside where Susanne planned to place her garden.

Ben Clark’s profession is architectural restoration and preservation, and the front part of their home was originally a house built in 1730 off New Lane in West Tisbury for Jethro Athearn. Ben and his nephew Bradford disassembled it, documenting and numbering all the boards so that it could be reassembled in a new location.

Inspiration for the layout and style of the garden came from a plan made by the English designer Gertrude Jekyll in the 1920s. Susanne, who studied landscape design at the Radcliff program and has designed historically accurate gardens for others, created her garden using some features from the Jekyll garden and some of her own.

Because plants are constantly growing, and because perennials come in and out of bloom through the season, Susanne thinks of the garden-planning process as choreography rather than design. Like dancers in a ballet, each plant plays a role, sometimes combining with others in complex arrangements of foliage and flowers, and sometimes taking a starring role on the garden stage.

In order to choreograph this succession of growth and change, Susanne used an unusual method to plan her garden. She laid out a drawing of the beds on two boards, using a scale of one inch equaling one foot. Then she cut out circular pictures of the various plants that she planned on using, making the size of the circles correspond to the general mature size of the plant. On the back of these disks she placed various colors, such as gray, lime, or dark green, to represent the foliage of the plant that was pictured on the front of the circle. On this side she also wrote the time when the plant would be in bloom.

Using the board and these disks, Susanne could arrange the plants and turn foliage- or flower-side up to see the changes of flowers and leaves though the season. “This is an absolutely fanatical way to do it,” Susanne admits, but it let her plan a garden that was colorful and interesting before anything was actually planted. And just as we often get as much enjoyment from the planning of a vacation as we do from the trip itself, Susanne’s method allowed her to savor her garden long before the plants went into the ground or came into bloom.

Once her garden was planted, Susanne came up with a way to rate the 115 perennials she is growing. Once a week she goes into the garden and gives each plant a score. “For foliage only, plants earn a score from zero to three,” she explains, “with the majority getting a zero. For bloom, the scores range from one to five, with five the highest available score even for an exceptional foliage plant in full bloom. These scores are entered into a spreadsheet.”

Although it might seem like a great deal of work, this routine provides a way to evaluate every plant’s performance with a clear eye. “I created this scoring system initially so I could tell, by the fireside in the dead of winter, when and for how long each plant put on a show,” Susanne says. “This enables me to decide what plants remain in the garden.” She goes on to say that the spreadsheet is useful when adjustments are needed as well. Susanne can see which perennials are in bloom at any given time, so if one needs transplanting or if she’s adding new varieties to the garden, she can take full advantage of knowing where to find complementary flower colors, contrasting foliage, and shapes that will flatter the transplants and new additions.

Susanne Clark’s top perennials for sun

The following perennials received the highest rating in Susanne Clark’s weekly scoring system. Susanne points out that because she judges her plants based on both flowering and foliage, seven of the top twelve (as detailed in A Garden Lover’s Martha’s Vineyard by C.L. Fornari) are there because
of leaf color or texture, and the effectiveness of these plants largely depends on their placement. Putting plants with colorful foliage adjacent to green-leaved selections ensures visual interest whether the plants are in bloom or not.

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ (crane’s-bill). Because this perennial geranium blooms profusely from mid-June to mid-October, it tops Susanne’s list. ‘Rozanne’ is a recently introduced cultivar that has round, violet-blue flowers on slightly sprawling stems. The deep-green leaves are lightly marbled with chartreuse and grow in mounds that are attractive before the flowers appear. ‘Rozanne’ is a low spreader, attaining a width of five feet by mid-August. Although Susanne reports that she usually has continuous flower production, these plants can be cut back to the ground if flowering falters in hot weather or if the
foliage starts to look straggly.

Gaillardia ‘Fanfare’ (Fanfare blanket flower). Another prolific bloomer, ‘Fanfare’ also begins flowering in mid-June and sustains strong bloom into October. Susanne has planted this perennial at the front of the border, where she says that it makes a neat, mound-ed presentation. “I use its red-and-yellow trumpetlike petals to tie together the reds and yellows of the hot section of the borders,” Susanne explains. Regular deadheading is needed to promote continual flowering.

Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow’ (carpet bugleweed). This plant, usually used as a ground cover, earns its high scores with its colorful leaves, which are effective from early May through October. Foliage is everything with this plant: Although it blooms in May, the flowers are insignificant. The leaves, however, are a colorful mix of gray-green, magenta-purple, and cream, and they form a tapestry of color that complements other plants throughout the season. Like all ajuga varieties, ‘Burgundy Glow’ will spread, but Susanne says it’s easy to edit out any unwanted plants.

Tanacetum parthenium ‘Aureum’ (golden feverfew). Susanne appreciates this short-lived perennial, because the fernlike, chartreuse-yellow leaves make a statement from April into October. Growing lower than the common feverfew, the golden variety tops out between eight and twelve inches tall and is crowned with white and yellow, buttonlike flowers beginning in July. Golden feverfew self-sows around the garden, so it should be edited and transplanted annually.

Liriope muscari ‘Silvery Sunproof’ (variegated lilyturf). Starting in mid-May, the grasslike leaves of this variegated Liriope provide a color and texture in contrast to neighboring plants. “I use the low clumps of ‘Silvery Sunproof’ as an edging,” Susanne says. “From a distance the leaves, which are striped lengthwise with green and yellow to cream, appear cream-colored.” Blue flower spikes resembling long grape hyacinths appear in late summer. Because this plant has attractive foliage all summer and does not require deadheading, it is a low-maintenance perennial.

Gaura lindheimeri ‘Whirling Butterflies’ and ‘So White’ (butterfly gaura). This plant is a North American native that is both long-blooming and easy to grow. It begins to flower in June and continues into October. If flower production begins to fade at the end of July, cutting the flower stalks off to just above the foliage will spur the plant to bloom well into the fall. ‘Whirling Butterflies’ has white flowers tinged with pale pink and will grow to three and a half feet tall and wide. ‘So White’, as the name suggests, is pure white. “The delicate haze of gaura in bloom provides a foil for more substantive blooms nearby,” she says. Like many perennials that flower for a long period, gaura may be short-lived, and it needs excellent drainage through the winter months in order to survive.

Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ears). The traditional lamb’s ears makes a dense clump of soft, hairy, silver-gray leaves that are effective for the entire season. Silvery, woolly stems grow upright in June, and the bees love the tiny magenta-pink flowers that appear in July. Although the flowers are small, they are a traditional component of English cottage gardens and moon gardens. Along the edge of a border, S. byzantina is a wonderful contrast to the green plants nearby.

Sedum ‘Frosty Morn’ (variegated stonecrop). The cream-edged, apple-green leaves of this sedum add contrast and color to Susanne’s border from early May to October. Like other sedums, this one is drought-tolerant and grows best when not given an abundance of fertilizer. In late August and September, pink and cream flowers add subtle late-season color. ‘Frosty Morn’ grows up to two feet tall by two feet wide. New growth on this variegated plant can easily revert to all green, and gardeners should remove any non-variegated growth as soon as it appears.

Excerpted and adapted from A Garden Lover’s Martha’s Vineyard by C.L. Fornari (Commonwealth Editions, 2008). C.L. Fornari is a writer, photographer, and professional speaker who gardens on Cape Cod. Her website is