Bill Duncan is at home in the garden, where the only ceilings are clouds and twinkling stars and there are no walls to confine his imagination.
“Ninety-nine percent of the landscaping I see is way too vanilla for me,” he says. “I like to do different and unique things.”
His eight-acre property in Centreville is known as Elizabeth Gardens, named for his mother. The rolling plot, sparkling with streams and ponds, is laid out in a series of 20 open-air rooms connected by meandering paths, with spaces for dining, conversation and contemplation.
“Sometimes, in the evening, we will walk from garden to garden and stop at each one to enjoy each individual space,” he says. “By the time we’re done, we realize that we’ve been out there for an hour and a half.”
Duncan exults in the topography of the piedmont, an extraordinarily fertile and lovely swath of land between the coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains that extends from northern New Jersey to central Alabama. In Chester County and northern New Castle County, the piedmont manifests itself in the exquisite curve of hillsides, lush stands of woods and ebullient waterfalls cascading down rocks.
“The plant life that we have here is vast,” he says. “I love the rolling hills and the creeks of the piedmont.”
Constantly changing, the garden wakes up in March with the earliest snowdrops. They are the first of tens of thousands of bulbs that will burst through the earth, a profusion of crocuses, daffodils and other heralds of spring that add flashes of yellow, scarlet and purple to the landscape.
Later, helebores open pastel petals as hostas and ferns send out fronds. Roses add romance to sunny spots.
Duncan is fond of Knockouts, a recently developed rose that resists drought and disease while providing a constant display of flowers. “Many people try clipping them hard to control their shape,” he says. “But I like them best when they are unshaped. And they will live longer if they’re allowed the space to do their own thing.”
Even in deepest winter, there is something to enjoy in the garden, as witch hazel trees unfurl shoots of crimson, in stark contrast with snow-covered hills.
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Duncan spices up his property by combining a variety of hardscaping materials, as well as diverse and abundant flora. The cherry on top is a flash of the unexpected, as in the sculpted bronzes of iguanas that serve as whimsical sentries to a water feature.
His outdoor spaces range from rustic—the slightly perilous footbridge over a stream—to formal, as in the stand of Grecian urns on pedestals. Around each bend in the path is a new delight for the eye. Witness a key-hole gate built from brick and stone, a pergola ensconced in greenery, a 14-foot waterfall gushing from an old quarry and a forest of salvaged architectural columns.
“Why not blend wood and brick and statuary in one landscape?” Duncan asks. “Why not mix moss with rocks and shrubbery?”
He gilds the lily, literally, in a small pond by adding a vintage trumpet that shoots fountains of water through its bell. A large cast-iron urn has been repurposed as a fountain in a nearby pond, where stone slabs form a bench. The sole ornamentation at another watering hole is an enormous snake carved from a fallen tree. The serpent appears poised to take a drink.
Water features—both natural and man-made—are illuminated with underwater uplights that make the surface shimmer. Wired with low-voltage lighting, the leafy canopies of trees look like damask rolled out against the night sky.
One outdoor room is designated for the couple’s collection of Japanese maples, which display both gracefully sculpted branches and foliage that ranges from green to burgundy. One cultivar, Acer palmatum or Sango Kaku, shows red stems in winter.
“I look out the window in my house and I want to go outside,” Duncan says. “I am drawn into the outdoor rooms.”
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A hallmark of his designs is structure. It is a visual trick that can entice a visitor into a garden, just as a fireplace might draw a guest into a room.
“It may be a small wall, a pillar or column, a large iron or stone planter as a focal point, or a beautiful sculpture,” he says. “Structure can capture the eye to make the background disappear. It can draw the eye into the distance, or it can add an interesting element that stands out from an otherwise all-green landscape.”
The verdant slice that Duncan and his wife, Christina Powell, call home has been in the family for four generations. The property was purchased by William Brinton Harvey, Duncan’s great-great grandfather, as a gift for his daughter and her husband.
Mother Nature provided abundant materials for building the first home on the land, which stands today.
“They took down American chestnut trees and took it to the sawmill,” Duncan says. “The stone for the house was quarried on the property.”
Over the years, generations lived off the land, raising pigs and growing vegetables, flowers and fruit trees. Duncan’s father was an accountant, but young Bill gravitated back to the soil.
As a boy, he dug up seedlings from the woods to try his hand at growing trees. The saplings didn’t flourish, but his love for the land came into full flower as he started tending the property for his parents. Soon, Duncan was taking care of neighbors’ yards.
His gardens are a vibrant showroom of sorts for his business, White Oak Landscape Management Inc., as well as an incubator for new ideas.
In early summer, Duncan introduces palms, banana trees and other tropicals to the garden, showcasing them in large pots. “Tropicals put on a show in a container that is more bold and entertaining than any impatiens,” he says. “Plus, they last from the day you plant them until a hard frost.”
In a rural property, deer, who can strip a plant in minutes, present a constant challenge for gardeners.
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Duncan keeps deer at bay through a two-pronged strategy. First, he uses a commercial spray that repels animals without harming the environment. And second, he focuses on plants that deer don’t like, such as daffodils. “I love tulips, but we don’t have them here because of the deer,” he says.
Instead of vast expanses of grass that must be tamed by weekly mowing, Duncan gravitates toward meadows of wild flowers and other perennials that are permitted to grow free. “Grass gives nothing back to the environment,” he says. “You fertilize it with chemicals. You use fossil fuel to run the machines to mow it.”
His advice: cultivate a small area of scrupulously manicured grass and highlight it with a focal point, perhaps a metal garden ornament, then transition to a good groundcover.
Like gardeners, plants have distinctive personalities. Duncan admires crape myrtle for its beautifully peeling bark and vividly colored flowers, as well as the tree’s moderate size, which makes it ideal for patio plantings. Mahonia, an evergreen shrub, boasts bold foliage even in deep shade, and is equipped with spiky leaves that deer can’t abide.
Sedum is cloaked in a variety of colors, ranging from gold to deep and light greens and blue-gray. “We use sedums on our green roofs because they can grow in literally a few inches of bone-dry soil without irrigation,” he says. “They are very cool plants.”
GET THE LOOK
- Give your outdoor room structure by introducing an architectural focal point such as a column, oversized pot or substantial garden ornament.
- Mix it up. Add lots of diverse plants to your garden, as well as a variety of hardscaping materials, including stone, brick and wood.
- Clip your reliance on grass. Consider other groundcovers, including wildflowers and other perennials that do not require mowing.
- Go tropical. Bring in palms and other warm-weather plants during the summer months. Plant them in large pots you can move around your patio or bring inside.
- Let there be light. In addition to lighting pathways to ensure the safety of people walking outdoors, consider illuminating trees with uplights and downlights and spotlighting such features as ponds, and stone walls.