Q&A with Kate Sprague Bjorkland
Every neighborhood has one of those people…you know, the one whose garden and landscaping just wows everyone who drives by. The one who makes you wonder, just how do they do it? How do they make their garden so gorgeous? One of Fauquier’s most prolific home gardeners is Kate Sprague Bjorkland of Marshall, and she has shared with us her love and secrets of her garden here for our Garden Issue.
How long have you been gardening?
I started gardening about 15 years ago when my daughters were toddlers. I had dabbled a bit here and there, but it wasn’t something that I had really invested a lot of time in. As I watched the world through their eyes, I remembered standing in front of a Matisse in the Smithsonian when I was little and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer size of it. It was a powerful memory, and I thought it would be wonderful for my girls to have a similar experience, but with flowers. So, for the first several years of gardening, I only planted things that would be at their eye level or taller than they were, and planted them near walkways so the girls could really get close to them. It didn’t matter what color or plant, as long as it flowered and grew at least two feet!
How did you get into gardening?
My mother was a gardener, and remains so. She doesn’t have a particular plan, and doesn’t really follow any rules. She showed seven-year-old me her ideas and shared her happiness when the first crocuses bloomed or when the forsythia splashed bright yellow everywhere. My grandfather Sprague was a wonderful rose gardener who shared his garden with four-year-old me.
How do you plan your garden?
I don’t, really! I think about this garden every single day, all year long, but I have no plan and make no demands as to the specific order of things. The lack of order is why there are so many mistakes, but it keeps me from fretting over silly things like mold spots or the rabbit that eats things. My solid lack of planning means I have no idea what will happen next, but sometimes results in some unexpected but enchanting results. When the Checkerspot Butterfly (a species of concern) chose my garden to be its habitat, it was a grand surprise. Certainly, if I’d set out to make that happen it would have been elusive, and I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of learning through research and documentation that something fabulous was happening. There are so many lovely, perfectly planted and organized gardens out there, and they are lovely to me, but I have no ambition to be that perfectly manicured. My goal is to experience the act of gardening and see what happens along the way.
What advice do you have for people starting out?
My tips for new gardeners: plant what you like, and if it grows well and easily, keep it. If it is a plant that isn’t thriving but you feel compelled to keep, move it to a new spot and try again. Don’t listen to professional designers. Try to go with native species; there are wonderful resources for this. Go meet Jim at the Fauquier Education Farm, and let him give you some ideas. There are more pitfalls than I can name and I encourage people to become victim to as many of them as possible; that’s how you learn. Maintenance is critical, and mine is a simple strategy: go outside every Saturday and Sunday from April through October and work your tail off for as many hours as you can put into it! Hand pull the weeds, don’t just mulch over them. Taking a shortcut saves time once, but it means additional work many times over in the future.
Why do you work so hard at your garden?
I don’t actually see a beautiful garden. I see an experiment that often produces flowers, and flower faces that delight me. I make tons of mistakes, but there are also miracles, such as my zinnias that cross pollinated and decided to make versions in marvelous butter cream with magenta fringe colors! There are my eight-foot-tall Cosmos that should not achieve such heights, but there they are.
“Why?” is the ephemeral question people ask a person when they can not understand a person’s motives, or madness. There are several reasons I garden.
My neighbor sometimes sits on the bench at his house and counts the hummingbirds or goldfinches or butterflies flitting about in my garden.
Sometimes people walk by and actually say “thank you” or describe their favorite things about the garden.
But every once in a while, the littlest ones are drawn to visit a little closer than their mommy thinks is polite, and that is my very favourite reason to garden.