When Margaret Wright, her mathematician husband Tim, and their three children moved to their 1910 Dutch Colonial house in Roland Park in 1965 she says, “There was one border in the back and bright, screaming red azaleas around the foundation.” A lot has changed in 50 years on the one-eighth acre around their spacious duplex.
The house facing Stony Run and the trail that follows the old Ma and Pa (Maryland and Pennsylvania) rail bed has a decidedly country ambiance. In the family’s early days there, it felt even more rustic. “The park was wild then, more trees and vines,” Wright says. “The kids fell in the stream once a day for 15 years. We used manure from a horse down the street in the garden.”
Wright started her garden in the backyard with no plan. She dug and planted favorite plants like hellebores transplanted from her family’s home in upstate New York. Little did she know that one day she’d have a prized hellebore collection that
includes many unusual varieties and some grown from seed.
In the mid-1970s, the family spent a year in Cambridge, England—a trip that would inspire fond memories…and plant the seed for a major garden transformation. “We rented a house with a big back garden, and that’s when the bug bit,” says Wright.
After returning to Baltimore, she called Kurt Bluemel, a young, rising-star designer and plantsman, who by the time of his death in 2014 was nationally renowned for his naturalistic use of grasses and perennials.
“I asked him to come make my backyard more interesting,” Wright says.
In 1976, Bluemel set about transforming the hardscape so Wright could begin the next stage of gardening on good “bones.” He moved the bike shed and back patio, outlined a curvaceous side garden, moved some trees and installed boulders in the back (a novel idea at the time). He sited a natural-looking pond and fountain in a spot that connected the side and back gardens. A neighbor’s mature oak tree continued to make it a shade garden, but Bluemel opened up the space, created movement and a graceful sweep around the house.
“The pond is still the main focus,” says Wright, who adds that Blumel also installed fine plants like long-stalk holly, sweet bay magnolia, autumn blooming camellias and a white crape myrtle, which was new back then. All still thrive today.
These plants set a benchmark for Wright’s intensifying passion. She joined the Horticultural Society of Maryland, where she learned from lectures, other gardeners and gardens. “We traveled so much with Tim, because of his work, so I started visiting nurseries and gardens during the days when he was at work.”
In the late 1980s, in an effort to reduce the lawn and grow more plants on the sunny front of the house, Wright and Andreas Grothe of New World Gardens, Inc., turned half of the front yard into a garden. This time she created more beds and a feeling of space with a winding flagstone path that connects in two places to the front sidewalk. Grothe also added a low drystone wall and more boulders to unify the front and back gardens.
Then, after her husband’s 1991 sabbatical in Oxford, England, the couple returned and built a family room/kitchen addition overlooking the back garden—bringing more of the “outside” into their home.
By then Wright’s plant knowledge and expertise had expanded to the point that she started her own garden design business called Great Gardens. “I’m interested in how plants grow and the different environments they like, so I advised clients on what sorts of plants would grow best in various locations.”
Although her plant collections are many, they do not look jumbled but like an artistic mosaic. They weave through the gardens and range from many varieties of cyclamen, epimediums, ferns, hellebores and species peonies to ephemerals like unusual wood poppies and mayapples. She also adds in numerous native, drought-tolerant, bird- and bee-attracting plants, plus many unusual bulbs, including some fellow plant-collecting neighbor, Tanya Jones, has given her.
“Tanya has taught me so much about amending the soil,” says Wright, whose focus is finding just the right spot to tuck an addition to an ever-growing collection.
With plants she can no longer use, Wright plants up a green strip by the Stony Run Trail. “With permission of the city years ago, I started planting what I needed to delete,” she says. She also pots up extra plants and sets them on the berm for others to take.
Fully planted gardens keep Wright’s maintenance down and lawn mowing to about 10 minutes. Her biggest challenge is: “Fitting in more plants. That’s why I’ve become very interested in small plants.” And instead of planting in groups of three, five or seven plants, as many gardeners do? “I plant in drifts of one,” she says, borrowing a phrase from esteemed North Carolina nurseryman Tony Avent.