As with most great gardens, visitors driving up the narrow, curved driveway to the sleek home of Sidney and Jean Silber have no idea what is in store for them. The many mature Kousa dogwoods, the towering “Disca” rhododendrons with huge mauve blooms and the unusual Korean maple by the front door offer clues, however. So do the little signs pointing to parking areas and exits.
“We have had about 200 visitors so far this spring,” says Sidney Silber, who with wife Jean presides over this 10-acre garden that’s considered one of the best in the Mid-Atlantic region, according to Gary Keim, a respected landscape designer from Swarthmore, Pa. “The Silbers’ garden is reminiscent of Winterthur or Mount Cuba in Delaware,” says Keim, who has worked with the couple for three years.
When the Silbers began the garden in 1959, they spent two years just clearing the solid woods and overgrowth. Since then, they’ve created a strolling garden that surrounds three ponds and a swimming pool, and is composed of more than a dozen large gardens and garden pathsÑ each with a name (see box, page 117).
When Sidney Silber visited Henry Hohman’s renowned Kingsville Nursery for the first time in 1960, “it was a case of instant love. I had never seen so much rhododendron before,” says the 85-year-old Silber. “I grew up in the city, on Monroe Street and North Avenue, without either a front or back yard. I thought Druid Hill Park was the most beautiful garden in the world.”
One of eight children, Silber graduated in 1939 from M.I.T.with a degree in mechanical engineering, then designed systems for Boeing in Seattle. After his father’s death, he returned to Maryland, intending to sell the family bakery. Instead, he improved the equipment and recipes, built a new plant and expanded the business into the legendary chain of Silber’s bakeries that dotted the Baltimore area. In the early ‘60s he sold the bakery business to his siblings and began a second career in commercial real estate, serving for 30 years as president of Commercial and Industrial Realty.
Throughout his career, Silber pursued his avocations of art, sailing and gardening. Now that he’s retired, Sidney and JeanÑ he in his khakis, she in her denim skirtÑ head out to the garden at 8 a.m. They work until lunch, then go out again until 4 p.m., often returning to the gardens after dinnerÑ particularly during last season’s drought, when they regularly put in 12-hour days. Seventy-one-year-old Jean weeds, divides and deadheads while Sidney designs, digs holes and prunes. “I prune a lot of stuff when she’s not looking,” he says with a twinkle.
Though the couple has always had help with the gardenÑ some of it from their now-grown children Paul, Douglas and JanetÑ they’ve tended and planted every inch themselves, propogating by seed, cutting or division one-quarter to one-third of the garden’s several thousand plants.
“Although expert horticulturalists, they tackle each new gardening challenge with the innocence of the uninitiated, because they would never see something as too much work and not worth the effort,” says Leigh Barnes, past president of the Maryland Horticultural Society, who often leads tours of the Silbers’ garden. In addition to serving on boards of many Baltimore colleges and institutions, the Silbers have been in strumental in the expansion of the Maryland Horticultural Society, and actively support the Nature Conservancy, the Garden Conservancy, Cylburn Arboretum and the Scott Arboretum in Philadelphia.
As a child, Sidney took classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and as an adult studied sculpture with Frieda Sohn at the Baltimore Museum of Art and portraiture with Polly Mitchell until her death last year. He has filled his gardens with sculpture, many by Maryland artists Reuben Kramer, Mary Ann Mears and SohnÑ even a few of his own.
“Landscape architecture is a form of sculpture,” says Sidney. “It’s really like designing the piece from the inside out.” And while he has drawn on the expertise of renowned landscape designers Keim, Bruce Baetjer, Rose Wolford, Wolfgang Oehme, Maripat Neff and Jo Rand, he has done most of the design work and plant selection himself. He brings home truckloads of rhododendrons from Pennsylvania and North Carolina. “And then we find space for them,” he says.
The Silbers have clearly succeeded at breaking the first rule of garden design: design first, plant next. They also move things around frequently.
“We say that our plants have wheels,” says Jean with a laugh, as Sidney points to a Japanese maple near the patio. “See that?” he says. “Next week it will be gone.”
Change is the constant, and the Silbers have achieved what all gardeners aspire to: 12 months of interest, nine months of bloom. During those nine months of bloom, the Silbers work in their garden; during the other three months, they travel.
“You have to get away,” says Jean, pinching off a few brown leaves. “If we stay here, we garden constantly.”
Designers: Bruce Baetjer, Rose Wolford, Wolfgang Oehme, Gary Keim, Maripat Neff and Jo Rand
Garden names: Patio Garden, Woodland Garden, Fern Garden, King’s Garden, Jean’s Garden, the Rose Garden, Arboretums One and Two, Holly Border, Hemlock Border, Wildflower Garden, Hemlock Hill, and Ponds One, Two & Three. Paths: North Avenue; East, West and Main Paths; Deer Run; and Route 19.
Visitors each season: 200-400
Notable Plantings Trees: Large stands of enkianthus; monumental sugar maples and Kousa dogwoods (most from legendary Henry Hohman’s Kingsville Nursery); Chinese Fringe tree; Chinese Fir tree (the tallest in Maryland); three kinds of yellow magnolias; and unusual varieties of redbuds, including one variegated.
Shrubbery: 50 varieties of rhododendrons; dozens of varieties of hydrangeas, including the unusual ‘preziosa’ and ‘Snow Queen’ Oakleaf Hydrangeas; Styrax Witchhazels; dozens of English and American boxwoods, including their favorite, the hardy ‘Vardar Valley’ from the Balkan Islands.
Perennials: Huge varieties of hostas from Happy Hollow Nursery (favorites are the blue ‘Halcyon,’ the blue-green ‘Great Expectations’ and a golden ‘August Moon’), anemones (favorite: white anemone ‘Japonica’), disanthus ferns, rodgersia, solomon seal and helebores
Rhododendrons and azaleas: 300-400 of each
Japanese maples: 25 different cultivars