Bedrock in Bloom
A floral designer’s coastal cutting garden
Pauline Runkle is not the type of gardener to let a little issue like impenetrable bedrock get in her way. Initially, she had no idea of the magnitude of stone beneath the four acres that she purchased on Boston’s North Shore 30 years ago. When she bought the land along the old stagecoach road from Boston to Gloucester, only a pig barn stood on the property beside the charred remains of trees from a fire years ago. “So it really was a clean slate,” the optimist enthuses. As soon as her house was completed, she plunged right in to improve the view from the many windows incorporated into the floor plan. She wanted flowers, and plenty of them, coming from all sides. That is when Runkle, a flower arranger, hit ledge.
Granted, the lack of loam was perturbing, but the indomitable Runkle merely saw it as a snag on the way to ridding the land of scrub shrubs and replacing them with the proper productive garden of her dreams. “The major outcropping inspired the garden and its placement,” she says. Eight tractor trailer loads of loam later (and after laboriously hand-sifting every load upon arrival to remove the rocks), she was ready to dig in—after installing a sprinkler system to sustain what she had in mind. In the meantime, she devised a plan for her newly sunny location. From the get-go her garden had a mission—augmenting what the market had to offer by producing her own cut flowers.
Runkle always had an insatiable appetite for flowers. She loves blossoms growing thickly around her, but she craves displaying them indoors as well. In 1976, eight years before purchasing the North Shore property, she went commercial to launch Floral Artistry, and her floral design initiative was gaining momentum based on her natural, insightful style. Although the garden would eventually inform Runkle’s commercial design work, at first the homegrown flowers were there purely to please her. Flowers for this designer are as necessary as food.
Way ahead of the curve, she was not wed to the traditional herbaceous border popular at the time, and that liberal approach was apparent in the garden she planned to surround her new house. She welcomed shrubs and trees into the border when most of her colleagues would not consider woody plants as the bedfellows of perennials, creating a mixed border before the term was minted.
Runkle’s personal style as a floral artist requires a natural palette not readily available from wholesalers at that time. She needed the garden to pump out campanulas, yarrow, phlox, delphiniums, lilies, iris, verbascum, lady’s mantle, astilbe, as well as flowers not on the usual roster for florists—French blue forget-me-nots, nearly black ‘Queen of Night’ tulips, and orange winterberry. Runkle makes voluptuous designs and knew that she would have to pick her crevices carefully if she was going to wedge the connoisseur perennials she collected into her rocky terrain.
Furthermore, foliage is critical to supporting the drama in her highly architectural floral designs. “I build on a framework of branches and foliage,” she explains. Fond of variegated leaves, she may use a white-edged hosta, a variegated phlox, or a white-leaved weigela in her designs. “Working with foliage is much more effective, natural, and economical,” she says. “It’s all about elements playing back and forth.”
The silver leaves of herbs strike her fancy on all fronts, including her sense of smell; they add another dimension to her arrangements. Fortuitously, herbs are also ideal for the craggy environment that she calls home. Lavender, which generally fails to thrive in New England, flourishes in her shallow soil. “It’s one of the pluses of growing with almost no soil,” says Runkle, who favors the cultivar Lavandula x intermedia ‘Provence’. In the ledge that was revealed when she rolled back the thin sheets of grass, lavender is planted side-by-side with Santolina, which serves as a natural bug repellant. “My favorite thing to do at dusk is weed around them. They repel mosquitoes.”
Gradually, the garden gained personality. At one point, she went on an antique rose binge, tucking those plants-with-a-past into her already packed landscape. When the antique roses were a disappointment, she moved into David Austin’s English roses, tucking 34 of those ultra-fragrant roses with old-fashioned looks and modern repeat flowering between her perennials. By 1998, Runkle had gained such a reputation for her roses that she was asked to judge the Tournament of Roses Parade. Among the surviving roses in her shoreline garden is the indefatigable ‘Thérèse Bugnet’, a Canadian hybrid rugosa that blooms throughout the summer; it shows no signs of black spot and forms suckers to make broad colonies. She also plants Rosa glauca or red leaf rose on the strength of its red-tinted, blue-green leaves and architectural structure.
Always forging new paths, Runkle was a pioneer, experimenting with a meadow before the concept came into vogue. When maintaining the meadow became more work than pleasure, she moved on to plant the space with sunflowers and eight varieties of pumpkins. The result was thrilling, but deer were an issue. Now she devotes the space to hydrangeas bred for their cut flower compatibility. Most are in the Hydrangea macrophylla (mophead and lacecap) realm, but Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’ also provides filler for bouquets as well as clouds of flowers for the garden. “They work out really well,” Runkle says of the shrubs that now stand 10 feet tall. “They love the acid soil on the ledge.” She also grows an orchard of various fruit trees on the land.
While dealing with ledge has its challenges, there are also benefits to growing by the ocean. Phlox is a major perk. Although some varieties may get mildew, she culls susceptible ones and lets the others grow. Brisk air circulation also prevents rust, so hollyhocks are in their glory. And yes, she uses them in her arrangements—most plants on the premises are called into service.