Monet in Brewster
Garden enthusiast Laura McLellan paints a masterpiece with plants.
The story goes that Monet, already experiencing commercial success as a painter, gazed from the window of a stopped train at the charming French village of Giverney and decided to make it his home. He invested time and energy carefully planning the gardens of his new property, presumably with the eye of a painter, and the evolving nature of a garden became the most commonly painted subject of his illustrious career. The gardens that surround Laura McLellan’s small, comfortable Cape Cod home in close proximity to the famed Brewster flats hold some of that same fascination, and clearly sparked this gardener’s creative abilities.
McLellan retired from a career spent in high-tech, first with IBM and Digital and then for the last 20 years with an IT consulting firm. A life spent inside with spreadsheets and analytics is perfect for a right-brained person; yet it seems incongruous when considering the wild world of gardening. McLellan began gardening seriously six years ago after retiring. But the roots go deep in her family when it comes to a passion for gardening as well as having an acumen for success. “My mother had a green thumb,” McLellan shares. “And my sister is a master gardener and my other sister is a florist. But my mother’s father was an even better gardener than my mother. His success with roses was something that none of us could ever recreate.”
What McLellan was able to recreate, or rather pioneer, is an approach to planning, design, execution, and the curation of a garden unlike any other. First, she relies heavily on the internet for research and ultimately the acquisition of her stock. Second, she utilizes a succession bloom strategy when deciding what to plant where. And last, but definitely most importantly, she plants her garden like a painter choosing colors from a palette: adding a swath of magenta here, a dabble of mauve there, and a significant highlight of tangerine over there to keep the eye moving through the garden canvas.
She says the affordability of plants online allows her to indulge in mass plantings of her favorite varieties, creating waves of color with some of her favorites like Echinacea, Dahlia, Rudbeckia and lilies. Also, she says that the diversity of web-based growers allows her to discover varieties not ordinarily found in local garden centers. “I visit all of my local nurseries, and I buy plenty of plants there—usually in gallon-sized pots—but the majority of my stock is delivered to me via UPS and consists of small plugs and seedlings. Then it is my job to give them the care and attention they need. But most of all I get to create anything I want with large profusions of color,” she explains.
McLellan relies on grow bags more than most gardeners. Her current grow bag stock, which she sources on Amazon, numbers over 200. “This is what happens when you have too many things to plant, you have to deal with them somehow and put them somewhere. And voila, we have grow bags,” she confirms. “There is nothing like filling up your car in the spring and then delivering daffodils and grape hyacinths and tulips to friends. They make marvelous gifts,” she says, noting she also uses grow bags to plant, store, and protect plants throughout the year.
McLellan’s philosophy on succession planting makes the most of the next round of bloomers to aesthetically cover the dying blooms and foliage of the previous stars in her garden. “I came about it first because of the bulbs,” she explains. “When something is gorgeous and you want it to bloom again, you have to allow the foliage to die back naturally, but that’s not too pretty. So I made sure that everything that had to stay while it was ugly had something else that would come into bloom and obscure it.” McLellan’s garden at the front of her property, bordering a quiet, sandy back road, features daffodils by the fence in the back row, fronted by daylilies, and then hyacinth. The succession planting continues with Iris, tulips, and finally Dahlias planted anywhere that needs obscuring, or covering seasonal bare patches; something barely ever evident in McLellan’s garden.
McLellan’s greatest strategy is trial and error. “I try new things all the time,” she says. “The garden is never the same year to year.” “This year I did Cosmos out at the street; next year I am going to do Nasturtiums. They are going to be much prettier than the Cosmos,” she explains. One year Zinnias were the starters and this year it seems to be Echinacea in almost every color imaginable.
This coming winter, a greenhouse frame which has been a staging spot for McLellan’s blueberry bushes, will get a cover for the first time and a heater. McLellan will attempt to start flower and vegetable seedlings as well as other tender annuals that might need a bit of warmth. The winter months don’t scare her, however, as evidenced by the Alstroemeria and yellow Calla lilies that have come back each of the last three years—a feat almost unheard of given the Cape’s Zone 7 climate. “Three inches of mulch in the fall, that’s my secret,” she shares.
McLellan logs everything onto spreadsheets as though she was collecting data for high-tech industry research and analysis. Every year is catalogued, notated and updated to reflect the varieties she has planted listing the success and failures she has witnessed and the lessons she has learned. Whatever she is doing, Laura McLellan is always painting a picture of how one might garden, as if with the flick of a paintbrush, the vision inside this artist’s mind would suddenly take root and bloom until the first frost.
Julie Craven Wagner is the editor of Cape Cod GARDEN.