He is a former contributing editor for Horticulture magazine and
teaches courses at
Gardens in Kennett Square, near Philadelphia. His vast knowledge of snowdrops was featured in
the Wall Street Journal, and he has developed the 'Brandywine'
hybrid strain of hellebores. Currently vice president of Sunny
Border Nurseries, Mr. Culp received the Distinguished Garden
Award and an Award of Merit from the Pennsylvania Horticultural
His new book, "The
Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty From
(Timber Press), captures his approach to creating gardens and
lessons learned as a lifelong gardener.
David L. Culp
"The layered garden approach is basically about
how much pleasure you can wring out of one spot," he says.
His design sensibilities enliven well-worn
concepts like four-season interest and use of textures and
Defining a 'layered garden'
"The layered garden is about using a variety of
plants and taking advantage of how they live, grow, and even
die. To promote different feelings and emotions in the garden,
and how that varies from time to time."
He advises that the layering extends beyond the
plant combinations themselves.
"It's about combinations of borders, how borders
work together within the framework of the overall garden, and
how the overall garden relates to the larger landscape. That's
"There's an emotional layer to the garden as
well: how we react to it."
By involving ourselves daily in our gardens, we
can see how plants change through the seasons. He urges us to
constantly seek the beauty and inspiration that are always in
our gardens waiting for us to enjoy.
"There is interest as plants die. The red fall
foliage of Hydrangea quercifolia with hostas underneath that are
going to turn yellow. For a couple weeks, you have a beautiful
combination based on senescing foliage. Or you can use a
witchhhazel and underplant it with a Geranium macrorhizum or an
amsonia in the distance," he suggests.
The vignettes may be fleeting: "Peony buds coming
out of the ground underplanted with a bulb or a spring
ephemeral. You are using that moment for a combination. Every
little moment is fair game.
"You just have to expand your mind a little,
looking at the garden differently, looking at the realm of
possibilities. Seeing things in many different layers, different
perspectives all the time, looking close."
There is an economy in his approach. "It's using
that same peony in the spring as it emerges and the same thing
with the seed pods in the fall. It's that Pennsylvania Dutch
practicality. Use it up. You're just using the plant."
This sensibility and his love of gardening were
instilled at an early age by his parents and both sets of
grandparents. "I always gardened. I was no more than 5 years old
when I first heard the 'Jack and the Beanstalk' story, which
inspired me to plant bean seeds in paper cups so that, like
Jack, I could climb my vine into the sky."
He was undeterred by childhood gardening flops --
planting pumpkin seeds after Halloween in a Dutch Masters cigar
box, and planting pussy willows too close to his parents' house.
"A common denominator of all gardeners is the joy
of watching something grow, and I have always enjoyed that."
His layered gardening technique fosters this
interest in watching things grow. But how do we begin making
How to Create a Layered Garden
"First of all you have to want to do it," he
stresses. "I usually say our gardens do not do it because we do
not demand it of them. We just say, 'I wish.' Well, that doesn't
make it happen. You have to go out and say, 'This is what I have
to do to make a winter interest garden,' or, 'I want it to look
good in the fall,' so you ask that of your garden, make it
"Whether it's a 2-acre garden like mine or a city
garden, your house has four sides to it. So you could do each
side as a different season of interest, sequencing. Try not to
do everything at once. I try to have different peaks in the
garden and different experiences as you walk though. Any garden
can give you this experience if you just think about it. I don't
think it's a matter of size. It's certainly not in my case a
matter of money because I'm a gardener. I do this out of
In addition to the book's stunning color
photographs by renowned garden photographer Rob Cardillo, Mr.
Culp has written "The
to inspire and instruct. In a conversational style, he shares
triumphs, defeats, and ideas, such as one gardener would share
"It's meant to be empowering, and it also gives
practical advice on some of the plants that will help do that.
If you follow the latter part of the book, it's done by each
peak genus that I have through the seasons, giving you hints and
tools to start with."
Brandywine Cottage is the canvas upon which the
techniques in his book have been honed. There, he has dealt with
deer and other challenges like planting under black walnut
"I bought [the property] right when I saw it. It
was really a matter of love at first sight. And like falling in
love, you don't see the object of your affection's faults right
away. I did not see all the poison ivy and multiflora roses. I
just saw possibilities."
He offers his designer's thoughts, "When I saw
the house, because of the hillside I saw the grade changes, and
I thought I could do a series of different visual perspectives."
Because of the age of the house (1790s) he went with a geometric
design that was often used in that era, something he calls
"I am a collector so I needed something to give
me unity. I knew where I was going right from the start. Sure I
had a plan, but it was more like an outline. I filled in the
spots as I went along," he adds.
The garden at Brandywine Cottage has changed over
time, something he has embraced. "I had a little grassy meadow
on the top of the hill, and I started planting some trees
around. I love those old meadows with the cedars coming out of
them, like they're going back to what they were. Now after 20
years those trees have come full cycle, and they are wonderful,
magnificent magnolia trees. And with other shade trees around,
it's become a shade border."
Reflections on Gardening
Now in his early 60s, Mr. Culp said his garden
has made him more reflective. "It's amazing where a love of
gardening has taken me. It's a huge, huge gift. I have met my
favorite people through gardening. It's been the absolute best
common denominator in my life.
"I'm still learning. I'm still amazed every day
when I get up and go outside. Though I've been gardening here 20
years, I'm just always amazed at the beauty that the garden
"The garden makes me appreciate the here and now
and plan for the future even more. Never stop planning for the
future but always appreciate what you have today."