BARBARA LIBNER IS an artist who works with plants, color and context. Libner’s background in art history trained her to identify design elements, but she didn’t think of herself as an “actual” artist until she discovered a quote by early 20th-century garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder: “Anyone can be an artist in the garden, without apology or explanation.”
Decades of designing container plantings for Ravenna Gardens have helped Libner define a personal garden aesthetic that prioritizes the shape and form of each plant. She prefers a limited color palette — typically two colors, plus green. “I get really excited about the juxtaposition of one kind of foliage next to another,” she muses.
While a finished container looks complete and lush from the beginning, Libner is learning to cultivate patience in her home garden and has to resist the inclination to constantly rearrange plants and fill in every gap in her developing borders. Recently, Libner spent several years developing what she calls her patio garden, a sunken sitting area surrounded by retaining walls and stairs that she built herself. As the plants mature and settle into their new space, the artful gardener considers the project an object lesson in not getting in the way of the plants. “They’ll do lovely, unexpected things if you just let them be,” she says.
Twenty years ago, Libner’s garden was a blank canvas, just sloping grass and an old fence on a small corner half lot. Today, the landscape is home to nine trees in the garden, plus three more on the parking strips — more than most of us might envision planting on such a small plot, but trees were a priority for this knowledgeable plantswoman. “Sitting under a canopy, however small, I think is a basic human pleasure,” she observes.
A trio of very narrow golden rain trees (Koelreuteria paniculata) defines the front entry and shades interior living spaces from the hot afternoon sun. Ticking off the seasons, Libner shares how the witch hazel blooms “fragrantly and flagrantly” in January, an Italian prune fruits in summer and a paperbark maple with cinnamon exfoliating bark is “gorgeous in every season.” A much-loved but “ridiculously messy” evergreen azara (Azara microphylla) lends year-round interest, as do a couple of conifers.
A substantial ‘Wilma Goldcrest’ cypress has grown into an effective privacy screen and provides a chartreuse focal point from just about every perspective throughout the small garden. “My Korean fir is in the wrong place,” Libner confesses. “But it is so beautiful that I can’t bear to disturb it.” Such allowances are possible in a garden of one’s own.
Container plantings, mostly composed of a single special plant, allow Libner to try on placement possibilities as she moves them about the garden. In addition to horticultural wonder, Libner’s garden is discreetly adorned with artful touches and what she calls “recycled castoffs,” Craigslist freebies that Libner has transformed into garden art, like an enormous industrial gear mounted on a custom-made stand. The striking piece emerges from a textural bed of black and white and lime-green foliage, anchoring the garden’s central axis. Libner recently painted the inside of the perimeter fence black. A “scary” commitment, according to Libner, but the new look — both modern and minimal — provides the perfect backdrop for the plants without drawing attention to itself.
With a nod to that insightful garden writer of the past, Libner says it wasn’t until she became emboldened to do only and exactly what she pleased, “without apology or explanation,” that her garden began to really live.