My Mentor’s Garden

View from entrance of Kathleen's garden in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

View from entrance of Kathleen’s garden (photo: Kathy Diemer)

Though her nursery is no longer open, Kathleen Nelson’s garden is always open to friends and plant enthusiasts.  On a recent sweltering day, I drove over to Kathleen’s and with hats to protect our heads from the intense sun, we strolled about her garden reminiscing.  Kathleen shared some of her favorite plants at the entrance; flowing Amsonia hubrichtii, violet flowered Verbena hastata, sprawling Kirengeshoma palmata, vibrant Spigelia marilandica, towering Silphium terebinthinaceum and a glowing Carex elata ‘Bowles Golden.  As we walked, she shared the events that helped her evolve as a gardener and become an environmentally responsible steward of her land.

Spigelia marilandica in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Native Spigelia marilandica (photo: Kathy Diemer)

While teaching in New York, Kathleen spent as much time as possible in the country, and in 1974 purchased a tiny house surrounded by woods on a quiet, one lane dirt road.  She immediately wanted to plant everything; edibles at first, and soon after, the ornamental bug nibbled her. Starting with a Park Seed catalog and $25.00 worth of seeds, Kathleen scratched some into the soil and soon witnessed their miraculous development.  She was hooked.  Several years later, with a new husband, a newborn son, a step-daughter and recently remodeled house, she decided to look for work she could do from home . . . grow and sell plants, maybe?  So, she took classes, read everything she could get her hands on, and asked lots of questions from knowledgeable and talented gardeners such as Fred and Mary Ann McGourty of Hillside Gardens.  Experimenting along the way, Kathleen is the first to admit in the beginning “she knew next to nothing.”

Stonewall and raised display bed in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Stonewall and raised display bed (photo: Kathy Diemer)

She opened her nursery, Kathleen Nelson Perennials, in the early 80’s (just as perennials were becoming very popular) and was going full speed ahead until recently closing to pursue another passion, eliminating the dastardly Mile-A-Minute vine that is invading the New England states at a frightening rate (see: for more info).  Initially growing all of her plants from seed, this ambitious self-taught gardener soon became one of the most well known private nurseries in Litchfield County. As the business grew, a friend with a backhoe came in to clear some of the property for expanding gardens. A raised bed was created along the back half of the property (from the abundant rocks on the property) for growing perennials, with a display area and a small greenhouse behind. “Stones are us” was the Nelson’s motto, certainly not conducive to growing plants and shrubs.  But Kathleen persevered, and with lots of hard work (and a little mulch) the plants grew and thrived along with her business.  As time went on, her focus grew more defined, incorporating more and more natives, while cautiously using a select few non-natives as long as they proved to be non-invasive.

Rascal Nelson protector of the Gardens in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Rascal Nelson, protector of the gardens (photo: Kathy Diemer)

And rocks weren’t the only challenge Kathleen encountered along the way, as her woodland property is home to lots of critters that love to partake of her tasty plants from above and below ground.  Even as we walked along, a pile of stems lay limply on the path before us.  Evidence of a demolished plant consumed minutes before by voles.  A deer fence surrounds her property now, and Rascal, her trusty Standard Poodle, makes the rounds regularly.  Even so, the family gets barely a handful of raspberries and blueberries from the rows of plants (carefully tended by husband Randolph) after the animals have taken their unfair share.

A Picnic spot under Katsura in A Garden for All by Kathy Diemer

A picnic spot under Katsura (photo: Kathy Diemer)

Despite the invasion of critters, not only have the plants thrived, but gorgeous specimen trees such as a showpiece weeping katsura that has spread over twenty years to graciously accommodate a cozy dining area underneath it’s flowing branches, an immense stewartia whose limbs have grown so high the glorious white blossoms can be viewed from her second story window, and their favorite chestnut oak, Quercus prinus, which provides morning shade and ample room for the birds and squirrels to play.  Some of my favorite shrubs came from Kathleen’s: Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur,  Forsythia ‘Fiesta’, Aesculus parviflora, Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ and Lindera benzoin.  And plants!  Why Kathleen was a pioneer, introducing Geranium macrorrhizum, Clematis X jouiniana ‘Praecox,’ Caryopteris divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’, Parthenium integrifolium, Thalictrum pubescens, Phlox glaberrima,  Pycnanthemum muticumEryngium yuccifolium, Rudbeckia ‘Herbstsonne’ and other durable, dependable plants to her customers years before they became recognized in local garden centers.

Woodland path in Kathleen's garden in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Woodland path in Kathleen’s garden (photo: Kathy Diemer)

As we ended our visit in her deliciously refreshing air conditioned home, I embraced the feeling of being in a comfortable, cozy tree house.  You see, Kathleen & Randolph Nelson had the foresight to install windows virtually wall to wall when they remodeled their country home.  Not only are there stunning views from every window showcasing their stately trees and lush gardens, but a feeling of being “one with nature” completely envelops you with the surrounding scenery observed from any vantage point.  And I’m sure that’s just how they planned it.


  1. What is the large leaved plant in the woodland path photo?

    • Hi Jean: I contacted Kathleen to verify that the plant you were inquiring about is Darmera peltata, commonly known as umbrella plant. Native to Northern California and Southern Oregon, Darmera peltata can grow to 5′ tall and wide in shady locales zoned 5-7. And, it tolerates wet soil conditions as well. I love it, but can’t grow it in my sun parched landscape . . . sigh . . . Thanks for writing!

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