At the heart of quilting is design. Selecting a pattern and the fabrics that will express it is my favorite part of creating a quilt, and at the Arboretum, I get to translate this art form into the garden. Designing flowers and foliage into quilt patterns involves a different set of considerations than the traditional cloth, but I welcome this challenge and the stunning results it can provide.

Choosing a pattern for the Arboretum’s signature Quilt Garden involves pouring over quilting books for patterns that are simple yet bold enough to stand up in the garden. When making my selection, I look at block patterns for themes that can be interpreted throughout the season. This year, we have selected trees as our theme, and after studying other tree-related patterns like Maple Leaf and Tall Pine, I landed on the Pine Tree block pattern for this year’s quilt. I have learned over 25 years of designing the garden for three growing seasons that bold is better and that no more than five to seven segments will fit in each square and still be discernible as a pattern. The Pine Tree just fits the bill at a total of seven pieces. The garden’s 24 squares, each covering 64 square feet, are arranged in a grid that is six squares across and four squares down. A traditional quilt pattern block fits nicely into this layout, but for an extra challenge, some patterns can even be spread over four blocks. Tricky, huh?

Once we review the pattern block, I begin thinking through color schemes and plants that can perform well in a full sun site for spring, summer and fall. The plants selected must all have similar watering needs, grow to compatible heights and require no deadheading—the removal of spent flowers to encourage more blooms. Another consideration is that the plants cannot require too much pruning to keep within bounds, and they need to be free of pests and diseases. Because we change the plantings with the seasons, a different set of plants must be selected for each. Here’s where the horticultural knowledge of growing plants is critically important. Simply choosing favorite plants won’t work; I must choose plants that will “perform” like an actor on stage. Once I select some plant options, I study their maximum height and spread, and then the math begins. Using my trusty seventh grade geometry skills, I calculate the area of each pattern piece, then figure the plants per square foot for that space, multiply by 24 squares and voila—the total number of plants for production is set!

Mac Franklin kneeling in our fabrication workshop beside the template he created for this design.

Our growers June Jolley and Rick Icenhower source, order and grow the plants over several months to the specified finished size, and on planting day, the plants are moved to the garden space. There, a metal rebar template fabricated by our Director of Horticulture Mac Franklin acts like a stamp to create the pattern on the newly turned and enriched growing media. Once stamped, the beds are ready for plants to be placed in a pre-determined, precise pattern over the 24 squares. Gardeners then carefully plant each section using plywood boards to disperse their weight as they reach to the centermost regions of the squares. Once planted, the beds are watered well, and a light layer of bark mulch is applied on the surface to help keep the soil cool and moist, as well as to suppress weed growth. In the following time-lapse video, you can see this process carried out from start to finish for a single square, as well as a preview of the finished product:

In spring, the garden regularly requires about 3,500 small annuals like pansies, and in summer, depending on the plant size, we can plant upwards of 2,000 annuals. In fall, the garden gets a “facelift” with one or more of the shapes replanted with several hundred fall annuals like chrysanthemums or kale. This summer season, you will encounter the following plant selections in a palette of salmon and purple hues:

  • Sunrise Series™ Agastache (Agastache rupestris ‘Salmon Pink’)
  • Poquito Series™ Agastache (Agastache x ‘Lavender’)
  • Joseph’s Coat (Alternathera hybrida ‘Choco Chili’)
  • Scampi Series® Viola (Scaevola aemula ‘Blue’)

Changing the plants from season to season and rotating the shapes so that they create new expressions of the pattern is part of the fun (and challenge) of designing for this unique garden space. I hope you will be inspired by this quilt of flowers, knowing a little more about the process that goes into bringing it to life each season.