The evolution of a Little Rock garden

Story and Photos by Celia Roe

Kristianna and John Pittenger, both retired educators and master gardeners, bought their home on a double corner lot in Little Rock’s Hillcrest area in 1975. The craftsman-style house, built in 1912, boasts large rooms and high ceilings. The exterior was built and painted to look like (close-studded) half-timbered construction (i.e., Tudor). When the couple moved into their new home, the yard had only a couple of trees, a grape arbor, and a bedraggled banana plant.

The charming picket fence is anchored by seaside petunias (Calibrachoa parviflora) and accented with purple hyacinthbean vine (Lablab purpureus).

John relates, “The evolution of our gardens has been somewhat complicated. For about 20 years we did little but maintain what was here. Between our jobs (both teachers) and raising our two daughters, there wasn’t a lot of free time, but we eventually developed an increasing interest in gardening.

Turk’s cap lilies (Lilium superbum) grow in a corner of the side garden.

We started slowly with new trees – one for each daughter – a few shrubs, and some small beds of flowering perennials. In 1999 Anthony Moore, then a student of landscape architecture at UA Fayetteville, offered to design and install some fairly extensive landscaping, which would meet one of his graduation requirements. He put in a large dry-creek bed, lots of new shrubs, and helped us expand the flowerbeds. As the years have passed, we have added more beds until we are nearly out of space.

The Pittenger home is surrounded by carefully tended gardens and is a joy to behold.
Variegated white caladiums and ‘Goldsturm’ black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’) add color to an area of dappled sunlight and a dry creek in the back garden.

Our choice of plants has also evolved. Initially we stuck to well-known, standard flowers, usually perennials. In the last decade we have been more experimental – trying more unusual plants and ones that aren’t supposed to fit our climate zone. In addition, we are putting in more and more annuals for long flowering seasons and more variety of colors and textures. The yard has areas ranging from deep shade to full sun, thus allowing exploration of almost any plant that interests us. We often trade plants with others, a good way to acquire hard-to-find species. Since some of our plants spread quickly, we’ve been able to help friends fill their gardens.”

Along with the Atlas blue cedar, bright pink oleanders (Nerium oleander) bloom in a side garden.

The key to avoiding needless gardening mistakes, according to the Pittengers, is by doing your homework. Read a few gardening books and start out small. Soil preparation is SO important and well worth the labor. Dig deep and add plenty of quality topsoil and compost. Don’t expect your gardens to reach their final perfect design the first season. Realize that the fun of gardening is in finding new plants to try each year.

Stargazer lilies (Lilium ‘Stargazer’), coneflowers, and tall garden phlox add to the visual delight of the beautiful front garden.
The koi pond is a shady and serene spot for summer entertaining and is the focal point of the back garden.

One spring, Kristianna and John were invited to show their garden on the then-annual tour of Little Rock gardens. They spent a lot of time sprucing up the landscape, putting in new flowers, etc. One side of their yard got no direct sunlight, producing a “pretty ratty-looking lawn,” so they sprung for the installation of new sod.

A bed of annuals, including pink and white periwinkles (Catharanthus roseus), golden shrimp plants (Pachystachys lutea), and delicate white and purple summer snapdragons (Angelonia angustifolia) enhance the walkway to the home.

The yard looked the best it ever had, but as luck would have it, the tour occurred on a day of torrential rain. “Yep, that was our year,” bemoaned John, but Pulaski County gardeners are a hearty lot and many braved the storm. The group saw newly planted flowers slowly floating down toward the backyard and had to bob and weave to avoid the limbs blown about by near gale-force winds. The new sod was trampled into a quagmire. Fortunately, only a couple of people lost shoes to the sucking mud. After the last visitor left, the couple stood on the front porch commiserating over the disaster, and then burst out laughing.


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