To thine own self be true

Story and Photos by Dwain Hebda

Carol Mendel of Little Rock didn’t grow up a gardening enthusiast, but when she and her husband Allan moved into a sprawling home with a stunning view of the Arkansas River, she thought the grounds needed some help to keep up with the view. So she became a master gardener, dug into some magazines, and got to work.

A reclaimed iron banister leads the visitor along a gurgling water feature from the curb to the front door. Time and elements have weathered the piece beautifully.

Nearly 20 years later, she’s got a showpiece space as well as a hard-won philosophy about what constitutes the “perfect” yard. “I did it all wrong. I didn’t plan anything. I didn’t draw anything out,” she said. “It was just, you know, one day you wake up and you think, ‘I can’t get to that area over there, I need a bridge.’ Or, there’s too much spreading liriope so you pull some up. It was totally serendipitous, which is not necessarily a good thing. 

Mendel’s previous career as an interior decorator gives her a good eye for eclectic garden pieces that complement plants without cluttering.

“But what I [had] right was [that] I don’t really care what you think. (The garden) is really for my pleasure and where I want to meander and wander and go. So I don’t know if I would really change anything.” 

Hardscape is as important as plants in Mendel’s garden, not only aesthetically, but to provide sure, sturdy footing.

From this revelation sprang Mendel’s elegantly eclectic garden, skillfully executed without a hint of pretense. Taking up the entirety of the long, narrow front yard and continuing out back, the landscape is sculpted from a steep grade that provides various levels. A massive multi-tier stone water feature is the anchor in front, bisecting a series of flagstone paths that lead visitors from one level to another and ultimately amble down to various stopping points in back as well.

Trees and shrubs provide visual interest year around.

Mendel believes the aesthetic of each part of the garden extends beyond mere appearance. Throughout the space, outdoor rooms and corridors inspire their own purposes using a variety of architectural elements such as stone arches, decks, railings, stone patios, and delicate iron gates. This improves traffic flow and creates spaces to gather or enjoy solitary moments while still being a part of the whole.

Mendel addressed the steep grade of the front yard by creating tiers and paying particular attention to height and texture to provide visual interest.

The plants Mendel uses to achieve this follow her general rule of combining tall, medium, and low heights. She’s particularly fond of Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) and there are several in the landscape, providing height or depth, depending on the species. She said while time has refined her tactics – she favors groups of threes, which looks less contrived than even-numbered plantings, for instance – and she readily pays a premium for quality soil and stock. 

Mendel built this protected garden space in the backyard to keep rabbits and deer out of some of her favorite plants.

“I think we tend to overthink gardens sometimes. If you like a more natural look, like I do, just open your eyes,” she said. “I might see something on Petit Jean Mountain or Pinnacle Mountain and think, ‘I get why that works.’ I study rocks so I know how to place them. Anybody can do that. And, the garden is so forgiving; so you made a mistake, pull it up!”

Years of gardening taught Mendel that plants don’t have to be exotic to be beautiful, as evidenced by one of her prized hellebores.

Another thing one notices about Mendel’s garden is the familiarity of plants. In addition to her beloved Japanese maples are such stalwarts as Hydrangea, azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), Fatsia, Camellia, mondo grass (Ophiopogon spp.), and hellebores (Helleborus spp.). Building something special out of otherwise pedestrian parts is not only her gift, but also came about during an “a-ha” moment of her gardening journey.

Several varieties of Japanese maple dot the landscape. Mendel likes them for their versatility and hardiness.

“Because I was a master gardener, I felt I had to get the new and rare and exotic. And I got those and they’re really sad and pitiful,” she said. “I’m not against the new stuff, but I have some age-old trees and bushes that are spectacular because they love Arkansas.

“I recently gave a garden talk called ‘Don’t Be A Garden Snob,’ where I said it is great to have something unique and gorgeous, but if you’ve got a glorious dogwood, you’ve got the whole world right there.”

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