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A garden that glories in greenest of greenery

Ann Stookey's Chestnut Hill garden has no pastel puffs, no flowery mounds. Just about everything is green, and it's all about foliage.

To walk in Ann Stookey's garden is to experience the many shades and shapes of this extraordinary and underrated garden color. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)
To walk in Ann Stookey's garden is to experience the many shades and shapes of this extraordinary and underrated garden color. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)Read more

Ann Stookey's Chestnut Hill garden has no pastel puffs, no flowery mounds. Just about everything is green, and it's all about foliage.

"Green is a color, too," she says.

For too long, green's been disparaged as dull background, like outdoor wallpaper, not considered a color in its own right in the garden.

But it can be quietly spectacular, as Stookey's garden will attest. Here, green comes in lime, teal, and forest; shiny and matte, and variations in between. It's a subtle and dignified landscape to rest the eyes and calm the nerves.

"It does not draw attention to itself," says Stookey, unconsciously articulating exactly why many gardeners would object.

Where are the boffo blooms? What, no hot colors?

You call this a garden?

Actually, Stookey uses words like life-affirming, restful, peaceful, and reassuring to describe her green garden, which has evolved over the last dozen years on her three-quarter-acre property on Summit Street.

"I see my garden as a canvas, a big canvas," says Stookey, a member of the Wissahickon Garden Club, which she calls "the mighty Wissahickon," and an accomplished floral designer who builds sculptural arrangements in a sleek, modernistic style.

Recently, for example, she took apart a rattan window shade and reconfigured it as a free-form tower to support flowers, twigs, and foliage. "The idea is to use organic materials in unexpected, contemporary ways," Stookey says.

So it's no surprise that her artistic eye seeks out geometric shapes, clean lines, and repetition, in endless gradations of green, in her garden. There are topiary hydrangea balls and clipped, rectangular boxwoods, arcs of chartreuse spirea below bands of mature evergreens, a small-pebble terrace, and espaliered pear trees that symmetrically hug the walls.

Stookey conceived and planted much of this herself, with help over the last five years from Nina Schneider, a garden designer whose first career was in corporate and commercial interior design.

"If you understand proportion, design, and color, it's the same in the garden," says Schneider, who lives two blocks from Stookey and studied horticulture at Longwood Gardens and Morris Arboretum.

She's very much a fan of green gardens.

"Flowers are very ephemeral. They come and go and the plant is still there," Schneider says. "Foliage should always be a major consideration."

Historically, this has been the case in Europe and other parts of the world, and American gardeners are beginning to embrace the trend, Schneider says. She attributes this to more variety and greater availability of attractive foliage plants, and a changing consciousness about what constitutes beauty in the garden.

"People are kind of tired of just imitating English flower borders, and they're interested in exploring other plants, especially ones that aren't so maintenance-intensive, such as hosta," Schneider says.

Hosta's a case in point. In the 1950s and 1960s, plain-Jane green was the norm. Today, the hosta market is exploding with gray-green, apple-green, blue, and yellow-leaf varieties with beet-red stems, dimples, and streaks.

Native plants, which tend toward green, are also becoming more popular, as are shade gardens, where foliage plants have traditionally flourished.

"Green foliage is just a delight to use," says Alison Hoblyn, a horticulturist, artist and author of Green Flowers: Unexpected Beauty for the Garden, Container or Vase (Timber Press, $24.95).

Designing with green leaves, and flowers, "forces you to look at the structure of the plant without the distraction of lots of color. As an artist as well as a gardener, I'm an evangelist for looking at things, especially plants, more closely," says Hoblyn, of Oxfordshire, England.

Just as an artist's monochrome drawing explores shape and records tones, a green garden highlights both the sharp blades of an iris and the soft curves of a clipped laurel. "After you've started to look that closely," Hoblyn says, "you also start to appreciate how many different hues and shades of green you can have."

So how many hues and shades does Stookey have?

There's the lawn, nice and bright, for a long view of the nine-bedroom house, which was built in 1863 in grand Victorian style. Made of Wissahickon schist, the house was later "Frenchified," Stookey says. Victorian flourishes were removed, a mansard roof added.

There's 'Catlin's Giant' ajuga, a low-rosette ground cover of bronze-green leaves and burgundy undertones; a brooding-green tiarella or foamflower with maroon veins, and 'Caramel' heuchera or coral bells, a delicious limey-apricot with a pink blush.

And so many trees, with jigsawed bark of beige and cream and leaves that range from celery-bright to red or brown. Stookey, who is married to Comcast executive Joseph W. Waz Jr. and has one son, put together a lively mix that includes willow, stewartia, river birch, katsura, cypress, and Japanese maple.

She's dotted the woodland garden, on the side of the house, with ostrich ferns and hostas, brunnera, and 'Annabelle,' the stunning white hydrangea. The "French garden," off the kitchen, is a different feel altogether.

There, Stookey grows lavender, pear trees, succulents, and herbs. "My corner of Provence," she calls it, and although she popped some bright orange tulips in for early-spring drama, they were quickly replaced by giant purple alliums.

"I hardly ever do the same thing twice," she says.

That also applies to the large, gray containers and window boxes Stookey fills each summer with succulents or tropicals, such as black elephant ears and bananas, another touch that her professional designer likes.

"Mostly blacks and greens," says Schneider, "not brilliant, screaming foliage."

Nothing screaming about the place. Brilliant? Maybe. Foliage? The best.

Read garden writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at