The grotto holds more than 100 ferns.
Photo credit: Daniel Schreiber

When Marlene Bessel moved into her Chevy Chase, D.C., house in 1978, her first assessment of the yard was disheartening: It was a disaster.

Built in 1923, the two-story Craftsman-style house sits on a sloping corner lot. With the front of the plot eight feet higher than the back, runoff of any kind poured into the yard. At first glance, the outside of the property had few redeeming qualities—a nondescript patio, a porch with steps Marlene describes as rickety, some trees and grass—and lots of shade.

“It was always wet, moldy and slippery,” she recalls with a grimace.

Today, Marlene’s garden is a tapestry of contrasting green textures with pops of tropical color. Through some trial and error, Marlene, now a landscape designer, and her husband, professional horticulturist Mitch Baker, transformed this scene into a botanical masterpiece—a unique display of hundreds of large, shade-loving plants with the impact of an Impressionist painting.

“Marlene has a keen eye for design, that’s her area of expertise,” Mitch says. “My real interest is the culture of plants, what makes plants grow, what makes them thrive.”

Though they didn’t have a master plan, the couple made it look as if they did by choosing plants that create vibrant texture and dimension. They picked what they liked, but also respected each plant’s needs—whether sun, shade or space—before letting the garden grow and evolve. They started with basics, hardscape and trees, adding complementary plants along the way. However, Marlene was no expert in the beginning.

“I was originally an art teacher in D.C. I had no clue about gardening at all,” Marlene says. One of the first things she tried was a vegetable garden in their shady yard. It failed. “I planted some tomatoes on the side of the house—not a great idea.”

A visit from her brother-in-law, a landscape architect, inspired her to get a landscape design certificate from George Washington University in 1981. Marlene got a job at what was then American Plant Food garden center on River Road in Bethesda.

“Mitch was the nursery manager,” she says. “That’s how we met.”

In 1989 they married, and in 1990 they opened the Beltway location under the ownership of Rob and Skip Shorb.

Marlene had her own landscape design business for a while, but decided to devote herself full-time to American Plant, where she’s now the visual resources coordinator. Meanwhile Mitch, American Plant’s horticultural specialist, combines 34 years’ experience with studies at various institutes.

As their careers and life together meshed, so did their garden. They removed the wooden porch and added a low deck. A stone riverbed, flanked by more than 100 ferns, runs along the side of the house and provides drainage.

Mitch later added a small pond and a waterfall that produces a peaceful trickling sound. Metal artwork lines the fence.

As with a Monet or Renoir painting, the depth of appreciation comes from the details and the choices made. Marlene and Mitch started with what they had—lots of shade—and made the most of it. “I think with shade it’s more about leaf structure and leaf color and less about flower color,” Marlene says. “With a lot of beginning gardeners, it’s always about flower color.”

Marlene’s love of big leaves is evident in the 10-inch leaf span of an oakleaf hydrangea, the tropical foliage of elephant ear and the contrast of a rubber plant. “If I could have a gunnera [giant rhubarb] in here, I’d have a gunnera,” she says. But she’d likely place it next to a fine-leaved, old-fashioned astilbe. “You have to break it up.”

She combines palms, brightly colored hibiscus and Chinese lanterns with hydrangea in large pots in the garden and on the patio and deck.

“To me it’s like sculpting—outdoor sculpture—putting things in three-dimension,” Marlene says.

She considers the dappled light in back ideal for most plants—even sun-loving tropicals.

Marlene also played off the natural stone on the front of the house. Irregular stone columns form a backdrop to two matching urns containing black-green alocasia. The striking white stripes of this elegant variety of elephant ear complement the soft gray stone. Camellia, tree peony and hydrangea add flowering accents in the front yard.

The couple ruled out a traditional green lawn and evergreen foundation plants in front.

“The stone is so pretty, and if you planted evergreens you’d never really see it,” Marlene says. “It’s more dynamic. We love things to change; evergreens are static.”

At least 14 different cultivars of hydrangea provide showy blooms throughout. At 5-feet-8 inches, a giant climbing Japanese variety in the side yard is almost as tall as Mitch. The couple attributes its size to its location. “We don’t say, ‘Let’s buy that and try to make it work,’” Mitch says. “We say, ‘These are our conditions,’ and we decide what will work there.”

Shade-loving hostas, an oft-ignored leafy perennial, are stars in this garden, providing subtle brushstrokes of green, white and gold. “Some are in very prominent positions because they are that large, that showy and can stand on their own,” Mitch says.

All this is played out against ornamental trees. “You have to decide where the big elements are going to be and how they’re going to interact with everything else,” Mitch says. The first to go in was a native serviceberry. Then came a pagoda dogwood and a Japanese maple, adorned with colorful solar lanterns.

Mitch says he now spends much of his time pruning.

“I don’t even know all that we have,” Marlene says. “It’s always a surprise when spring comes around and you see things coming up that you forgot about.”