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Creating Gardens That Are Useful and Beautiful

    Doug Croft uses a designer’s skills to make sure that Chanticleer’s Cut Flower and Vegetable gardens appeal to all the senses.
    Although his parents had no interest in gardening when he was a boy, Doug Croft always enjoyed it.
    As a kid growing up in Waynesboro, Va., he saved his allowance “so every couple of weeks I could go over to Waynesboro Nurseries and buy an indoor houseplant.” And he loved to grow tomatoes in the family’s backyard.
    He figures his grandmother was the inspiration for the houseplants. Whenever he went to visit his grandparents in Ohio, she had geraniums growing in window boxes on the front porch, and a jar of water holding rooted cuttings sat on a windowsill. But the vegetable gardening?
    “I don’t know where that came from,” Croft says, and adds with a smile: “Maybe because I like to eat.”
    Whatever its roots, he is still growing vegetables three decades later – only now it’s his job. Croft is in charge of the Vegetable Garden at Chanticleer, as well as the Cut Flower Garden, the Long Border, and the Rock Wall. Growing vegetables at Chanticleer, however, is nothing like tending the veggie patch on the “back nine.”

Vegetable garden as floral arrangement

    Like every inch of this 35-acre pleasure garden near Wayne, the vegetable garden is intended to appeal to many of the senses. So while some of the fruits of Croft’s labor – the luscious tomatoes of high summer, perhaps, or the deep burgundy aubergines – may set a visitor’s taste buds watering, others are more ornamental. Even some tools, such as the handsome earthenware cloches used to blanch early asparagus spears, become decorative touches when they’re not in use.
    Instead of mapping out the beds the way most gardening books suggest, Croft incorporates the vegetables into a design that is visually appealing by drawing on the rules of flower arranging, a skill he picked up when he studied horticulture at Virginia Tech.
    “I view it as an arrangement on a large scale, and the design principles are the same,” he says. “I start thinking about the height of the plants, as well as the colors, the textures and the contrast, and my challenge is integrating the vegetables in such a way that it is pleasing, enhancing the aesthetics of the vegetable garden.”
    Croft takes a similar approach in the Cut Flower Garden, which has to be functional as well as attractive because flowers are harvested regularly to be used in arrangements for the house and restrooms. (Many regular visitors to Chanticleer make it a point to check out the restrooms by the entrance courtyard as well as those in the new Asian Woods pavilion, to see what imaginative ideas Croft and his fellow floral arrangers have come up with to display that day’s blossoms.)
    Although the flower garden is planted rather formally in rows and blocks, Croft tries “to arrange the rows like a patchwork, so it looks from a distance like an arrangement,” he says. “But when you are down in the garden, walking through it, you see the formality of the design.”

A detour on the road to his roots

    As he talks enthusiastically about what kinds of flowers are appropriate for a cutting garden – no weak stems or rapid wilters, thank you – it’s clear that Croft loves his work as a section gardener. So he doesn’t mind at all that he never gets away from the job: he and his dog, a 15-year-old long-haired dachshund mix named Olga, share a Lilliputian apartment over a garage on the edge of the former Delaware County estate.
    But it took him many years and a lengthy detour to find his way here. Because all that time he was growing tomatoes and tending his houseplant collection in Waynesboro, the young Croft thought of gardening as a hobby, not something that could become a career.
    “I wanted a good job, and business seemed the way to go,” he says, so off he went to Virginia Tech to study finance. Four years later, degree in hand, he joined Burlington Industries’ Business Management Program in North Carolina, and then moved on to a job in northern Virginia, doing budgeting and forecasting for defense contractors.
    “From day one, on my first job, I knew that it wasn’t me,” Croft recalls now. But he had college bills to pay, and he liked the people he worked with, so he kept right on doing it. “It took me eight years to figure out what I really wanted to do.”
    It was an epiphany in the grounds of his townhouse in Alexandria that pointed him in the right direction.
    “One weekend I was out in the condo development that we paid someone to landscape, correcting their mistakes and loving every minute of it,” he says. “And it dawned on me that I had never once looked at my watch and thought, ‘When am I going to be done with this so I can move onto something else?’ That was the first epiphany. And then I realized that I had paid someone to do this work, and I was re-doing it, so it became clear to me that there was a need for trained horticulturists.”
    So he headed back to Virginia Tech to study horticulture, and this time there was no doubt in his mind.
    “Day one on my job in finance, I knew it wasn’t right. When I went back to school, from day one, Hort. 101, I knew this was right for me.”

Design class pays off – in gardens and web site

    When he graduated for the second time, at age 33, he felt he needed some hands-on experience, so he headed north to Philadelphia to take up a year-long internship in Chestnut Hill, at Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. That led to a three-year stint as a horticulturist at Haverford College Arboretum. Then one day a friend told him that a horticulturist was going on maternity leave from her job at Chanticleer, a garden that, although it only opened to the public in 1993, had quickly earned a reputation as an exciting place to work as well as to visit.
    “It’s very rare that people leave here,” says Croft, who wasted no time submitting his resume. He started work at Chanticleer in 2000, and soon had the opportunity to express some of his own personality and gardening style. “The cut flower and vegetable gardens are essentially a clean slate every year, because they are annuals. With the first hard frost it’s all wiped clean, and you start the planting process for the following year – drawing on your experiences, the things you like, the things that have worked.”
    When R. William Thomas took over from Chris Woods as executive director at Chanticleer in 2003, he wanted the Cut Flower Garden to be functional as well as pretty, so Croft joined the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, an industry group that conducts trials through North Carolina State University to test different species and cultivars and weed out those that don’t perform well as cut flowers. In 2004, Chanticleer became one of the association’s trial gardens, which means Croft gets to grow many of the newest varieties and evaluate them throughout the season.
    “I get feedback from the other arrangers on the staff, what they like, what they use, how a flower held up in a vase, ease of use in arrangements, and give that information back to [the association],” he says. Among the plants that have won favor in Chanticleer tests is Dianthus ‘Amazon Neon Duo,’ which is now on the commercial market.
    Croft’s design skills pay off out of the gardens, too: As an ongoing, part-time project, he is gradually redesigning Chanticleer’s web site. He started looking after it as a temporary thing, but two years and several classes later, it has evolved into a responsibility he enjoys. It’s a change of pace from his work in the gardens, and change can be good.
    Just ask Croft’s parents. After their son switched careers, the Crofts began to pay more attention to gardening.
    “My father, after he retired, started working for Andre Viette, a well-known daylily and iris hybridizer near my home town,” he says. “So my parents are now heavily into gardening.”