Four Seasons of Harmony
Strolling through the Gardens at Sunny Mount
By Claudia Watson • Photographs by Laura L. Gingerich
The experience of walking through the Gardens at Sunny Mount is like taking a tour of a stunning plant-filled archipelago. Set into the native landscape of pines and wiregrass, Kyle and Mary Sonnenberg’s garden is filled with surprises and a spirit of experimentation. The couple moved to the nearly 7-acre property off a rutted road in McDeed’s Creek in 2016 with the lifetime dream of building a garden without limits.
Kyle’s interest in gardening began as a young boy working alongside his father, mainly doing yard work. Still, he says, it was enough to get him interested.
“When Mary and I married, we had a little house in Texas with a little garden that was mostly vegetables because we had so much sun,” he says, recalling how he enjoyed the connection of taking a tiny seed, nurturing it and watching it grow.
Over the years of his career in city management, they frequently moved to homes with conventional-size lots — small canvases for Kyle’s creative style. But the lack of space didn’t stop him from carefully considering a plant’s texture, form and color when creating their outdoor oasis.
“Now our home sits in the middle of the property and has lots of windows, so the garden needs to look good each season. I work very hard to find plants that bloom each season, so there is always color,” he says. “I gravitate toward the unusual and exotic, and I push the climatic zones.”
Freed from the constraints of an established landscape and rule book, Kyle eagerly began to revive their property. First, he took on the entry by creating circular driveways and paths, and transplanting wiregrass.
“It was a laborious project that included two managed controlled burns to remove brush and deadwood,” he explains. “Suddenly there was an abundance of green. The wiregrass popped back. Then, I found dwarf huckleberry (Gaylussacia dumosa), goat’s rue (Galega officinali), and a small native dwarf iris (Iris verna). It was an education. I understand why the burns are necessary for the preservation and restoration of the longleaf forests.”
Fortunately, they also inherited an arc of mature magnolias, hollies (Ilex) and wax myrtles (Morella cerifera) at the side and the rear of the lot, planted by the previous owners. These provide a privacy screen and a dense green backdrop for the unfolding kaleidoscope of color.
As each season unfolds, the garden gradually changes character, shifting from summer’s vibrancy to autumn’s fiery shades of orange and yellow and cooler tones of blue to winter’s delicately faceted silhouettes and spring’s colorful exuberance.
“I love so many plants, especially perennials and shrubs, but as nice as it is to have the repetition of plants and swathes of the same plant and color, I wanted this garden to be different. I use as many different plants as possible — so it’s a bit of everything, wild, exotic and colorful. And the best way to experience it is to stroll through it,” he says, gesturing the way.
The property’s meandering paths encourage exploration of the garden rooms focused on an item or plant theme. Three-dimensional art and tropical-looking plants are the focus of the front garden. There, a metal unicyclist with a glass head announces the garden’s entrance. Giant metal insects prowl the mixed beds of perennials and exotic shrubs. Sabal palms and ornamental Chinese dwarf bananas (Musella lasiocarpa) are considered winter hardy in our 7B planting zone and are grown for their bold-textured foliage. The yellow flowers look like an unworldly lotus. You’ll get a banana only if you’re lucky.
Pretty Copper Canyon daisies (Tagetes lemmonii), discovered on a mountain in Arizona, brighten the garden in late fall with a profusion of golden flowers. A firecracker vine (Manettia cirdifolia) climbs through the branches of a sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). It bursts with orange and red blossoms that look like miniature firecrackers in the fall.
A garden bench near the home’s entrance is paired with the unlikely — an old, galvanized bathtub. Discovered in a warehouse in Asheville, it serves as an aspiring cocktail table. Unsuitable for setting a tipple, it provides plenty of conversation since it’s a home for native carnivorous pitcher plants and Venus fly traps that eat insects. It also includes terrestrial orchids and rain lilies (Zephyranthes candida) with tiny white star-shaped flowers and upright grass-like foliage that add structure.
It’s a relaxed garden. The areas around the home are framed with broadleaf evergreen and deciduous shrubs, native grasses and flowering perennials, creating a sense of enclosure. And Kyle gives plants space to develop and do their own thing.
His enthusiasm for shrubs is evident, though he does not care for conifers. “They grow those up North, but I’ve been in the South for a long time and am used to these camellias,” he says, adding that deer damage is taking a toll. “I may need to change my ways and try some conifers that taste bad to deer or have unpleasant needles.”
The entrance to the rear gardens features a trough garden — named for the old stone troughs used to feed and water horses — discarded by farmers with the advent of modern plumbing. Now rare, Kyle discovered a cache of look-alike troughs made of soapstone that served as chemistry lab sinks.
Trough gardening is an ideal way to manage collections of plants that have specialized cultural requirements, such as succulents and cacti. His 10 troughs display a cactus garden where stunning dwarf Korean firs (Abies Koreana), with dark green needles and silvery white undersides, mingle with dianthus and yellow cacti.
Ground covers and flowers spill down the berm on the winding path, creating a seamless landscape.
“It’s my homage to Chanticleer Garden,” he remarks, referring to a public garden outside Philadelphia that serves as his garden muse. His eyes survey the large garden anchored by an aging flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). The tree sat alone in the landscape in its younger life, but is now the centerpiece of the garden’s pond.
Clumps of Stokes asters (Stokesia laevis), rudbeckia, phlox, columbine and the crested white roof iris (Iris tectorum ‘Alba’) thrive on the sunny side of the berm and far from the tree’s canopy.
The shady area under the dogwood is home to shallow-rooted plants that thrive in either part or full shade. Here, hostas, hellebores, ferns, Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), toad lilies (Tricyrtis hirta), lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), and the tiny crested iris (Iris cristata) grow together. Low-growing ajuga and green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) glue the planting together. All were planted in the tree’s native soil and amended with a small amount of compost to accommodate, not bury, the tree’s roots, creating a healthy environment for all.
The pond is the work of noted landscape architect Vince Zucchino and a sparkling expression of gardening. Carefully placed boulders edge the 3,000-gallon pond and mature plantings tumble over the margins, blurring the water’s edge, making it a place Mary likes to dangle her feet on a hot summer’s day.
An essential design feature is the waterfall. “I didn’t want a gushing waterfall, but one that was weeping and makes ripples in the water,” explains Kyle.
Dragonflies and little aquatic beetles skim the water’s surface, and an abundance of bird life converges on the area guarded by a stone fawn purchased on a trip to the Toronto Botanical Gardens. Calla lilies (Zantedeschia sp.), turtlehead (Chelone spp.), white spider lilies (Hymenocallis latifolia), sedges and pickerel rush (Pontederia cordata) grow in the boggy area of the pond where fish take cover.
Kyle removes the tropical water lilies (Nymphaeaceae) in late autumn and overwinters them. “I put them in buckets with water and stick them in a cool closet, and they return each year.”
Dry gardens surround the pond where the sunlight is intense, and the soil is dry. It’s planted with drought-resistant plants — including cactus, sedums, agave, yucca and Engelmann’s daisy (Engelmannia peristenia), a long-stalked perennial with yellow-petaled flowers and fuzzy green leaves.
Kyle’s secret weapon is a 24-foot potting bench he made several years ago and tucked to the side of the dry garden area.
“I buy plants small and grow them up in pots. It takes time, but they are less expensive, and they get acclimated and have well-established root systems before they are planted,” he says. “I bring the orchids out for the summer and all the plants I bought that I haven’t planted yet. I didn’t realize how handy it would be until I built it.”
At the highest and sunniest location on the property, The Mount, a small lawn with a working sundial flanks an extensive fruit and vegetable garden. Eighteen raised beds offer blackberries, raspberries and a variety of annual vegetables. Espaliered apples and pears line one side; nearby, blueberry, mulberry, native persimmon and pawpaw trees appreciate the sun.
On one side of the lawn is a patio and a crevice garden. It’s a rock gardening style that uses flat stones pushed vertically into the soil from the top. The vertical stones are closely spaced, leaving deep, narrow soil channels for planting xeric plants. “It looks like a mountain range if viewed from the far side of the lawn,” says Kyle.
He does all the garden work and says it takes planning, endurance and patience. “At times, it would be helpful to have a gardener to assist, not a landscape maintenance person, but someone who gardens and knows about plant care,” he says. “I’ve learned my ambitions are greater than I have time to devote to them, at least as far as this garden goes.”
A red metal windmill clanks in the soft breeze above multiple perennial beds as we talk. The effect is magical in the late summer, and it’s a breathtaking place to linger with colors that clash, contrast and harmonize — constantly moving the eye around. It’s a pollinators’ haven with penstemon, coreopsis, echinacea, hemerocallis, salvia, crinum and a lovely scented Thérèse Bugnet pink rose.
“We often sit out here later in the day when the sky is clear, and we can smell the flowers and hear the hummingbirds as they whiz by,” he says. “It’s peaceful and makes us feel far away from everything.”
The years of work offer moments of harmony. The unexpected diversity of the Gardens at Sunny Mount is a living version of a painter’s palette and perfect for an autumnal stroll through a horticultural paradise. PS
Claudia Watson is a longtime contributor to PineStraw and The Pilot and finds joy each day, often in the garden.