Tags: labyrinth, lilac, stone
Tom Kelley lives in a big 3-story brick Victorian house just off the town common in Newport, NH that would appeal to the ghoulish characters of the Addams family. But his gardens are full of flowers and vegetables – and are quite a contrast to the building itself, which had been, among other things, home to a veteran’s club and bar.
When Tom bought the place 11 years ago, much of what is now garden was then parking lot. “I didn’t need a huge parking lot, “he said. “I started digging up the asphalt by hand, then brought in an excavator.” Even parts of the property not covered with black top were filled with rubble. “The whole back yard was a big parking lot. When I dug into the ‘soil’ all I found was gravel and chunks of asphalt.”
In order to create a vegetable garden, Tom built wood-sided beds to contain new soil. He now grows tomatoes, beans, squash, greens and much more with great success. “I had a couple of truckloads of soil brought in for my original beds, but I have been adding compost, hay and oak leaves for years. Originally not a thing would grow, not even weeds. We can grow pretty much anything now.
One of the most interesting features of Tom’s garden is his use of stone. He bought some large slabs of granite, and decided that he should use them to make a statement. He hired an excavator and set stones in two groups of three: two vertical stones about 4 feet apart, and a large slab on top of each. They had relatively flat edges, so he was able to make good, steady – and sturdy – structures that look a bit like the Greek letter pi. A modest man, Tom said, “I’m not sure it was completely my idea. I was talking to this guy who was selling stones, and a friend suggested making an arch. So I did. It makes sense here – pi is related to circles (in mathematics), and one is placed at the entrance to a labyrinth (a circle with walking paths).”
Tom’s life partner, Sonia Swierczynski, is a landscaper who lives in Norwich, VT. She has extensive experience with a great variety of plants. Together they have selected and planted a very unusual group of plants. At the front of the house, for example, they planted a hedge of American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana). Sonia explained their choice: ”We wanted to sit on the porch) but didn’t need to totally block out the view of the street. We wanted some diffusion of the view. We didn’t want to shut everything out.” They planted the hornbeam as small plants about 5-feet apart and now, 6 years later, the screen works well. It is 7-feet tall and has filled in nicely. For privacy elsewhere on the property a neighbor put what Sonia calls a “shiny white plastic fence”. She planted red daylilies on their side of it, one called ‘Salieri’ (after the composer) and it is a fabulous contrast to the fence.
Other woody plants that Tom has installed include two kinds of decorative sumac (Rhus typhina), ‘Tiger Eye’ and ‘Lacinata’. Sumacs have extensive root systems that send up suckers, often creating large thickets that are difficult to control. But Tom does not worry about that. “I really liked the form of the sumac and its Oriental look. I really wanted it. I planted it in a place that I thought I could control it by mowing around it, and so far it’s fine,” he said.
Another favorite shrub of Tom and Sonia’s is ‘Limelight’ hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata). This is a trademarked variety of the Proven Winners Company. As its name suggests, the panicles (blossoms) are a lime green, though they turn pinkish in the fall. The plants get to be 6-8 feet tall and wide, and are hardy to Zone 3. According to Sonia, “All the hydrangeas are very happy here, and they seem to fit the Victorian nature of the home.” They grow numerous kinds of lilac, which also are appropriate for the era of the home.
Tom’s lot is perhaps 3 or 4 times larger than a standard city lot, so big perennial flowers work well there. Tree scabiosa (Cephalaria gigantea), for example, grows to be 5-7 feet tall and displays bright yellow 2-inch flowers. It is hardy to Zone 3. They grow a couple of interesting burnets (Saguisorba spp.) including ‘Pink Elephant’ and ‘Pink Brushes’, both big plants that they purchased at Opus Plants in Little Compton, Rhode Island (www.opustopiarium.com). When I looked at the plant list of Opus Plants on-line, I was amazed to see many very hard to find perennials, and plan to visit them soon.
Other big flowers include a fall aster, a variety called ‘Hella Lacey’ and Virginia mallow (Sida hermaphrodita). Virginia mallow grows up to 10 feet tall with big lobed leaves and small white flowers. It is a flower native to Pennsylvania and neighboring states, but is considered endangered.
Tom and Sonia have planted several nice decorative grasses including Siberian Greybeard (Spodiopogon sibericus) and Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra), one of the few grasses I know that will grow in shade.
There really are too many interesting plants in Tom and Sonia’s garden to mention them all. I do know that next June I will visit again to see their peony collection when it’s in bloom – they have a great selection, particularly of white and coral colored ones, which Sonia says “just glow at dusk”.I can’t wait to see them.
Henry Homeyer’s Web site is www.Gardening-guy.com. His new book is Organic Gardening (not just) in the Northeast, a Hands-On, Month-by-Month Guide.