A garden is an ephemeral thing. It is created by the vision, knowledge, skill and passion of the gardener. When that gardener must give up the garden it will not last long without a careful intervention. In 1989 a group of passionate people who recognized the importance of gardens in telling the history of a time, place and culture founded The Garden Conservancy.
Since then the Garden Conservancy has provided that intervention for ninety exceptional gardens across the country. The Garden Conservancy helps a private garden make the transition to being a public garden that can survive independently providing education and pleasure for a community. In the Houston area, the Peckerwood Garden, featuring many plants native to the region, is currently working with the Conservancy. There are two Conservancy gardens relatively near us in western Massachusetts. The Fells is the summer home of statesman and author John Hays during the early part of the 20th century, on Lake Sunapee in Newbury, New Hampshire. The Hollister House garden in Washington, Connecticut, includes the original farmhouse from 1760, and gardens that combine the formality of an 18th century English garden with the more relaxed style of New England.
One of the ways the Garden Conservancy funds their efforts, and allows other passionate gardeners to assist in their work is through the Open Days program. I arrived in Houston just in time to visit some of Houston’s loveliest private gardens, opened just for the day for the benefit of the Garden Conservancy.
It is not surprising that the gardens are very different which means there is something to learn at each one, whether it is the discovery of a new plant or a new way of looking at space. There are other surprises. Several gardens were in the wealthy River Oaks neighborhood where we mistook some private residences for museums or hotels. As my husband, daughter Kate and I wandered through one garden with a fountain, lush azaleas, a giant Chinese fringe tree, potted sago palms and other generous container plantings, we asked the owner of the garden how long it took to create such a mature, lush garden. “Two years!” was the astonishing answer. The owner had built the house, had the plants brought in, and even vines were already growing up to the roof. How did he do that?
A very different garden had been cared for over a period of 40 years. The McLaren’s have been growing and sharing their garden with the community for decades. Their design theme has been No Lawn! The result is a stroll garden beneath a variety of trees including live oaks, crape myrtles, and a tea tree, with vegetables, vines, ferns and potted cactus and succulents. This is a small garden that is personal and quirky and pure delight.
The heavy clay soil in this part of the world is called gumbo. The weather is hot and often dry, but when the rains come they are torrential and drainage is a problem. The McLaren’s ameliorated this problem by not having any non-porous surfaces in the garden. They built what some might call a rocky drainage ditch but that they call an arroyo, that handles heavy rainfall while acting as a wonderful garden feature.
Over 40 years the McLarens have made many friends who have enjoyed the garden and made their own contributions. For this tour they marked trees and shrubs with the name of the friend who brought it as a gift. There are Louisiana irises that thrive in this climate, fig trees and many vines on the garden walls. In addition the garden contains many works of art and other ornaments, some as simple as a low bench holding a collection of galvanized watering cans and some as elegant as an abstract ‘Blue Footed Booby’ by artist Charles Masterson who attended school with their son.
Another very different garden included vast lawns and miles and miles of clipped hedges, some tall, some small and stepped like a stairway, some sculpted into graceful mounds, and one that swooped from a low to high. This all seemed very French. The owner said that the shady hornbeam bosque outside a side door was patterned after a particular garden he had enjoyed in Paris.
So what can we learn from even these three gardens? First, we learn that money can substitute for time, our own labor and knowledge. A good designer and installation crew can create a beautiful garden in very little time. Actually, most of us knew this already.
Second we learn that we can use the constraints of our site and climate to make a unique garden that includes plants and ornaments that we love or that make us laugh.
Third we learn that we can use a happy memory of a far away place to create a shady sociable space to share with friends in the present.
Finally, I think we learn what pleasure there is in opening our garden to the public, sharing the delight we have created and helping a worthy cause. Many gardeners in our area have opened their gardens over the years to benefit the works of organizations like the Greenfield Garden Club and the Franklin Land Trust. Watch for news of their tours at the end of June and early July.
Between the Rows April 2, 2011
Lots of special events coming up. GCC and the Conway School of Landscape Design are offering a series of FREE public lectures about our food and farms. The first will be held at the GCC downtown campus, Wednesday, April 13, 270 Main Street 6:30-8 pm. Tom Stearns, President of High Mowing Organic Seed Company will speak, “What Are We Waiting For? Now is the Time to Rebuild Our Healthy Food System.