An Inspired Space

Our family of five moved into this ancient Pennsylvanian homestead nineteen years ago as renters. The classic 1750 farmhouse and a guest house were hidden in two and a half acres of woodland, wetland and weeds; and dramatically flanked by a very busy suburban street and two idyllic streams. The space invited me to play in the design of a garden. I longed to find a way to live conscious to the activity of the city and still deeply connected to the land.

The old bones of the landscape spoke of those before us who had lovingly planted beautiful oak, spruce, larch and maple trees that formed a mature circle around the upper end of the property. The main house looked down over the old stone walls of a former vegetable garden full of flea-infested rabbits, randomly appearing wisteria vines, and a rocky relic of a septic system that spilled down a steeply sloped open area that was once a fruit orchard. The wild corner was an untamed, almost impenetrable mass of parasitic vines that were gradually choking all the natural woodland growth.

For the first eight years, even as a renter I couldn’t help but start to plant flower beds in the bare natural square of the front yard. The sunshine invited masses of spring bulbs and gradually moved me to boldly experiment with perennials, always keeping mountains of pots for when we had to move. It didn’t seem right to have straight edges – curves clearly softened and rounded out the straight edges of the walk and the house. I kept intuitively softening the lines, adding flowing new beds and gradually formed a large center oval border within another circle of lawn and corner borders.

We quickly discovered the exceptional beauty and value of fieldstone. This amazing property has given us quite literally tons of stones: for edging, and pathways, and for monolith stone art groupings. On Mother’s day one year I convinced my son and husband to elevate all the large septic-tank rocks into a mini Stonehenge. Now the back garden gradually circles out from that center and another center of arching wisteria that we trained up a large old ladder. In my mind I have envisioned the yin and the yang shapes curving together in the oblong of the natural space. To complement this, I built a slightly raised herb garden in the middle of the lawn, conveniently placed just outside the kitchen door. Ten years ago, when we finally were able to buy the property, we really started to garden in earnest. I got rid of my pot-hoard and began planting shrubs and trees and thinking in four seasons.

The more I was captured by the joy of creating with nature, the more I read and grew skillful, the more I longed for a water-garden. Trying to tame the creeks would have been foolhardy and unnatural as they repeatedly flood and over the years are changing their courses. Besides, I needed the sunny slope for growing the lotus, Mrs. Perry D. Slocum – yes, that really is what it is called – which have been my inspiration from years of avid reading and dreaming and visiting the nearby Chanticleer Gardens. The project took the form of a large circle which had within it other soft shapes and rolling curves: the home for a waterfall, waterbeds, rock gardens, and of course – my sacred lotus.

Entering into the water garden area needed to be a dramatic surprise, so we built a 17 foot long, curved retaining wall, carving out inside a lovely bowl-like area for a five-foot waterfall. I personally became the official stonemason and with a pleasing combination of natural and artificial stones, we now have a curving grassy walk down to a beautiful faced wall. My favorite corner garden is tucked in above the wall backed by a very quaint whitewashed shingle roofed shed. A series of dramatic lilies enshrine a squat robust blue spruce, and a weeping redbud and a heptacodium or “seven-son flower”, vie for your attention as you are lured to the sound of water falling. We watched as over a year the water-garden evolved into three ponds enclosed by a grassy berm and a kidney shaped bog garden, full of mammoth-leaved behemoths of the horticultural world – colocasia, rodgersia, joe-pie weed, irises, and stately candelabra primroses outline the rocky shelves of the pond.

Toolshed and path in SpringIt was a delight to use “found” objects almost exclusively in this project. The forest gave up old trunks, roots and farm posts to use. We didn’t have to buy one natural rock. Hundreds of wheelbarrow loads later, another son and I completed the circle with a flagstone patio and a two-tiered curving set of stairs banked by a low growing rock garden.  Uli, my husband cleverly resurrected the old stone-lined shallow well bringing our own supply of clear water to continue to refresh our created world.

We are still in awe ourselves of what a delightful abundance of colors, textures, fragrance, and animal and bird life that we have invited into our lives. This creation is so much more beautiful than we could have ever imagined. The joy-filled circle of hard work and dream building comes round to bless our family and friends and we trust generations to come. This morning as I fed the goldfish and marveled at the rain puddles on the lotus-leaves, I realized that the nature of living in the sacred is all about life created from what appears to be nothing, lived in abundance, and then given away freely. Truly it is the circle of life.