June 30, 2016

Garden Season

June is all about gardens.  Everything blooms, everything is verdant, nothing looks tired.  It is the perfect month to show off your own garden or to see someone else’s.  It’s also the perfect month for a flower show.  Which is why I’ve spent so much of the past month (when not moving compost), looking at other people’s blooms and other people’s gardens.
Rosecliff is more than just a backdrop
for the Newport Flower Show: it is
intrinsic to its success
I’ll start with the Newport Flower Show.  It is held every year at Rosecliff, one of the grandest of the oceanfront Newport ‘cottages’.  The multi-acre ‘front lawn’ is given over to display gardens and horticultural vendors.  The cottage (including porches and a formal garden immediately adjacent to the front entrance) provides the backdrop for floral design, photography, and other specialty competitions.  The rear lawn has tents for amateur horticulture and lectures; the balance of the magnificent sweep that goes down to Sheep Point Cove and the ocean beyond is given over to food and vendors. 
Vendors by the sea...
Newport is closer in spirit to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Garden Show in London than to the late winter flower shows in Boston and Philadelphia.  Because so much of the venue is outdoors, nature is always underfoot, overhead, and all around you.  And, because it is Rosecliff and Newport, you don’t go to the show wearing jeans or tee shirts.  I know of no formal dress code, but I saw no one who did not look as though they had dressed for the occasion.
Roses judged for perfection
Finally, the Newport Flower Show has a Brigadoon-type existence.  The show runs just three days (Friday through Sunday); exhibits come into being in just two days.  (I know because I helped build one.)  Then it disappears as completely as that magical village.
There are more garden tours in June than I can keep track of.  I had the pleasure to attend one last Saturday for the Rockport Garden Club on Cape Ann.  Garden tours are both a summer mainstay for clubs as well as the principal fund-raising event for many.  Tours typically comprise six to ten gardens with a mixture of ones designed and maintained by professionals, and those that are the product of the imagination of dedicated amateurs.
A professionally designed garden
on the Rockport tour
I have nothing against professionally designed gardens.  I have seen many that stopped me dead in my tracks and caused me to pull out my camera to try to capture the essence of what a talented designer had accomplished.  More often though, I see ‘safe’ landscapes that bespeak large budgets that echo conservative tastes.  Every garden tour has two or three such gardens.  I can’t begrudge the tour planners; such gardens tend to be crowd pleasers.
Nancy Johnson's small garden was
the highlight of the tour.
The garden that stopped me in my tracks last Saturday belonged to Nancy Johnson.  Hers is not an oceanfront estate or a ten-acre preserve.  Rather, it is a small colonial on what is probably half an acre of land.  The genius of what she has accomplished over an eight year period is to think through every square foot of her available land and to make use of it accordingly.  The overarching reality of the site is an outcropping of granite – this is Cape Ann, after all. From this granite she has created a rock garden filled with perennials, shrubs and ground covers that flow together seamlessly.
It is a whimsical garden with a home for chickens (where an ash tree fell in a storm), some beautiful specimen trees, a small vegetable plot, and a row of fruit trees.  The overall effect was nothing short of magic.  Ms. Johnson was on hand to answer questions and also to ask in a low voice how her garden compared to the others on the tour.  She need not have concerned herself: it was head and shoulders above the competition, and worth the price of the tour ticket all by itself.
(Incidentally, if you missed this tour but enjoy Cape Ann, the Generous Gardeners tour covering Gloucester’s Eastern Point will be held July 9th).
The entry to Jill's garden
My final notable garden visit of the month came when I tagged along with Betty as she attended the annual meeting of the Garden Study Group, one of the Councils of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  It was held at the home of Jill Sczepanski.  I first saw Jill’s garden eight years ago when it was part of the “Mass Gardens on Tour” project Betty headed for the Federation. Back then, it was stunning.  It has only gotten better with time.
You could be forgiven for thinking
you were in the Cotswolds
What Jill and her husband have accomplished on their two-acre property is nothing short of transporting a corner of a great Cotswold estate to a town adjacent to Cape Ann.  There are meticulous stone paths with cobble borders, fountains, hidden vistas, glorious sweeps of color, trellises, and places to pause, sit and enjoy.  It is a garden that you have to walk twice; once in each direction, because the garden changes so dramatically from a different perspective.  I have never seen a more enchanting garden.

Formality segues to informality...
When I first saw the garden, Jill was immersed in a biotechnology career and her garden was an avocation.  With her kids out of college and out in the world, she has embarked on a second career: as a garden designer.  If the sketches I saw in her studio are any indication, she is going to be a very busy lady.

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