Hillside Garden of Rooms

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It was proof, yet again, that looking at photographs is an entirely different experience from actually seeing a garden. Michael Gordon’s garden in Peterborough, New Hampshire, is one I’ve admired for years in photographs but experienced for the first time only last August at the Garden Conservancy Open Days. The astonishing composition of textures, shapes, and colors above is a beauty I’d have been unable to appreciate if I hadn’t been there.

The layout is hard to grasp in photos. The garden is on a steep hillside, and so is terraced, with four principal garden rooms, two level and two sloped. To me, this intricate arrangement of terraces and slopes recalls the spiral shape of a Nautilus shell (at least that’s an apt metaphor) and is an elegant solution to gardening in limited space on a sloped site.

Below is the first terrace, a curved lawn with impeccably planted borders and repeated box balls for rhythm and structural reinforcement. Box, perfectly trimmed, is a major unifying element in this garden.

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The lawn leads to a sloped transition area–Michael calls it the Hall with Balls–and another garden entrance, planted with more box, Carex ‘Blue Zinger’, and other happy plant combinations. It slopes down to the second terrace below this one.

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This aerial view from Google Maps shows the top terrace with curvilinear lawn parallel to the street, the Hall with Balls transition area at its end sloping down with a series of fine granite steps to the lower terrace, which has a long rectangular lawn and wide borders on three sides. At the bottom is a rather steeply sloped woodland garden with winding paths and steps. (This is an old photo that doesn’t show the current state of the garden.)

Satellite View

If asked to classify this garden, I’d place it in the Arts and Crafts tradition of ornamented garden rooms, and it is a fine execution  of that concept, with precise attention to detail. Look at the carefully composed plantings in the window boxes …

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… and the sea of epimedium “floating” the box balls on both sides of the lawn.

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Near the end of the lawn and the Hall with Balls, as if preparing for the transition to the lower terrace, is this visual flourish of gold, bright orange, silver, and the purple of an annually stooled Gledistia ‘Ruby Lace’ (I think).

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There’s much more going on in this border. You can see, for example, the red dahlia and Melianthus major I chose as the opening photo of this post. In fact, there is a lot of of color and contrasting form and texture here, but it is all so tastefully blended you see the special vignettes only on close observation. This isn’t a garden that shouts for attention, even though it uses bright colors and unusual forms when it wants to catch your interest. It has a quiet, thoughtful atmosphere.

Here, careful observation of form and color makes for an imaginative juxtaposition of Symphytum ‘Axminster Gold’ with an almost miniature replication in Carex muskingumensis ‘Oehme’. Both plants have linear foliage edged in gold, but this surprising pairing is one I would never have thought of. The orange day lily gives the combination an extra spark.

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Here is the street entrance through the Hall with Balls, and the start of a stepwise descent to the lower terrace. Michael has placed a granite stele, framed in an arbor, on the opposite side of the lower terrace–reinforcing perception of the three-dimensional space, and pulling the eye toward the lower parts of the garden. The stele, in fact, marks the start of the third descent, into the woodland garden.

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This is a beautifully composed scene that, in addition to serving as a practical guideway through the garden, makes a strong statement about the nature of the place–New Hampshire is “The Granite State”–and I think a powerful statement about archetypal transitions of life, among them, the “final” transition. The downward path, enticing though it is, the granite stele, an extremely powerful visual statement and one also reminiscent of a grave marker, recall various mythical descents to the underworld. This is quite a thought-provoking sequence. For me, this is the heart of the garden.

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This stone plinth bench marks the outer end of the second terrace. Its slightly asymmetrical symmetry has a classical feel and, for me, is strongly reminiscent of the nineteenth century in its more transcendental aspect. For some reason, perhaps because of its relaxed symmetry, it makes me think of Aspet, Saint-Gaudens studio and summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire. I think this connection I feel may be more an emotional response than a visual one–which brings us to the point that this is quite an emotional garden, subdued though it appears on first glance.

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Looking away from the stone bench, the second terrace opens to the house and a pleasant sitting out area with four fine blue chairs.

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And then, a look back reveals more of the terrace …

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… and its parallel borders.

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This is a particularly magical pairing, again unexpected, of Pycnanthemum muticum and a pale pink Sanguisorba.

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Returning to the opposite end and continuing through the arbor, you enter …

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… the woodland garden. Michael chose a dramatic contrast to the existing background trees, planting a Cercidiphyllum as the focal point of the lowest garden. The contrast in foliage, texture, and color is strong enough to define the space, even without other plantings.

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But there are many other plantings (shown below) … and this part of the garden is still a work in progress.

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Though I’ve known Michael for several years, and looked at photos of his garden many times, the emotional effect of his hillside site was a total surprise, as were many of the details in the garden. And lest I be misunderstood, I don’t “read” the garden as a reference to the myth of Persephone (though it may be), but as a broader, deeper, more archetypal human response to movement downward then back up through a beautiful garden.

As a final note, I mention the beauty of Michael’s fine cultivar of Bergenia, which more than one gardener envies! It is exemplary of the care and deliberation with which he selects his plants, and designs his garden.

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Michael blogs at The Gardener’s Eye.

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16 thoughts on “Hillside Garden of Rooms

  1. Thank you for this, James. It is a beautifully expressed review of a garden that explains the layout and plant combinations so clearly that I feel I was walking through it with you. It confirms what I had thought, that this is a garden I would love to visit. One day, perhaps.

  2. James,
    I am honored to have such a thoughtful and erudite critique of my garden. It was fascinating for me to experience my garden through your eyes. I always think of my garden as being Italianate so reading that it feels like an Arts and Craft garden was a bit of a revelation, although it shouldn’t be I suppose. Interestingly, my inspiration for the terracing in New Hampshire was the Cornish Colony (which includes Aspet) and, in particular, the terraced villa gardens designed by the Charles Platt. So you are correct; there is a strong emotional connection for me to the Cornish Colony. Of course, the plantings are more English than Italian. The Hall with Balls feels French inspired to me.

    The stele concept was a new one to me and looking at what I thought of as a simple New Hampshire granite post. You are correct, there isn’t a reference to the myth of Persephone and I love the idea of the “archetypal human response to movement downward then back up” and the Nautilus shell . Your critique gives me a lot to think about. Thanks for making such an fine effort. I truly appreciate it.

    1. Michael, I started to correspond with you about your garden but decided it might be interesting to try to express just what I saw and felt on seeing it. I actually tried to use the pattern suggested by Rory Stuart in “What are gardens for?”. I’m particularly happy about the Cornish connection. I’ve experienced this kind of odd feeling about particular places before. One example: on seeing a cyber garden friend’s photograph on a mountain high above the Bay of Naples, I immediately envisioned the fall of Icarus. Interestingly, my friend told me Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted the Fall of Icarus in the same place in the 1500s. As for the granite post, to me it’s far more than a granite post. That view down from the entrance to the “stele” was a very powerful garden moment for me.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I found it fascinating as I have a sloping garden albeit on a much smaller scale and I have adopted a kind of terrace approach. I do like the idea of the box balls to add rythme and especially under planted with the epimediums (a weakness of mine) but I’m not sure I have the space. However I will carry these images in my mind to help me in my garden.

  4. Thanks for the lovely photographs of this beautiful garden, James, along with your thoughts, which are always interesting. I, too, appreciated the arched path that leads downwards to the stele, as well as the complex and interesting long borders. Their muted pinks contribute to the garden’s dreamy nature. Ross

    1. Thanks, Ross. I have to ask Michael the name of those bright, late blooming daylilies. I need some. I wish I’d included the horned poppy and other gems, but decided I couldn’t include everything I photographed.

      1. James,
        The two late daylilies are “Late Embers’ (near Symphytum ‘Axminster Gold’) and ‘August Flame'(with Gleditisa ‘Ruby Lace’). I’d be happy to send you some divisions if you like.

  5. @James G.: I’m an enthusiast of the late-blooming daylilies, and have recommendations in any color group you might be looking for. Good blazing reds offer an especially wide choice. Jim Murphy and Margo Reed, who garden and hybridize among the steep hills/near mountains near Charlottesville, Virginia, have many fine lates; both specialize in (usually tall) “spider” daylilies, with narrow petals. See http://www.woodhengegardens.com/.

    If you’re looking for wide-petaled varieties, ask away…

    1. Nell, Thanks for the heads up on Woodhengegardens. I like to plant bright dayliles amid grasses and other things so they “explode” with color then disappear. I’ll look at your link.

  6. The Ungardener has asked for Melianthus again in the new garden. I’m always disconcerted to seek the carefully nurtured plants, in foreign gardens, low down below where I expect to see them. Mine has flowers that tower over my head, and arms that reach out longer than I am tall. There WILL be Melianthus!

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