Creating a plant-lover’s paradise

after Falling in love with a Francestown property, a couple restore the eighteenth-century house there and transform two of the acres into extraordinary gardens.

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Under their Kousa dogwood and ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese maple in the front garden, Joe Valentine and Paula Hunter planted nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’, ferns, hostas, coneflowers, boxwood and miscanthus ‘Morning Light’.

Last summer, a tour sponsored by the Garden Conservancy led to Francestown, a village known for its lovely historic homes surrounded by mature plantings. Driving up a narrow, dirt lane in town that was once the coach road from Greenfield, visitors were able to catch sight of the saltbox roofline of an antique house ahead. Juniper Hill Farm is a gem, and finding it is like discovering buried treasure. The farmstead fits snugly into the landscape and, this time of year, it’s an exquisitely colorful site. Lilacs, peonies, crabapples and rhododendrons are flowering and at their peak.

A sense of place

Homeowners and gardeners Paula Hunter and Joe Valentine bought this thirty-acre property in 1999 and spent several years getting settled. The original four-room, gambrel-roofed house was built in 1789 by Israel Balch. Later additions include a keeping room in the early 1800s and the big barn in the mid-1800s. The old carriage sheds that connect the house and barn now contain a mud room, laundry and workshop. “We searched for a long time to find a house like this that just needed a little TLC and restoration work that we could do ourselves,” Valentine says, “and the beautiful old barn was in remarkable shape.”

Photo by John W. Hession

Homeowners Paula Hunter and Joe Valentine derive great pleasure from their garden. “When the weather permits, I’m in the garden every day. It has become a daily spiritual ritual,” says Valentine. Hunter adds, “In summer, I enjoy going into the garden after dinner as the light fades. Since I can’t see the weeds beckoning me, I can really relax and enjoy it.”

Hunter and Valentine began working on the gardens in 2004. “What began as a retirement hobby for me quickly became a passion,” says Valentine, “and it wasn’t long before I dragged Paula down the garden path with me.” One thing led to another, and now there are two acres of gardens artistically designed in a style Valentine calls “country formal.”

Intimate spaces

The first gardens Hunter and Valentine built were close to the house. The front gate—which Valentine, an accomplished woodworker who prefers using hand tools, made from riven hemlock—welcomes visitors into a small, shady entry garden. Located on the north side of the house, the entry garden is planted with purple-flowering nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’, chartreuse lady’s mantle, drumstick alliums, boxwood and a variety of shade-loving plants, including hostas, astilbes, darmera and hellebores.

A path connects the entry garden to the courtyard garden in front of the old carriage shed between the house and barn. The courtyard garden began as two raised beds near the side door to the kitchen, containing the vegetables Hunter and Valentine use most often.

Later, they asked landscape designer Gordon Hayward of Hayward Gardens in Putney, Vermont, for his help. “We were impressed by the way he thought about gardens and garden design,” Valentine says, “so we asked him to take a look at the little courtyard garden we had established and give us some ideas about how to make it better.”

“We divided the area into two related but distinct spaces,” Hayward says. “The first for a hedged decorative garden and the second for sitting.”

Now these two spaces are enclosed by picket fences built by Valentine, and lined with hedges of dwarf ‘Tinkerbelle’ lilacs underplanted with geranium ‘Bevans Variety’, boxwood and hostas. ‘Tina’ Sargent crabapples underplanted with boxwood ‘Winter Gem’ anchor two of the corners, and ‘Blaze’ peonies grow along the exterior of the fence.

Clipped boxwood balls on the right and dwarf Thuja occidentalis ‘Hetz Midget’ on the left in front of “the great wall” line the peastone path that leads to the terrace at the rear of the house.

There is an intimate seating area with a stone-topped table where Hunter and Valentine have their morning coffee. Hunter places containers with some of her favorite annuals here. “I like combinations that bring unusual textures together, but I also have plenty of traditional combos with calibrachoa, scaveola and euphorbia. They are reliable performers with a wide palette of colors,” Hunter says. Although the design around the handy raised beds changed, they stayed. “We grow lettuce, kale and herbs here,” she says, “the things we use almost daily.” 

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