A Jewel Box Garden
A Penacook jewelry-maker’s garden is a tiny gem.
“I would do anything for this woman!” says Jack Shields about his wife, Jo. Together they have transformed the ho-hum landscaping of their 1850s home into a treasure trove of plants.
In the past, Jack worked for the EPA on public water systems and, before retiring, he headed up the Community Action home weatherization program. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, he is a Jack-of-all-trades who loves a challenge. Jo is a mixed-metal artist who fashions jewelry from silver, copper, brass and recycled metals, often incorporating found objects into her creations. A juried craftsman, she sells her work online and in the League of NH Craftsmen stores and annual fair. Her love of nature and plants is evident in her work, and she looks to her garden for inspiration. Since she is a plant collector with an eye for the unusual, it is a jewel box rich in color and texture.
When they first met, Jack was her landlord. Both had a love of plants and they gardened together for a few years before tying the knot 17 years ago. Their first big project was to renovate the bare backyard, turning it into a restful oasis with cozy seating, artwork and lots of plants. “There was only a sparse lawn and some lemon lilies and irises,” explains Jo. “We potted up everything we wanted to save and peeled up the grass. Then Jack rented a Bobcat, laid out the walkways, and dug a hole for a pond. He really is amazing!” she says. “We were working on the garden when he proposed!”
The pond is three-and-a-half-feet deep—just below the frost line—and a pump keeps the ice open in winter. The three-for-a-dollar feeder fish they bought are now 17 years old and huge! A spray bar along one side of the six-foot-by-eight-foot pond adds a soothing sound to the garden while oxygenating the water for the fish. Radiating out from the pond and nearby seating area are pathways that make all parts of the 50-foot square lot accessible. The metal-edged beds are planted to the hilt with an abundant collection of small trees, shrubs and perennials. A stroll along the paths leads to many surprises, and Jo’s choice of plants and their placement make the garden seem much larger than it really is.
Spring ephemerals including blood root, pink rue anemones, hellebores, blue and white jeffersonia and Jack-in-the-pulpit start the season. Many of them go dormant in the summer, making room for other plants, such as the unique shredded umbrella plant (Syneilesis aconitifolia). When it emerges, the fuzzy white leaves look like a folded umbrella. As the season goes on, it opens up its finely cut green foliage, which truly does resemble a tattered umbrella. The leaves of Mukdenia rossii, “Crimson Fans,” also go through a surprising transformation, staying green only until its tiny white flowers fade, then slowly turning a rich burgundy. Contrasting with the spiky green leaves of a daylily, the burgundy-edged fans really stand out.
“Texture is what I think about most,” says Jo. Epimediums thrive in the shade under the full moon Japanese maple. Variegated hostas, ligularia and soft pillows of golden hakonechloa grass brighten up other shady spots along with Japanese painted ferns and maidenhairs. “Ferns just go crazy here,” Jo says.
In so small a space, every plant must pull its weight, and there are no slackers in this garden. Even with the emphasis on texture, there are plenty of flowers. From globe thistles, foxgloves, deep purple phlox, poppies, alliums and tall filipendula to an abundance of daylilies, there is a steady flow of blossoms among the greenery. Interesting seedpods also catch Jo’s eye. An early-blooming forest peony has delicate white flowers in spring that last only a few days, but its bright indigo and red seedpods are quite dramatic in fall. Belamcanda has small lily-like flowers, but its shiny, blackberry-like seed clusters will stand in the garden until heavy snow knocks them down.
Since space is limited, Jo looks for dwarf shrubs such as the narrow bloodtwig dogwood “Compressa” that stays about four feet tall. There are many fine-needled dwarf evergreens, two blueberry bushes, a 20-year-old red witches broom azalea, blue hydrangea, flowering dogwood with lime green variegated foliage, and a callicarpa that bears neon purple berries. An espaliered pear tree grows next to the house, accompanied by several clematis vines, and a climbing hydrangea is making its way up one of the back corners.
Like many house-bound folks during the early part of the pandemic, the Shields wanted to have a vegetable garden but the backyard was too shady. Instead they looked up—way up—to the roof over their shed where they had a small deck. “It gets sun all day long,” Jack says. They started with one long, waist-high raised bed. To get the soil and other supplies up there without traipsing through the house, Jack devised a hoist system similar to a lobster boat’s davit that lifts heavy and unwieldy items with ease. They were able to grow all their favorites, including tomatoes, peppers, beans, carrots, cukes and squash. Unlike many people who started a vegetable garden during the pandemic, however, the Shields have kept theirs going, adding another bed last year to double their growing space. Jo starts their vegetable seedlings under lights in the basement, happy to have plants to tend while outside the garden is still covered with snow. “I can’t wait to get my hands in the soil!” she says.
Like anyone who has been bitten by the gardening bug, Jo is constantly on the lookout for unusual plants to enhance their already full backyard. “When I look down on the garden from the roof deck, I can see where I need to add more color or greenery,” she says. Jack meanwhile has a new cedar fence to install, and they have plans to add onto the roof deck to make room for more raised beds. None of this is what they consider to be work. “It is sheer joy!” Jack says, and Jo agrees. You can find her almost any time in the summer out in the garden, coffee in hand first thing in the morning or with a beer in the late afternoon. Jack appreciates all the meals they make from their roof-top veggies and enjoys the peace of just sitting in this gem of a garden they have created together.
See Jo’s Jewelry at the Fair
The League of NH Craftsmen will hold their Annual Craftsmen’s Fair August 5-13, 2023 at the Mount Sunapee Resort in Newbury. This is the 90th year for the popular crafts fair. Mark your calendar and make plans to attend! Following them on Facebook and Instagram for the latest news.
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