A Year at Distant Hill

A Walpole couple gives new meaning to "gardening" throughout the seasons.

For the past thirty-three years, Kathy and Michael Nerrie have worked to create a homestead and gardens on a knoll in Walpole known as Distant Hill. The result is fifty-eight acres of ornamental plantings, vegetable gardens, forests and fields (once part of a circa 1790 farm) that have been thoughtfully combined into a four-season sculpture garden. The informal gardens sweep around rock outcroppings and boulders, using these natural features to their greatest advantage.

Winter celebrations

The most compelling feature on this property is a standing stone circle made entirely from stones found on the property. Michael has placed seventeen 3- to 5-foot-tall stones in a 30-foot circle. There are two 5- to 6-foot-tall sighting stones outside the circle, and eight 2- to 3-foot-diameter, 12-inch-tall sitting stones within the circle.

Inspired by an ancient stone circle the Nerries saw in Ireland, they aligned their stone circle to the setting sun on the winter solstice. Michael has incorporated a metal sighting ring to enable viewers to correctly line up the tops of the outlying stones to the point on the horizon where the sun sets on the shortest day of the year: December 21 or 22.

"This is one of our favorite yearly celebrations," Kathy says. "We gather together on the solstice with friends and neighbors to watch the sunset and welcome the soon-to-be lengthening days. We have a big bonfire in the center of the circle and follow the old tradition of burning our 'grumps' in
the fire."

Another tradition the Nerries follow is growing Christmas trees as holiday gifts for friends and neighbors. It takes between ten and twelve years to grow a seven- or eight-foot-tall tree from a twelve-inch seedling. The Nerries give away about twenty-five trees each year, so every spring, the couple replants at least twenty-five more. "We buy all the balsam fir seedlings locally from the N.H. State Nursery in Boscawen," Michael says.

Spring joy

Spring comes early to Distant Hill. After the sugar maples have been tapped, the indoor growing season begins around February 21 with the planting of onion and leek seeds. It progresses to celery and lettuce in early March, peppers in late March, brassicas in early April, and finally tomatoes in mid-April. The Nerries start all their own plants for the vegetable garden and save some of the previous year's garlic, shallots and potatoes for planting the next season.

Sedum 'Autumn Joy', chelone 'Hot Lips' and pee gee hydrangeas brighten up the fall garden. The colorful leaves of the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), dwarf fothergilla (F. gardenia) and Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) 'Henry's Garnet' accent the changing seasonal foliage around them.

Garden artwork

Unique metal sculptures are artfully placed around the property. Guard geese made from old snowmobile mufflers graze on the lawn near the pond, while a tall, cleverly crafted, scrap-metal scarecrow stands watch over the pumpkin patch, and a ruby-shoed Dorothy oils the Tin Man. Waldo the peacock has a tail of old shovels, and a monarch caterpillar is made from springs and horseshoes. Michael has constructed most of these sculptures from found objects.

"The last farmer to work this land was a logger who had work horses. He discarded dozens of worn-out horseshoes in the farm's old dump site in the woods," Michael says. "This two-hundred-year-old scrapheap is a veritable treasure trove of metal parts for sculptures."

In addition, Taylor Welding of Alstead has contributed four creations, including a red-headed woodpecker near the sugarhouse and a hummingbird feeding at red metal flowers.

Striving for self-sufficiency

The Nerries built their own passive solar home and several outbuildings. The timber-frame house has an attached sunspace, which collects heat during the day, stores it in a foot-thick brick and concrete wall, and radiates it back into the house at night. The space also serves as clothes dryer, greenhouse for starting plants and an oasis on a sunny winter's day.

"In the winter, on a sunny day when the temperature outside falls below zero, there is nothing more satisfying than putting on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, setting up the hammock and reading a good book in the greenhouse, which can be between 80 and 90 degrees," Kathy says.

Along with the passive solar sunspace, the Nerries have a closed-loop solar water heater, which provides
half of their hot water needs, and a 3.15 kW photovoltaic system mounted on the roof of the house, which supplies about 75 percent of the electricity.

In addition, the Nerries dug a swimming pond and restored eight acres of abandoned sugarbush back to maple syrup production. Their sugarhouse is not only a practical workplace but also a work of art, built from pine harvested from their woodlot and sawn into timbers and boards on a portable sawmill run by three local women. "Thinning our woodlands to improve the health and productivity of the trees is no different than thinning our carrots to give them room to grow," Michael says. "And those three women worked during the coldest days of the winter of 2004. I still shiver just thinking about it!"

He puts out about 250 taps each spring, yielding enough sap to make between twenty and forty gallons of syrup a year. "We don't sell much of our syrup, since we use it in everything from the fifty jars of blueberry jam we make each summer to the maple-sweetened iced tea we drink year-round," Michael says. A bottle of Distant Hill Liquid Gold syrup is their standard gift for whatever occasion comes up.

Sharing their environment

Realizing that they are the stewards of a unique piece of New Hampshire land, the Nerries have been working to turn their property into a nature-based educational facility.

"In some cases, it is best to just step back and do nothing to the land," Michael says. "One of the many unique natural communities we host is a network of vernal pools where we try to let nature do her thing. Certain species of frogs and salamanders rely on these pools for survival."

Antioch University graduate student Maisie Rinne has worked with the couple to create a network of educators, conservationists, environmentalists, schools and universities.

"We've had a multitude of people visit Distant Hill and feel confident that it is a unique place for children to explore wild wonderlands, for college and graduate students to develop research projects, and for people of all ages to explore the idea of 'gardening' on a much deeper level," Rinne says.

While turning Distant Hill into a special place for themselves, the Nerries have also created a haven for wildlife and birds. "We strive to improve the aesthetics, fertility and productivity of the land in a way that is sustainable and will leave this a healthier and more beautiful 'garden,'" Michael says. "We hope to make Distant Hill into a venue for environmental and nature-based classes, workshops and field studies that will inspire both children and adults to explore and cultivate their own connection to the natural world." 

Categories: Gardening & Landscape