An Artist’s Garden

Sue Callihan uses her painter’s eye to design her home as well as the surrounding landscape.

Sue Callihan’s new painting studio is just steps from the house. “I find it hard to split my time,” she says. “Now I want to paint all the time!” You can visit her studio—along with many others—during the Monadnock Art Tour on October 6–8.

Downsizing meant more for Jim and Sue Callihan than simply moving into a smaller home. It also offered them the chance to create new gardens.

Jim and Sue moved from the two-hundred-year-old, five-bedroom, four-bath, Colonial they had spent many years restoring into a small, two-bedroom, one-bath, turn-of-the-century cottage on Cunningham Pond in Peterborough. When they arrived, there were no gardens whatsoever, and the house was surrounded by big white pines, oaks and ash trees. “Before we could even think about gardens, we had to cut down about twenty trees and dig out the bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria),” Sue says.

The garden project became one for the extended family—and one that required everyone’s long-time talents. Sue had designed many gardens over the years, and the couple’s daughter Seana Cullinan was a landscape designer in Peterborough at that time (she now has a master’s degree in sustainable landscape planning and design from the Conway School of Landscape Design in Massachusetts, and runs a landscape design company in Portland, Maine, called Larkspur Design.) Cullinan joined forces with Jim and Sue to tackle the problems with the site and helped with the initial layout of the garden.

“The yard was a non-descript lawn with poor drainage and exposed ledge,” Cullinan explains. (The house sits on approximately an acre of ledge where rain and spring meltwater would flow onto the property and pool on the lawn.) French drains were installed to move water away from the house, and tons of soil and compost were brought in to build up the area over the ledge.

“Seana helped us lay out the big, mixed border as you enter the property, and we hauled in more soil to build a berm to raise it above the level of the driveway,” Sue says. “The berm makes it feel more enclosed and covers the ledge.”

Return of the natives

Sue and Jim Callihan look out toward the house from the doorway of Sue’s painting studio.

Since the site is so close to a beautiful pond, the garden was influenced by a commitment to sustainable practices, knowledge of native plants and sensitivity to the ecosystem. “I was extremely motivated to design gardens that would also provide habitat to support our struggling native insects, pollinators, song birds, amphibians and animals,” Cullinan says. “We were conscious of incorporating many native plants when we were putting my parents’ gardens together over the years.”

Plants in the mixed border include a hedge of dwarf bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) that is planted along the edge of the driveway. “It is covered in delicate, yellow, trumpet-shaped blossoms in June and July,” Cullinan says. “When they are blooming, the hedge is absolutely swarming with thousands of native bees, honeybees and butterflies. It is a banquet for the pollinators!”

As summer progresses, the foliage turns a deep burgundy, creating good fall color. “The thornless hawthorn (Crataegus crusgalli inermis) is another wonderful tree for the bees,” Sue says. It is covered in white blossoms in June, and the leaves turn yellow-orange in the fall.

Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum ‘Gateway’) is planted at the back of the perennial border, becoming a stately backdrop to the garden by mid-summer. “The great thing about a native plant like Joe-Pye weed is that it provides nectar for countless pollinators while also serving as host plant for dozens of species of moth and butterfly larvae that have adapted to eating the foliage,” Cullinan says.

A few of the other native plants in that border are river birch, viburnums, bleeding heart, baptisia, cohosh, heuchera and bloodroot. Some non-natives growing in the mixed border are epimediums, iris, ligularia, astilbe and ladies’ mantle. “I especially like the yellow wax bells (Kirengeshoma palmata),” Sue says. “I love to cut them to bring in the house.”

An artist’s home

Sue is a well-known artist and painting instructor who donates many of her paintings to support local nonprofits, such as Peterborough Players, Monadnock Area Transitional Shelter, End 68 Hours of Hunger and Shelter from the Storm.

Even though she has been involved in artistic pursuits her whole life—as a landscape designer, interior designer and floral designer—she did not begin painting until she was forty years old. “I always wanted to be an artist, but no one ever encouraged me,” Sue says. She started taking classes with Evelien Bachrach at the Sharon Arts Center, eventually substituting for Bachrach when she went on vacation and finally teaching classes of her own there. Sue now offers private classes in her studio at home.

Gardens wrap this side of the yard, which once was a soggy mess. The berm—edged with silver lambs’ ears and ladies’ mantle, and planted with many native plants such as tall purple Joe-Pye weed—makes the yard feel more enclosed and directs water away from the house. 

When the Callihans moved to this property, they built a separate painting studio where Sue could work and give classes. Stonemason Ron Higgins, of Ron Higgins Stone & Earthworks in Peterborough, built a small patio outside the studio with a walkway leading to the house. Made with Goshen stone, the walkway blended in nicely with some stonework Sue and Jim had already done near the house.

In front of the studio is a dwarf weeping hornbeam (Carpinus betulus ‘Pendula’) with the delicate groundcover vancouveria growing underneath. “I just love the bright green foliage of the vancouveria,” Sue says. “It always reminds me of my late friend, Joanie Thibeault, and our trips together to Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts.”

Next to the studio is gorgeous double-file viburnum. “It was a seedling that came from my mother’s garden in Amherst twenty years ago,” Sue says.

Work continues

After the Callihans had lived on Cunningham Pond for about five years, they rebuilt and enlarged the old front porch, and once again worked with Higgins to build stone steps to the new entryway. “He is such an artist,” Sue says. “We trusted Ron’s creativity, and his stonework is absolutely beautiful.”

The Callihans also took out an old asphalt drive at the front of the house where the land slopes sharply down to the road. “Ron added a series of terraced retaining walls to provide planting beds that frame the house and the walkway,” Sue says. Here they incorporated native sumac and ‘Quickfire’ hydrangeas with stephanandra and daylilies. Low-growing juniper and thyme fill in the spaces between the stones. “The bees love the thyme, and it seems to thrive around all of the stonework,” Sue says. “The stephanandra hedge is so easy; it looks beautiful all the time with no care.”

Inspiration from the garden

In 2006, the Callihans built their raised-bed vegetable garden. “We wanted it close to the house, but that involved fitting square beds into a curved area. Not so easy to do,” Sue says. “We love having the garden right in the yard, and grow about twenty different crops, including lettuce, potatoes, kale, carrots, beets, basil, tomatoes, cilantro and beans.”

The vegetable and ornamental gardens are all organic, and the Calli-hans have amended the soil almost every year with compost and manure. “The soil in the vegetable garden is teeming with worms,” Sue says. “We also mulch everything pretty heavily, which has really helped to improve the soil over the years.”

Although many of her paintings are landscapes, Sue also does some still-life works. “While I have not done many paintings of my gardens, I really love painting produce from the vegetable garden, especially turnips, leeks, radishes, squash and beets,” Sue says. “There is just something about painting our own vegetables rather than those from the store.”

Latest projects

Three years ago, the Callihans tore off the old, tiny kitchen and attached sheds, which were slowly falling down, and built a new kitchen, with pantry, laundry, office and full bath downstairs and new bath upstairs. The Callihans also added a garage with space for an apartment above, which they now rent through Airbnb. Higgins returned for the final phase of stonework, installing retaining walls, walkways and a terrace on the north side of the house. “Seana once again helped us pick out ground covers, shrubs and perennials to suit the site,” Sue says.

“The property is designed to allow our guests to have the north side gardens and terrace to themselves,” Jim says. “Guests have access to the entry, parking, pathways to the pond, outdoor shower and the fire pit on the terrace, yet it is private.”

Even with all the changes the Callihans have made over the years, Sue says their house still has a “campy” feel. “We have tried to maintain a more natural, less formal look in the gardens and try not to let them rule our lives. Summer is short, and we love to spend time swimming, kayaking and hanging out on our porch,” Sue says. “We have a more laissez faire attitude about weeding and dead heading than we used to, and we sometimes regret that we created so much work for ourselves, but I think if we had it to do all over again, there is not much that we’d change.

“As a painter, I have always said there is a fine line between painting and creating gardens and designing a home,” Sue says. “It all comes from the same place. It’s just the medium and the tools that change.”

Monadnock Art Tour: October 6–8 

Held during peak foliage season, this tour offers the chance to visit the studios of painters—including Sue Callihan—as well as printmakers, potters, jewelers, sculptors, fiber artists, photographers, woodworkers, glass shapers and others.

This free, self-guided tour leads through Chesham, Dublin, Hancock, Harrisville, Jaffrey, Marlborough, Peterborough and Sharon. Studios are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. For more information, visit

Jim and Sue Callihan’s vegetable garden includes a tapestry of plants that Sue is seen tending. Edible marigolds ‘Tangerine Gem’ and ‘Lemon Gem’ edge the raised beds that are packed with squash, beans, tomatoes, lettuce, kale, carrots, beets and more.

Stone paths link the house with Sue Callihan’s new painting studio. Dwarf weeping hornbeam in front of the studio is underplanted with vancouveria, one of her favorite native plants.

A welcoming bench on the front porch invites visitors to sit and enjoy the garden. The painting of Four Corners Farm in Wilton is one of Sue Callihan’s landscapes; she is drawn to scenes of rural life.

Stepping stones lead to the hedge of native honeysuckle along the driveway. A clump of river birch with exfoliating bark on the left has been recently underplanted 
with epimediums, replacing ajuga that was eaten by voles. Bright yellow hakonechloa grass lights up the right side of the path next to the pottery urn.

Categories: Gardening & Landscape