An Oasis of Serenity in Canterbury

A magnificent Canterbury garden, which includes acres of sculpted trees and other plants, reflects the peaceful, meditative qualities of Japanese aesthetics.Twenty years ago, when he retired from the business world, Lane Johnson bought fifteen wooded acres in Canterbury. The only structure on the property was what Johnson calls “a hippie house.””It was a single room, thirty feet by thirty feet,” he says, “with no flooring, just ancient shag carpeting thrown over the subfloor. It was a mess, but it had the most magnificent hand-hewn beams and open staircase. Those timbers sold us on the house. The joinery had a Japanese feel to it, and we designed our house and garden around that,”The multilevel house now has more than ten rooms, three bathrooms, two porches and two decks. The property, to which Johnson has sinceadded another thirty-five acres, has been cleared over the years to make room for a Japanese-style garden. “It took about three years to get the house in order, and another three or four to cut the trees around it,” Johnson says.Pruning for a peek of sceneryDown the rolling hill at the rear of the house, two small ponds were dug and-through judicious pruning-the view to Crane Neck Pond has been opened up enough to give glimpses of this large natural pond from the house. “I had visited the Japanese Garden at Butchart Gardens in Vancouver, Canada, where you could just catch a glimpse of the water in the background, and I carried that idea with me for years,” Johnson says. “Over six or eight years, we worked to cut just enough trees to open up that vista.”This technique of borrowing scenery, called shakkei in Japan, provides a backdrop and connects the garden with the larger landscape. (In this case, however, it is hard to call these views “borrowed scenery,” since Johnson owns much of the pond.) While clearing the land, Johnson also stripped away the soil in places to uncover some of the ledges that surround the property. “I’m infatuated with stone and rock,” he says. “I grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast where no stone was larger than your fingernail.”To the rocks found on the property, he added truckloads of slabs from Swenson Granite’s old cutting mill in Concord. “A friend gave me the stone. It was a boon, even though it cost a fortune to get it trucked here,” explains Johnson. He also brought in cobblestones for paths, paving and edging, as well as river rock for lining the dry streambeds that funnel the water from the roof away from the house. “I looked all over two states for the right rocks and ended up finding them just down the road in Loudon,” he laughs.Growing a green thumbBefore retiring to Canterbury, Johnson lived all over the country. He enjoyed visiting gardens, but didn’t try his hand at growing one of his own until he moved to Hartford, Connecticut, in the mid-1960s. “It was just a little city garden, but even there, I hauled in boulders. When I came here with all this space I went crazy!” he says.A friend advised Johnson to plant five “important”trees when he first moved to the Canterbury property, saying he would be happy later on that he did. “I planted five blue spruce out front that are thirty feet tall now, and I am happy I did!” says Johnson.Of course, he admits not being as happy with all his choices.”It’s a learning process. I’ve planted some things that didn’t make it, some I’ve had to move to new locations, and I’ve taken out some plants that just got too big.”Canterbury gardens beginThe first garden he worked on in Canterburywas the Zen garden, which can be seen from his bedroom and the dining room. “After the building project was completed, the area around the house was a mud hole,” Johnson remembers. “I had seen a nicely graded home down the road and was at the local hardware store asking who had done the work when in walked John Rice, the man I was looking for. In ten minutes, we were back at my house discussing the possibilities. It was just serendipity.”Johnson and Rice, of Rice Paving and Landscapes in Stratham, began by scraping off ten inches of dirt, laying down landscape fabric to keep the weeds at bay and covering the spot with baseball-sized stones. A simple planting with one small shrub in a center island of soil was the starting point for the Zen garden; then Rice brought in larger stones to define the garden, giving it a feeling of enclosure.”The Oriental cypress in the Zen garden once had about twenty-three little pom-poms, it’s down to seven now,” says Johnson, who loves pruning and shaping all his trees and shrubs.When children came to visit, Johnson would ask them to go into the woods and bring back a handful of moss to plant. Now the Zen garden has native moss as well as trailing arbutus and other woodland plants. Even so, the garden’s simplicity invites meditation.Designing more gardens Johnson and Rice went on to create the thyme garden, which includes seven or eight types of thyme and a weeping ‘Prairiefire’ crabapple tree. “It has the most beautiful bright red buds in the spring, but when they open up, the flowers are white. The tiny apples turn from yellow to red in the fall, and the birds love them,” Johnson says.Over time he has created five garden rooms with Rice’s help, all designed with an Asian feel. “Lane is great to work with!” Rice says. “He is a visionary. He suggests something, and I find a way to do it. This is absolutely the most fun place to work!” Neighbor Donnie Aberding has been instrumental in helping to maintain the gardens. Linked by looping paths, some that cross granite bridges over dry streambeds, each garden has its own temptations to draw the visitor in. Specimen plantings such as the sculpted bird’s nest spruce, dramatic weeping cherries, purple beeches and a tall weeping spruce demand attention, as do the cluster of white pines growing out of the ledge. Johnson shears them every year, training these native trees like bonsai. “They are sitting in about six inches of soil on top of the ledge, where nature put them,” Johnson says. “I love the simplicity and the bonsai effect. It fits in with the ledges.”He only has a few classic Japanese plants-such as gingko, weeping cherries and the Japanese maples-but has pruned and clipped his trees and shrubs in a manner that is practiced in traditional Japanese gardens. “The way I have treated my plants is more indicative of an Oriental theme,” Johnson says. “I love pruning; I’m always clipping here and there. I have designs on every tree and branch; some of the plants cringe when I walk by.” About those Japanese maples: Johnson’s son called him one day from Connecticut to say he saw a sign that read “Japanese Red Maples for Sale $5.” “It was a little lady in her eighties, and she had dug up seedlings from her trees and planted them in coffee cans. I told him to buy them all,” Johnson says. “There were thirteen, and they ranged from eight inches to three- or four-feet tall. We planted them around the place and almost all of them have lived.”Now he gives away seedlings from those trees to friends. “I don’t plant them in coffee cans, and I don’t charge them $5. They just have to dig them up themselves,” he laughs.When asked about his favorite tree, he answered: concolor fir. “It has the same color as blue spruce but the needles are softer and thicker,” Johnson says. “The State Forest Nursery in Concord has them for sale for a very reasonable price.”A fit entranceBuilder Jeff Thurston, of Thurston Millworks in Concord, had crafted the original post-and-beam frame of the house and was called in to work on the new additions. “I built the doors and window frames in the house and the shoji screens, and did all the inside finish work,” Thurston says. He also constructed the entry to the garden at the front of the house that is marked with a gate-a Japanese tradition. Thurston built the gate using sketches Johnson had given him. “Lane is a designer,” Thurston says. “He knew what he wanted, and I used his sketches to make my shop drawings.”Of post-and-beam construction, the roofed gate separates the garden from the outside world. The gate also provides a shady place to sit, and allows the visitor to pause and reflect before entering. Stone walls help define different sections of the landscape, and open gates marked by stones lead from one area of the garden to the next. Johnson has planted climbing hydrangeas that tumble along these walls. “The woven vine makes the wall appear higher and gives it life,” Johnson says.Always progressingSoil from digging the ponds was used to fill in a fifteen-foot drop at the back of the house. Rice and Johnson worked to sculpt this area into a stone terrace with granite stairs leading down to the next level of lawn, easing the transition from house to garden to rolling field. The mound of soil was planted with Russian cypress, junipers, heathers, gold-thread cypress, blueberry bushes, spirea and sedums. A Japanese maple at the top of the stairs off the terrace is underplanted with yellow achillea, lamb’s ears and artemisia. Thyme fills in between the rocks at the patio’s edge; heuchera grows near a stone lantern; while another Japanese maple is surrounded with river stone mulch.This garden was built to be viewed from the home’s living room, where windows offer panoramic views of the ponds, woodlands and gardens. “To understand the gardens you need to see them from inside,” Johnson says. With his use of rock, water and the right plantings, Johnson has captured the essence of a Japanese garden and its serenity while unifying his house with the surrounding landscape. The gardens look like they were always there; no single feature overpowers the rest.”We started with the Zen garden and it just kept moving,” says Rice, “and it still does, to this day! Working with Lane has been rewarding from day one. I have never been bored!”Even though it was hard work transforming his once wooded acreage into an open hillside with ponds, gardens and exposed ledges, Johnson says it was healthy for him. “I retired and went to work. I found a great interest, and it kept me jumping,” he says. “It is a tranquil, peaceful place, but I will continue to prune and dig. I guess it is a work in progress. Just like a person, it is never done; there is always more to do and learn.”