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.

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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The blue gate beckons, luring visitors with a glimpse of what’s to come behind the tall hedges. Several paths intersect here. Which one to choose?

A place apart

Across the driveway, which curves around beside the barn, is the formal lilac garden. Purple is the dominant color here with ornamental oregano, dwarf monarda ‘Petite Delight’, verbena bonariensis and ‘Bevans Variety’ geraniums complemented with yellow zinnias, goldenrod and ‘Cinnabar’ marigolds.

The path leads first to a ring of dwarf Korean ‘Palibin’ lilacs that are pruned as standards (in a lollypop shape, to look like small trees instead of shrubs). Two ‘Donald Wyman’ crabapples, sheared boxwoods and the lilacs surround a central garden featuring an urn of red cordyline, scaveola and calibrachoa on a square stone plinth.

Next to the formal lilac garden are long hedges of late-blooming ‘Miss Kim’ lilacs. The path then leads down stone stairs to a lower garden with a frog pond—one of the newest gardens, installed in 2012. A re-circulating fountain burbles up from the center of a large flat stone, keeping the water aerated and adding the sound of its splashing to the garden. Hydrangeas ‘Quick Fire’ and ‘Blue Billow’, dogwood ‘Ivory Halo’, bottlebrush buckeye, hostas, golden hakonechloa grass and irises grow around the edge of this naturalistic stone-lined pond. Although this garden is new, it has a timeless quality.

The plot thickens

This swath of blue flag iris came with the farm. Growing naturally in a low spot, they marked the perfect location for the new frog pond.

Follow the driveway toward the pasture, where a flock of sheep spends the summer, and look behind the barn for more outbuildings, including a potting shed that doubles as a woodshed in the winter and a chicken coop. A row of pink flowering ‘Robinson’ crabapples lines the entrance to the rear of the property where the fun begins.

When Hunter and Valentine bought the property, it had just a bare lawn, the pool and a small shed. Since then, Valentine has separated the area into garden rooms with different themes.

To the right is the garden shed with honeysuckle growing on one corner and a split-rail fence supporting pale pink ‘New Dawn’ roses on the other. To the left is a meadow garden of wildflowers that provides the transition from pasture to garden. Looking straight ahead, the roofline of an intriguing garden building can be seen over the hedge. Other interconnected garden rooms are divided by fences, hedges with gates and doorways, offering glimpses of what comes next. Paths intersect, inviting visitors to choose which to follow. On the left, there is a tall arborvitae hedge with an irresistible doorway framed by an arbor supporting a ‘William Baffin’ rose.

Inside is a perfectly proportioned formal potager with six raised beds planted with squash, cabbage, kale, onions, garlic, peppers and potatoes. “I grow marigolds and nasturtiums here to ward off pests and brighten up salads,” Hunter says. The beds are surrounded with peastone paths, and in the center of the garden, with a boxwood ball in each corner, stands a pedestal with wooly thyme at its base and an armillary topper. A rail fence with espaliered apples and flower beds around the perimeter separate the potager from the pasture. There are blue benches on two sides; one is sheltered under a rustic arbor made from black locust.

Transitions

Tall hedges form hallways and have several openings to the next garden. There is a doorway in a hedge of European hornbeam that leads to the stumpery. Here weathered roots of old stumps look like driftwood cast up on the shore and act as sculpture in the shady woodland setting near the pool house.

This cozy little building is modeled on the garden pavilion at Hidcote in Britain. Its open French doors invite you inside to a seating area that looks out on the classically simple swimming pool. There are hedges of yews, boxwood, privet for privacy and a low hedge of nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ alongside the pool for color.

Square wooden planters contain some of Hunter’s favorite annual combinations, such as supertunias, scaveola, calibrachoa and licorice plants. “There are some containers I repeat year after year because they really suit the location,” she says. “This combination is able to take the baking sun and heat near the pool, and still bloom all summer long.” 

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Tall hedges provide privacy around the inviting pool. The design of the pool house was inspired by the garden pavilion at Hidcote in Britain.

Peaceful seclusion

Passing through the blue gate, the faun garden is next. Valentine calls this his “clipped green garden” since it doesn’t have any flowers, and is made up of sheared and shaped forms of yews, boxwoods and chamaecyparis. Boxwood is one of Valentine’s favorite plants, and his gardens have more than 150 boxwoods of eleven varieties with ‘Green Gem’, ‘Green Velvet’ and ‘Green Mountain’ being some of his favorites for their hardiness and winter color.

The next gate leads to the Zen garden where the perimeter beds have wide bluestone coping around the edge, separating them from the central grass court. To one side, there is a Japanese garden of three rocks set in sand, giving the eye a place to rest. This garden offers a quiet respite for the visitor, with a stone bench at one end and an eight-foot-tall by sixteen-foot-long, see-through wall acting as a room divider at the other end.  Valentine borrowed this idea from a garden he visited in Rhode Island, and he calls it “the great wall.” It resembles a large, multi-paned window with a doorway and is anchored at each end by tall ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitaes.

“The combination of soft flowing grasses, and perennials mixed in the borders with the granite bench, the three rocks and the wall add an artistic element of hardscape and softscape working side by side,” says friend, artist and garden designer Maude Odgers, of The Artful Gardener in Peterborough, a frequent visitor to the garden.

Stepping through the doorway, visitors reach the central path that leads to the terrace at the rear of the house.


Early morning light washes over the garden and provides the perfect environment for taking photos. Joe Valentine provided all the garden photographs for this article and more of his work can be seen on his website, josephvalentine.com.

Layered effect

This peastone path is lined with yews, boxwood, arborvitae, peonies and a few Japanese maples in pots, leading to the bluestone terrace where Valentine and Hunter summer their collection of potted succulents. The deep burgundy flowers of Akebia quinata vines grow on the pergola overhead. Looking out from the terrace gives a sense of the architectural work that has gone in to this garden.

“I like the view looking straight down the path out to the farther boundaries of the garden, the various horizontal lines interrupting your view as the garden recedes into the distance,” Valentine says. “There are six layers of fencing and hedges, all texturally different and all at different heights that intersect the main axis at 90-degree angles.”

A large ‘Donald Wyman’ crabapple in full bloom acts as a focal point at the end of the path.

On the west side of the house, two tall tom pots of blue scaveola mark the transition from peastone paving to grass. Passing through the red gate, there is an allée of ‘Robinson’ crabapples on the left, marking the west entrance to the garden.

A wisteria covers the porch at the keeping room door, which opens onto the parterre. Here the layout is simple and geometric with a formal square of clipped boxwood, punctuated by a potted boxwood sphere in each corner. Across a wooden walkway, two metal urns planted with red calibrachoa mark the entrance to the fern-lined woodland path. A statue, called Miss Hospitality, beckons from the curve where the path winds back to the driveway.

“Every garden room at Juniper Hill Farm is a textural composition of shapes, colors and design,” Odgers says. “Everywhere one looks is a visual feast of artistic expression that moves the observer on many levels, as all fine art does.”

Hayward calls Hunter and Valentine’s garden a gem. “One of the keys to the success of their garden,” Hayward says, “is that Joe and Paula are working in tandem to create a balanced garden and a balanced life.” 


Garden Conservancy’s Open Days

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program. The following New Hampshire gardens are open to the public in July:

July 11 and 12 • Bedrock Gardens • 45 High Road in Lee

Home to Jill Nooney and Robert Munger, this thirty-three-acre property is a place where art and plants meet. Nooney is an artist who creates metal sculptures from old tools and farm implements. Nooney and Munger’s garden not only provides the backdrop for her creations but is a work of art in itself. Not to be missed!

July 18 and 19 • Evergreen • 41 Summer Street in Goffstown

Home to landscape designer Robert Gillmore, this in-town property seems much larger than it is due to Gillmore’s clever use of winding paths and berms that block the view of neighboring homes.

July 18 and 19 • The Garden on Garvin Hill • 78 Garvin Hill Road in Chichester

A lovely, brick Colonial house sits high atop a hill with a commanding 270-degree view. Loaded with flowers, the property features English cottage-style gardens and a formal potager.

July 18 and 19 • Tiffany Gardens • 15 King John Drive in Londonderry

This one-acre garden shows what can be done on a small residential lot. More than twenty garden beds full of flowers and shrubs are connected by winding paths.

Tickets are $7 each, or six for $35 ($21 for Garden Conservancy members). For more information on additional private gardens open to the public in 2015, visit opendaysprogram.org.

Categories: Gardening & Landscape

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