Feature > Gardens That Dazzle

It’s taken Patty Humphrey thirty years, but she’s created ten lush gardens around her elegant Chichester farmstead, giving color and depth to the sweeping mountain views in the distance.

“It takes about twenty years to build a really nice garden, I think,” Humphrey muses, “for the plants to grow to the point where they have gravitas.”

Two gardens—bordered by stone walls and filled with spring flowering bulbs, peonies, monardas and day lilies—flank the driveway. “I call these the ‘drive-by gardens’ because people only see them from a moving vehicle. No one ever walks down there to look at them up close,” Humphrey says, “so they need large blocks of color.”

A small garden of annuals keeps company with an ancient apple tree and several onehundred- year-old maples in front of the ivy-covered, brick house. “Since this garden is the fi rst one you encounter after parking your car, it needs to be in bloom all season long. So I fi ll it with annuals like petunias, tall ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’ and ‘Crystal White’ zinnias,” Humphrey explains.

Defined by a split-rail fence and hedge of Korean lilacs on one side and an edging of granite paving stones on the other, a one-hundred-foot-long border garden runs the length of the barn and beyond. Humphrey calls this her “summer border garden,” since it is filled with roses, hollyhocks and day lilies. “When they are blooming all at once, it is really quite spectacular,” she says. “It was such a riot of color, it required drastic editing. So I either had to cull some plants or add something to hold it all together. I planted a multicolored nasturtium edging and discovered that you can unify by adding even more color as well as by taking some out.”

Even though it is Humphrey’s summer border, this garden is so full of rich textures that it spans the seasons. Evergreens provide contrast to winter snow while the hedge and fence add a pattern to the landscape.

Where it all began

The first garden Humphrey built when she moved to this house more than thirty years ago was in the sheltered corner where the garage and barn met. “It was the warmest, sunniest spot, though an odd shape. In some places, it is twenty feet deep, but it is much shallower at the ends,” Humphrey says while pointing out the Korean boxwood that delineate the space. “I’m very proud of the box balls,” she adds, “they are my favorite plant of all because they really set off everything else and are green year-round.” Hollyhocks look stunning against the white clapboards, a large shrub rose occupies the protected corner, and waves of rudbeckia, asters, yarrow, phlox and other perennials fill the rest of the space.

The gardens out back

Behind the house, on this windy hilltop, are five more gardens, each with a specific function. “You want to define your garden by themes, but I’m totally undisciplined and garden mostly by color,” Humphrey admits. “Being only mildly artistic, it took a long time for me to learn about structure. I do like geometric shapes, but I tend to go wild with the plants.”

The vegetable garden is fenced all around to keep out the critters. Humphrey says deer visit her gardens often but don’t seem to do much damage. The vegetable garden also is protected on three sides by a wind-blocking arborvitae hedge surrounded by roses. Entrance is through an arbor that supports a climbing hydrangea. This space is so well defined it stands out even in winter when snow, instead of flowers, covers the vines and shrubs.

Within the walls are six beds for vegetables and greens, and for testing different varieties of dahlias, her new love. “It is a small kitchen garden. I grow peas, a few tomatoes and herbs like basil, parsley and cilantro, just to keep my respectability,” Humphrey laughs. Behind this space is the greenhouse where she starts many plants from seed and winters geraniums, potted myrtle topiaries, dahlia bulbs and water-garden plants.

Next to the vegetable garden are two gardens built on the remains of an old barn foundation. One is a rock garden that is cooled by the shade of a weeping birch in late afternoon. It contains two ‘Sargent’ crabapple trees, which are surrounded by astilbes, heucheras and fern-leaf bleeding hearts. To reinforce the color theme of burnt orange and maroon, Humphrey grows Icelandic poppies that blossom all summer in those hues. In fall, the birch turns a golden yellow while the crab trees glow deep red. The tiny carmine fruits on the crabapple trees last all winter. Stones from the old foundation, along with other rocks she has contributed, add character.

The other garden in the barn’s footprint is a sunny herb garden anchored by a dwarf Alberta spruce in each corner. There are four boxwoods radiating out from the center sundial, and the beds are filled with dianthus, thymes, Russian sage, echinacea, foxglove, tansy, elecampane, angelica, catmint and lamb’s ears. Surrounding it all are roses. “Roses are a favorite of mine,” Humphrey says. “There isn’t anything that makes more of a splash than big roses. I don’t spray them, so it is do or die. The wind and lack of snow cover will kill most roses, but the plants in the Canadian Explorer series—like ‘William Baffin’ and ‘Henry Kelsey’—are especially hardy.” In autumn, brilliant rose hips hang like gems until the birds strip the bushes bare.

The formal and informal gardens

Two more gardens juxtapose formal with informal, although in both Humphrey employs conical dwarf Alberta spruce trees in the corners like punctuation marks. The formal garden makes use of intersecting center paths, so she refers to it as the four-square garden. One tall hydrangea and a ground-cover rose grow in each square, along with small flowering plants such as dianthus, catmint, salvias and veronica. “I have given up trying to grow lavender,” Humphrey says. “It just isn’t hardy here, so I have replaced them all with artemisia ‘Silver Mound’.”

The informal garden boasts a pond complete with fountain. “It used to be a duck pond, but the ducks are long gone. My sons thought it needed a fountain, so they put it in for me,” Humphrey says, smiling. The plantings around the pond are larger and more naturalistic— Siberian iris, goldenrod, ornamental grass, New England asters and meadow rue, to name a few. In fall, a ten-foot-tall miscanthus crowned with feathery blooms rustles in the slightest breeze, adding movement and sound to the splashing water.

When water lilies took over the pond, Humphrey removed them and now grows water hyacinths in pots that can be lifted before the pond ices over. “Though I have started a collection of those new colored coneflowers, I usually don’t seek out rare plants,” she says. “You can have a wonderful garden using ordinary plants. I’m more a designer than a plantsman.”

Inspiration for gardening

Humphrey describes her design style as old-fashioned flower garden with a British influence. “I’m a copycat. If I see a beautiful idea, I’ll shamelessly copy it,” she admits. “I wish I had started with a plan thirty years ago. I plunked plants in by color and overlaid the structure later, so some things don’t line up perfectly. I like straight lines because the plants are so unruly.”

Inspiration also came from Humphrey’s grandmother’s gardens. They too were situated high on a hill, but were much larger and terraced down the slope with areas for flowers, an orchard and vegetables. “To me it was a very magical place,” Humphrey remembers. “I never thought a house was a real home without a garden.” Even during the twelve years Humphrey and her husband, former U.S. Senator Gordon Humphrey, were in Washington, D.C., she maintained a garden there and the ones here in New Hampshire.

Humphrey has just turned seventy, and although she gardens ten hours a day during the growing season, she says it is not the best exercise. “I do yoga, too, to keep the rest of me in shape.” Unlike her grandmother who had a staff of gardeners to do the physical labor in her garden, Humphrey does all the planting, weeding and maintenance.

Recording a garden’s annual journey

Her neighbor K. (Kathy) Cardone Holmes has taken pictures of Humphrey’s gardens over the years and put together a scrapbook of the gardens in each season. “The gardens are so full of flowers, I don’t know how the dirt can support them all!” Holmes says.

She also designed a “logo” depicting a wheelbarrow full of weeds for the scrapbook cover. “Most people don’t realize how hard Patty works. She has pulled a wheelbarrow full of weeds in the morning before most of us are even out of bed!” Holmes says.

An art teacher and amateur photographer, Holmes says she prefers photographing flowers to people. “The flowers are never offended, and there is no stress about trying to make them look good.”

Humphrey has found this photographic record to be not only a beautiful keepsake but a valuable design tool: “Because of the restricted view, I can see what I like more clearly in the pictures. It helps when I’m planning changes for next year.”

Gardening and photography are perfect creative partners. You easily can take photos to record your garden’s progress over the growing season. Even the view out the kitchen window changes greatly during the course of a year. Get out the camera on the first day of each month and take a picture of your yard from the same place. If you have extensive gardens all over your property like Humphrey, take a shot of each one from the same spot each month. Choose the best vantage points; shooting from a place higher than the garden draws attention to the geometry of the design. You could use the same focal point—such as a bench or birdbath—to illustrate the changes as the season progresses. At the end of the year, you’ll have a great photo essay of the rise and fall of twelve months in your garden. Use it, like Humphrey does, to remember the beauty of past seasons as well as evaluate the garden’s strengths and weaknesses for the future.