Tea and tranquility at Tarbin Gardens

Tarbin Gardens offers a unique array of plantings, displayed with British touches.

The Formal Garden at Tarbin Gardens in West Franklin is reminiscent of an English castle garden—the perfect setting for a wedding ceremony.

There are many interesting public and private gardens in New Hampshire, but few have the broad appeal of Tarbin Gardens. Located on Route 127 in West Franklin, Tarbin Gardens has something for everyone. Bird- and butterfly-watchers are busy identifying the many species that call the garden home or pass through on seasonal migrations. Photographers and plein air artists find a multitude of colorful flowers and scenic compositions to capture on canvas and paper. Gardeners appreciate the diversity of perennials, shrubs and trees, and because this is a garden for all seasons, there is always something in bloom.

It is a nature adventure for children and adults. There is a Sensory Garden, a play area and a farmyard with dwarf Nigerian goats, pygmy goats, chickens, bunnies, guinea fowl and Scottish Highland cattle. Not many kids have ever seen a hinny! Jenny the hinny is a cross between a donkey and a pony.

The five acres of gardens—which owners Richard Tarbin and his mother Jacky have been developing since they bought the property in 1973—are an ongoing labor of love. The thirty-two acres of land was heavily wooded, so after cutting the tall pines and putting in greenhouses, Richard and Jacky grew bedding plants and sold hothouse tomatoes until 1982. Richard and Jacky had lots of rocks and stumps to remove; the owners then improved the heavy clay soil using manure from their pigs, goats and cattle. In 1987, Richard started a landscaping business, and all the while, he and Jacky continued to work on their own gardens. Their vision and hard work paid off, and after several years of opening the gardens for friends and civic organizations—and seeing how much visitors enjoyed the property— Richard and Jacky decided in 2003 it was time to open to the public.

Take a tour

Water falls into the koi pond, adding its calming sound to nearby gardens.

Paths with distinctive names wind around the property. The flowing design encourages visitors to stroll from one garden area to the next, and most of the gardens are wheelchair accessible. For a self-guided tour, maps are available, and each week different plants and areas of special interest are highlighted. Richard leads guided tours for groups by reservation. He estimates that it takes about one hour to view the entire property, but visitors are encouraged to linger and relax, savoring what each space has to offer.

Because Richard and Jacky originally hail from England, the Formal Garden—the oldest of about a dozen different garden areas—is designed with a distinctly British feel. The boxwood-lined flagstone walk leading to the Formal Garden from the Centre Avenue is called “Winston Way” after Churchill. Bright pink astilbes, roses, hostas, coneflowers, and pink and yellow lilies fill the flowerbeds. Stately urns planted with pink calibrachoa and spiky red dracena stand on square stone pedestals, marking the entrance to the Formal Garden. Tall hemlock hedges on each side give a feeling of privacy and enclosure; mature oak trees shade the site until about 2 p.m.

“It is like a castle garden in England,” Richard says.

The walk turns to peastone and leads to a grapevine-covered arbor at the other end of the garden. In the center of the path stands a stone birdbath with lions sitting at its base. The borders on each side are filled with hostas, New Guinea impatiens, red celosia, begonias, coleus, fuchsia and evergreen shrubs. A collection of hybrid orienpet Asiatic and Oriental lilies perfume the air.

It is the perfect location for an outdoor wedding, and many have taken place here. “It is a beautiful and serene venue with wonderful photo opportunities, and people asked us to allow weddings,” Jacky says. “Then we had to have a place for receptions, and it just grew from there. This year, we have a new wedding tent on the Events Terrace that accommodates more than 125 people for a sit-down meal.”

The south-facing Alpine Slope has many low-growing evergreens, including Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Rug’, Juniperus procumbens and Tsuga Canadensis ‘Jeddeloah’. Heaths and heathers perform well in the thin rocky soil as do the Paeonia suffruticosa. “Tree peonies love these conditions,” Jacky says. Rhododendron ‘Purple Gem’ and the unusual creeping hummingbird trumpet Zauschneria garettii ‘Orange Carpet’ lend even more color to the rocky slope.

There is always something in bloom, like these red salvia, at Tarbin Gardens so be prepared to take notes. You’ll come away with many new ideas to try at home.

Off the Main Avenue, a dry shade area called the Three Pines Garden illustrates what can be grown in another tough environment. Flowering plants include Lamium maculatum ‘Pink Pewter’, Lamiastrum galeobdolon ‘Hermann’s Pride’, Omphalodes verna ‘Blue-eyed Mary’, Phlox stonifera ‘Home Fires’, Phlox divaricata ‘May Breeze’ and Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’.

A stroll down the Catalpa Walk leads to the Catalpa Garden, another of the older gardens on the property. The Catalpa Garden has lilies, foxgloves, Japanese anemones, a red horse chestnut tree, seven-sons tree, daphnes and, of course, catalpas, some of which are thirty years old.

One of the newer areas is the Mayapple Dell, a woodland garden with native trees and rosebay rhododendrons. It is a work in progress, and Richard is planning to introduce more native plants and groundcovers along its dry streambed.

Centre Avenue leads back to the Mother’s Day Garden. Its welcoming bench under a willow tree invites visitors to sit and unwind while enjoying the surrounding natural beauty. Peonies, astilbes, black cohosh (Actea racemosa), ferns, bergenia and Oriental lilies are just a few of the plants growing near the central larch tree. The nearby Bog Garden is home to moisture-loving native plants along with newts and frogs. There are four ponds on site, some natural and others man-made with waterfalls and koi. Each spring, Jacky starts more than 150 varieties of annuals and tender perennials from seed to ensure season-long color in all the gardens.

The succulent house is the summer home for a pair of green iguanas and parakeets Henry and Oz, and boasts a huge collection of weird and wonderful succulents. Jacky and Richard also have a tropical greenhouse—complete with a waterfall and pond—where orchids, night-blooming cereus, tillandsias, bromeliads and tropical vines are on display. The effect is like being in a rainforest jungle.

The Rose Garden Patio is next to the tropical greenhouse. Narrow pergolas on two sides of the patio support clematis vines and provide a spot for hanging baskets; a tall fence on the north side blocks the wind and adds privacy. The flowerbeds are full of roses, sedums, salvias, caladiums, topiary, boxwoods, acidanthera and oriental lilies. There is a small fountain that adds the relaxing sound of splashing water to the air, and hummingbirds buzz back and forth between the bee balm and other flowers. Tall trees shade the protected patio from the hot midday sun, and there is outdoor seating at tables with umbrellas.

Relax over tea

After taking a leisurely garden tour, Nathan Mann and his girlfriend
Sarah Pearsall (right) enjoyed an intimate tea for two in the Rose Garden Patio.

Visitors are welcome to bring their own lunches to enjoy on the patio, or from 1 to 5 p.m. each day, Jacky and her granddaughter serve an authentic English cream tea for $7.50 per person. “Cream tea was traditionally brought to the farmers working in the fields to hold them over until dinner time,” Richard says. “The snack was usually scones served with clotted cream and jam.”

Jacky rises at 5 a.m. daily to bake—from scratch—the organic, whole-grain scones, along with other English pastries and cookies. In true Devon tradition, Jacky advises splitting the scones, and spreading each half first with the cream and then with jam.

As for the tea, no bags of Tetley here! Richard and Jacky import kilos of black Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka and brew a pot for each table. The tea is kept warm with a hand-knitted cozy.

If you are smitten with Britain, this afternoon pick-me-up offers a wonderful nod across the pond. The cookies and scones are delivered on a tiered cake stand, and the china cups and saucers bring a special touch of elegance to a day in the garden.

Plan your visit

Tarbin Gardens is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., May through September. The gardens are also open on holiday Mondays. Located at 321 Salisbury Road (Route 127 South) in West Franklin, garden admission is $8.50; $7 for children age four through seventeen, students younger than age twenty-five, and seniors age sixtytwo and older. For more information about garden weddings or other special events, visit tarbingardens.com or call 934-3518.

Categories: Gardening & Landscape