Sanctuary from the City

As printed in Secret Gardens Revealed By Their Owners, Rosemary Verey, 1994


Sanctuary from the City

Written in 1992 by Barbara Paul Robinson

Private, hidden, concealed, kept from view – my garden is secret both physically and metaphysically. My garden occupies a private, passionate part of my life, separate and distinctly apart from my pressured existence as a partner in a major New York law firm. The garden itself is tucked behind our 18th Century clapboard farmhouse between the house and a weathered barn within the confines of old stone walls and split-rail fencing. So the garden is kept from view, actually and emotionally; my secret passion, it keeps me sane — unless we agree that all passionate gardeners are really a little crazy.

When we first bought our house over 20 years ago, there was no garden, but there were wonderful old irregular dry stone walls. Our first task was to clear away scrub and lilacs grown into a small forest separating house from barn. Interestingly, the old garden plants that survived decades of neglect were an old rambling rose, to this day still unidentified, clumps of Paeonia Festiva Maxima still going strong and clumps of Iris pallida, wild flag Iris, Tradescantia and Hemerocallis Fulva. The acid soil was basically gravel and we learned we were in a cold pocket, even for our zone 5 where temperatures can go as low as -25° Fahrenheit.

My artist husband became my “Capability Brown,” transforming an old gravel pit into a new pond, moving hills and roads, removing woods, leveling lawns and constructing stone walls. He claims he is providing me with new canvasses to “paint” with plants. It was he who bulldozed out the lilac forest I had tried to restore, leaving me with a muddy mess so that I was forced to become more expansive and ambitious in my efforts.

The intimate, intensely gardened part now includes herbaceous borders set against the rambling stone walls, a rose walk leading to a garden shed, a fountain garden, with a terraced garden under construction. As I am coping with this only on weekends with the help of someone one day a week, I am certainly overextended.

The first herbaceous border was planted around the existing Paeonia Festiva Maxima which responded beautifully to its liberation from the weeds. That border is best in the early spring, with intense blue Iris Siberica and herbaceous peonies in shades of white, pink and deep rose. The larger herbaceous border is set between two stone walls backed by the gray of the barn and peaks later in the summer in tones of white, purple, blue and pink, with touches of gray and a yellow here and there I didn’t have the heart to rip out.

Inspired by the old rose that survived, I added the rose walk over ten years ago, choosing old, tough roses primarily for hardiness and fragrance. There are over 50 rose bushes flanked by climbers growing on cedar posts within two stone walls and edged with Nepeta Six Hills Giant. Because most of the roses bloom only once in June, I encourage Nicotiana Alata grandiflora to self-seed between the roses so that their white wands continue to provide fragrance into the summer along with a few repeat bloomers. Therèse Bugnet is the first and most consistent bloomer, with Rose de Rescht, Comte de Chambord, Rosa Gallica Officianalis and many others, including my newest experiments with the Austin roses. Among the climbers, New Dawn and the parent, Dr. Van Fleet, perform superbly but I love most the subtle apricot to gold colors of Goldbusch. Sadly, most of the climbers that tolerate our cold climate are not particularly fragrant.

When we added to our house two years ago, the garden had to grow accordingly. Our “moon garden” features my latest folly, a fountain. The sounds of water now seems indispensable to the balance and serenity of the garden. When I consulted a neighbor on fountain construction, he not only responded, he gave me a statue of a young girl holding a frog and the base, which is now set in a small pool with rough stones to keep them from too much formality in our country setting. I have tried to use yellow foliage and textures, accented with purples and grays because of the wonderful golden garden we loved so much at Crathes Castle.

The next project is already under way with three new stone walls under construction to terrace a steep hill at the side of the barn. I am dreaming about filling this space with hot colors, but I am still paralyzed with indecision and covetousness for far too many new plants.

Last year, I took a sabbatical from my professional life and was lucky enough to persuade Rosemary Verey to allow me to work in her magical garden for a month. That special experience further fueled the fires of my secret love of the garden.