Garden Sanctuaries in Chesapeake Country
APR. 01, 2022
Photography by Stephen Buchanan and Janice F. Booth
How several gardeners have created beauty in unexpected places.
Two years we’ve had to re-establish our relationship with Nature and the beauty and serenity of the out-of-doors. If there is a silver-lining to this pandemic, it must be our rediscovering the joys of walking in the woods and meadows, kayaking or canoeing downstream, and simply finding time for flights of fancy while swinging in the backyard hammock or lingering over lunch at a restaurant’s table beneath a cheery umbrella. Some of us may release our pent-up energy while sprucing up the house or grooming the lawn and garden. And that’s where I pick-up the tale of five patient, diligent folk who turned their pandemic energy to coaxing beauty out of unexpected and overlooked places—hidden gardens right under our noses. Part of the beauty of these gardens is that they flourish in unexpected places—a condominium, an 18th century residence, a planned community, or a mature woodland.
Exotic and Familiar
Elaine Lahn’s gardens are hidden in plain sight. The owner of a cozy house in Crofton, Lahn has transformed a few patches of green sod into a luxurious and exotic landscape. “I started with a few plants here-and-there and, before long, I was really fascinated by what I could grow in my garden,” Lahn muses. Chinese Dunce Caps, an Italian Spice Bush, Blue Iris, and Veronica—the exotic and the comfortingly familiar—Lahn has them all. Since 1986, she has coaxed and prodded tiny succulent and giant sycamore. “Some of these plants are a third or fourth try. I don’t always get things to grow where I want them. Sometimes I move them around until I find where they’re really happy.” And, to most observers, Lahn’s garden appears full of very happy plants. Instead of a lawn mower, her garage houses a handy garden bench and tools. Wrought iron table and chairs invite the wanderer to sit and watch the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks scamper among the trees and shrubs. A path meanders from her front driveway through the small, luxuriant front garden and along the side of the house, terminating at the small patio where a galvanized watering tub beneath a cluster of trees holds Water Hyacinth and a friendly frog or two. Lahn’s current project is securing the precipitous gully that is the back of her property and borders a stream that becomes a torrent during heavy rains. She’s planting shrubs and encouraging ferns and groundcover to hold the soil and keep the back of her property from sliding down into the watery bog. Lahn is an active member of the Crofton Village Garden Club. She’s delighted that her passion for gardening has sparked an interest on her son’s part. He’s helping her with various projects, including the replanting of the hillside at the back of the house.
In the Family
As the wife of a Naval Officer, Mary Gatanas has lived all over the world and cultivated gardens in diverse soils. When she and her family were able to settle into their own nest, Annapolis, specifically Crownsville, was their choice. For two decades Gatanas has transformed a simply landscaped lawn into a very personal reflection of her travels and her family. Perhaps her most prized flowerbed is her “Grandson’s Garden.” Her grandson, Tristan, created a rain garden beneath his grandparents’ living room window as a Scouting project. He planted graceful, white Penstemon and vivid, red Cardinal Flowers for contrast. And Grandmother Mary proudly notes that Tristan earned an “A” for his efforts. From her grandson’s rain garden, she points to several distinctive birdhouses among the Hollies and Climbing Hydrangeas—another bit of family lore. One large birdhouse, over 50 years old, dates to Gatanas’ New England girlhood. Her father gave her the birdhouse which has moved with Gatanas to her Maryland garden, a beautiful reminder of her childhood home. “I try to think about what passers-by can see from the road. I want everyone to enjoy the garden,” she says. Throughout the garden, Gatanas blends exotics with the comfortably familiar native plants—Tree Peonies, Mullion, Lavender. Japanese Primrose, and Siberian Iris. Tiny Ground Orchids peak out from among the Astilbe, Monks Hood, Phlox, and Toad Lilies. A striking Black Winecraft Bush with dark, shiny leaves stands out against the green. Korean Lilac, Blue Plumbago, and twice-blooming Azalea provide an endless color palette to dazzle the eye. “This is the only garden where we’ve stayed long enough for me to watch my vision grow and flourish. Many times, I’ve had to leave gardens behind when we moved.” Gatanas draws my attention to an area near the house where she’s coaxing French roses to grow. “They don’t need a lot of sun and their fragrance is heavenly.” There’s always a new project in the Gatanas garden.
As a young bride, Barbara Cooper and her husband, Orlando Ridout V, took on the restoration of his family home in Annapolis. Her husband was a renowned author and scholar of architectural history and preservation, and together the couple undertook the very personal restoration of one of the Ridout family homes, built in 1774 and occupied since then by family members. They dedicated their spare time to rescuing their magnificent but tired architectural treasure. As work on the house neared completion and they took up residence, Orlando was diagnosed with cancer. Cooper turned all her energy to caring for her husband. “Working to restore the house’s garden became my therapy, my way of resting and healing during that difficult time.” After her husband’s death in 2013, Cooper focused on restoring and expanding the garden which is close to an acre in size. While there were fine, old Magnolia, Holly, Willow Oak, and Boxwood, most of the flowerbeds had become overgrown. What might have been lawn was mud and weeds. A former patio was only hard-packed earth. From the porch that extends along the back of the house, Cooper could sip her morning coffee and see the garden’s potential. Her mission became creating a garden that complements the elegant and welcoming house she and her husband had lovingly restored. Among the projects she undertook was using antique bricks to define the meandering flowerbeds along the perimeter of the property. Cooper also restored the patio with bricks salvaged from the house restoration. She enlisted the aid of James Moser, “Gramps” to Cooper’s daughters. He has become Cooper’s right-hand-man. He’s just completing the restoration of the home’s garage, built in the early 20th century, which had fallen into near-ruin. Cooper and Gramps Moser have also added a new flowerbed across the lawn where plants requiring more sun can flourish. Now a sun-dappled patio and walkway greet visitors entering through the distinctive, arched, red door set in the wall attached to the front of the house. When next you walk past St. Mary’s church, look for the grand, old home with red doors, and think of the lovely garden flourishing there.
Big Things in Small Spaces
Sonny Kalis might also be called “Sunny.” Her love of gardens and their care is apparent from her involvement with the Garden Club of Annapolis and the gardens she lovingly tends. For those of us who live in townhouses and condominiums, tending a garden seems a lost pleasure. But, ask Kalis; she’ll show you how to enjoy the pleasures of gardening, as she does in her townhouse community. With the approval of her community’s Board, 16 years ago Kalis took on a small flowerbed near her townhouse. To the traditional tidy bed, she added some perennials and annuals for color, and trimmed the shrubs a bit to allow room for the flowers to flourish. She spoke with the landscapers who regularly tend the community property, and suggested ways to handle tree limbs that needed trimming and shrubs that were languishing. As time went on, Kalis took on more of the flowerbeds along the fence-line. These flowerbeds flourished and grew colorful with Snowcap and Montauk Daisies, ornamental grasses, Camellias, and even an assortment of herbs. Lovely Birches and a Mimosa tree flourished under her thoughtful care. Residents of the community came to wander among Kalis’ flowerbeds and chatted with her about her plants. “Sometimes, gifts appeared, and I’m always delighted when neighbors stop to talk with me about the plants.” She’s always looking ahead, and one goal is to have a truly four-season garden. No doubt, she’ll achieve her goal; the condominium community is enriched by Kalis’ efforts.
Along the Creek
Follow a winding road ’til you come to a narrow lane. Make your way through the woods and come to a clearing. What meets the eye will be the beautiful home and gardens of Catherine Alspach and her husband. Situated on the banks of Island Creek off the Choptank River in Caroline County, Catherine’s vision for her gardens is romantic and free. “Things do what they want to do,” she observes. And what Alspach does is respect her plants’ inclinations. With a background as a landscape architect, she understands which flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees will do well in the various sun and shade areas of her extensive grounds, approximately two-and-a-half acres of gardens on their 20-acre property. Near the front entrance of the house, she has a dramatic bed of Hakonechloa grasses; like moving sculptures these grasses seem to flow like water with the breezes that come from the creek. Cherry Laurel and mature Elizabeth Magnolia trees add their special color and grandeur to the gardens. Alspach has created a brick walk that curves gracefully among the flowerbeds. From the walkway, a path leads across a charming footbridge to Alspach’s studio, where she works on design projects. A recent project has been securing the soil along a rivulet that meanders through the garden and empties into Island Creek. “We noticed there was some erosion of the banks, so I’m trying to encourage plants to grow and secure the soil.” Because the Alspach property is deeply wooded, Catherine relies on flowerpots and urns of colorful annuals around the patio and entrance. The total effect of Alspach’s garden is a magical place—a dwelling in an enchanted forest.
What an interesting article and what interesting people!! I also love that some of them are helping to avoid soil erosion. The pictures are beautiful.