Spring arrives a bit late on Bible Hill in Francestown, but, when it does, the garden of Len and Meredeth Allen lights up with a crescendo of color, texture and fragrance. As the season progresses the tune changes from the delicate blooms of crabapple and azaleas, punctuated with slender stems of tulips, to the proud alliums of early June to the fragrance of old fashion shrub roses and bright poppies in mid-June. Late summer brings a flurry of phlox intermingled with lilies and Cardinal flower. And all of this in just one corner of the yard — and only a small adagio that plays out in the symphony of color and texture throughout the 15,000-square-feet of cultivated beds surrounding their home.
The Allen property has a woodland garden, a bog garden, a pond, granite stone walls, massive main perennial beds, borders and embankments. This is a serious garden, created by a couple who work together to orchestrate perennials, trees and shrubs for a commanding performance that lasts all season. It is more than a hobby; you could call it a very labor-intensive passion with benefits.
When Len retired in 1998, the couple looked at 51 historic houses throughout New England and finally settled on the Bible Hill property. After two years of rehabbing the neglected homestead, they set their sights to the back yard. Nary a daffodil was in view.
Meredeth had started gardening in the 1970s and became intrigued with plants of all kinds. Len was interested in hardscape design and had worked previously with a noted New Jersey garden designer on their historic New Jersey home. But this was to be a massive undertaking to beautifully landscape nearly one and a half acres. They sought the counsel of professionals.
Several local garden designers came up with rough sketches and ideas. From one, the Allens learned about gardening on embankments with boulders to add a look of solidarity, another suggested berms to add privacy, one laid out a hose that became the perimeter of the bluestone terrace and the fourth had an oversupply of trees that became their first plantings.
In 2000 the hardscape foundation for the gardens was built from Len’s plan. Great slabs of stone had been excavated near the house to install drainage and he used these to rebuild a wall, plant boulders in the embankments and build the steps in garden paths. That winter he drew the outlines for the beds, berms and planned an artesian well that would be a fresh water supply for the house. The old cistern could now be used to water the gardens when necessary and several beds where planned above it.
The trench for the water piping to the house was freed of large rocks and amended with compost and became the first two border beds. About 30 boulders were “planted” in the empty beds, looking like “gifts from a long departed glacier,” as Len puts it. In all, about 50 tons of stone was relocated or placed into the garden for steps, walls or visual anchors.
That first year of hardscaping ended with planting several ornamental trees and shrubs, seeding the lawn and waiting for spring. “It was a long wait,” says Meredeth.
She spent that winter attempting to block out the “drifts” of perennials needed to fill the beds. In fact, she was feeling completely overwhelmed. The gardens-to-be were lost beneath the snow. With no shapes to work with, the idea of creating something beautiful seemed nearly impossible. Still, perennials had to be ordered. A Vermont friend suggested Standing Stone Perennial Farm and 30 varieties (200 plants) were ordered. More were ordered from mail-order catalogs. Len made wood stake labels for all of these.
The minute the snow was gone, Meredeth went to work with almost 1,000 labels and a rubber mallet and a severe case of the “overwhelms.” In a week the labels were placed. A neighbor remarked that they had created what looked like a mouse graveyard. That spring the UPS truck stopped daily. They planted and planted that spring. Meredith says, “When we had finished, the borders looked so meagerly planted. So empty!”
But that was then. Now, eight years later, the perennial beds are full and lush and there is only room for the occasional “I can’t not have that plant,” as Meredeth says.
New projects included an “entrance” to the garden with a large arbor covered with clematis, New Dawn roses and honeysuckle surrounded by two new beds, ornamental trees and paths. Another bed was added near the garden shed and the pergola was finished in 2002. It is a special place to try out new varieties before they are sited in the main beds. The final garden is a bog garden complete with Japanese footbridge, retaining walls and access steps. A plant buying spree at the Garden in the Woods finalized this area in 2008.
As a gardener, Meredeth’s goal is to keep the garden beautiful all year long. She says, “The old analogy of a successful garden being like a well-balanced symphony orchestra is so true. In the garden one isn’t waiting for the brasses to pick up the melody after the strings have had their turn. One waits for something wonderful to appear after the peonies have finished their magnificent display. And what will step in while the roses are temporarily resting? June is probably when most New Hampshire gardens are at their exuberant best. But daylilies reign in July along with lilies that dominate in August. Asters and chrysanthemums come on stage late in the gardening season and glorious dahlias happily fill up empty spaces.”
The garden is the most work in the spring when plants need to be replanted, divided, fertilized and the beds prepared for the season. The “To Do List” is long. In the summer there is time to relax and enjoy the garden and take an occasional dip into the pond. But all along Meredeth keeps an extensive scrapbook of plants purchased. Len enjoys taking digital photos and each year creates a book from a Web-based company. His extensive record keeping includes a 40-page MS Word table with all the plants in the garden and what to do when. In the winter Meredeth pores over her stack of flower catalogs. “It wouldn’t be winter without them,” she says.
If you ask the Allens, they would say the challenge is now to just maintain what they have built. “We have the routine down and with knowledge we have gained in productivity even as we age and lose energy,” says Meredeth. “It’s still an adventure with great and often unusual and surprising rewards. Alas, it can’t continue forever and when we leave we only hope that someone will love and care and enjoy it as much as we have.”
This special property with house on the National Register of Historic Places will be on view in 2010 for a fundraiser for the Francestown Public Library. NH
This article appears in the May 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine