Once upon a time there was a little English boy who dreamed of gardens. When his family came to America, they found their way to a tucked-back spot in Franklin, N.H., just a stone’s throw from the birthplace of Daniel Webster. Today that little boy is 50-year-old Richard Tarbin, who has transformed his family’s once unassuming country parcel into Tarbin Gardens, a lush, expansive public garden built by hand; a place where Red Hatters and bird lovers, artists and nature photographers, avid gardeners and even those confounded by the puzzle of what’s possible to grow in New Hampshire come to visit, and are always amazed by what they find.Tarbin Gardens has, at its heart, a piece of what Tarbin and his mother Jacky, who runs it with him, brought from their homeland. From June through September, authentic English cream teas are served in Tarbin’s tranquil Rose Garden.“It’s not the same fancy tea you envision when you hear ‘high’ or ‘low’ tea,” says Tarbin, who doesn’t have a trace of accent, despite living and working with his mother, who sounds every bit the English lady she is.Cream teas, Tarbin explains, evolved from the old English farm tradition of wives bringing hearty and portable fare to their husbands and farm hands in the fields. This is the meal that “would get the men through from lunch ’til dark,” which often doesn’t fall until after nine o’clock in northern Europe.“Cream tea can be packed in a satchel, carried out in the sun. Scones, little cakes, jam, clotted cream … these are the items we serve to our visitors, and my mother makes it all here, using local and fresh ingredients and traditional recipes.”In fact, Tarbin says, the teas have become such a popular attraction that he is planning to expand his mother’s kitchen, where she bakes her scones and cakes daily. This is just one example of the legacy of family and partnership that lies in all of the bounty at Tarbin Gardens, which visitors find is so much more than a showplace for flowers. It is a place where one can get lost in variety, color and the astonishment of what is possible to grow and nurture in a New Hampshire climate better known for what it can’t bear.The roots of Tarbin Garden were planted after the Tarbins emigrated in the 1970s, when Tarbin’s father opened a greenhouse to sell tomatoes on the family’s 32-acre Franklin property. Soon, the business expanded into other vegetables and plants, immersing a teenage Tarbin into the craft of growing plants from seed and forming rough New England landscape into suitable garden space, largely by hand. In 1983, Tarbin’s parents moved to Hong Kong, shutting down the greenhouse for good.With the accumulated skills from the family business, Tarbin started a residential landscaping company with his uncle. But in the early 1990s his parents divorced and his mother returned to New Hampshire. Tarbin, who still lived on the Franklin property, looked toward gardening again, with her at his side. But this time, he wanted to create something that could be open to the public, a magical place where people could be surrounded by the fruits of his passion for the art.“It was all woods at that point, right up to the back of the house,” he says. “There was one postage stamp of lawn, one lilac bush and the old greenhouses way in the back, which we took down. Where they once stood is now the Rose Garden.”Building a public garden by hand from the ground up isn’t as easy as just doing the hard work of cutting trees, tilling and planting flowers and trees. For the visitors Tarbin hoped to attract, he knew that extensive infrastructure would be needed, and so he spent years toiling to build what are now the wide, winding pathways, gentle slopes and open-air spaces that make Tarbin Gardens’ bounty accessible to all who come. He’s still building, in fact, and is currently making space for a large event tent, so that the garden can become a destination for intimate weddings, family gatherings or other events suited to Tarbin Gardens’ mission and theme: “Tranquility defined.”From May to October garden visitors can take a tour guided by Tarbin or spend hours on their own discovering Tarbin’s many surprises. Themed gardens include the Alpine Garden, planted with varieties of thyme and miniature evergreens framed by mossy boulders; the shady Catalpa Garden, where lilies, delphiniums and other flowers blossom under a canopy of catalpa trees and a red horse chestnut tree; and the majestic Formal Garden, with tall manicured hedges surrounding traditional long beds of daylilies and astilbe.Tarbin Gardens also strays far from the expected with a tropical greenhouse garden, complete with a waterfall and exotic varieties of orchids, vines and other jungle-dwellers; several ponds and the Bog Garden, where the varieties of plants that thrive in water can be showcased; and many exotic animals, including peacocks, talking parakeets, goats, Highland cows, an iguana and even Jennie the hinny, a rare cross between a female donkey and a male pony.But one element central in Tarbin’s vision is that despite the variety of what his gardens grow, visitors need to understand one fundamental thing about the place. With the exception of the enclosed Tropical House, he says, everything grown at Tarbin Gardens can be grown in New Hampshire, by anyone who wants to grow it. Even the jungle plants, he adds, are planted directly in the soil of his property.“It was important to me that this not be the kind of place where people come to see things they can’t do,” Tarbin explains. “I put this garden in here not just for display, but to show people what you can do here and how you can do it, despite the fact that we have exactly the same problems that every New Hampshire gardener does. We have tall trees that need to be cut back, drainage issues, all that stuff. People are truly amazed at what they can create. This place is all about showing them what is possible.”Tarbin sees his garden in that way, not only as a tourist spot where garden clubs and small parties can convene for tea or even weddings, but as an educational, interactive museum-like resource for anyone interested in plants. But to the garden’s many visitors, Tarbin himself may be the richest resource of all, having planned it, built it and nurtured it from before it was anything.This was his boyhood dream, he says, to make a useful and breathtaking place steeped in quiet and life, but also to make Tarbin Gardens a real-life laboratory for public use, an encyclopedia of “how to” for anyone who’s ever grown anything in New England or anyone who’d ever like to.“But,” Tarbin acknowledges, laughing a bit, “I do know that there are plenty of people who just come here for the scones and tea.”Tarbin Gardens is located at 321 Salisbury Rd. (Route 127) near the birthplace of Daniel Webster. Admission ranges from $7, with family, season and group rates available. Tarbin recommends visitors come for a first visit at the end of May, when the bulbs and flowering trees are in bloom and everything that isn’t yet flowering is fresh and green.
For more information visit www.tarbingardens.com or call (603) 934-3518.Garden With TreesAccording to Richard Tarbin, flowering trees are the unsung heroes of residential landscaping, providing first color in the spring and then valuable shade and lush greenery in the hotter months. To that end, there are dozens of varieties of species of magnolias, silver bells, catalpas, red buds, euonymus and crabapples at Tarbin Gardens, primarily to show visitors what is possible to grow in their own back yards.Tarbin recommends to visitors that they use his method of buying and cultivating manageable, hearty varieties of trees, especially if they can’t afford the $500 specimens many local growers tell them they must have in order to survive that first winter in the ground. Most of the trees at Tarbin Gardens began as tiny bare-root specimens ordered from catalogs, which Tarbin says he “treated right.”Tarbin provides any garden visitor who asks with fliers that detail his tips, catalog resources and even his best methods for keeping hungry deer away from tender young saplings.Tarbin Gardens also sells a variety of perennials, specializing in unusual shade-loving plants and groundcover. Because their plants for sale were grown from seed outside and spent a winter outside, they are, Tarbin says, “pretty darn tough.” He recommends that all perennials New Hampshire gardeners buy come from similar beginnings or that gardeners should try growing them from seeds.“If you want plants that will survive, that’s the best way to do it,” Tarbin says, in his comfortable role as curator and teacher. “I’d be happy to tell you how to get it, how to grow it and how to keep it alive.”
This article appears in the May 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine