Eleanor Weller Reade marches through her garden in an old pair of khakis and an oversized T-shirt, thin white wisps of sunblock glinting beneath her battle-beaten visor. She stops occasionally to scold or cajole her loquacious gaggle of geese. A few pulled weeds clutched in one hand, she gestures nonstop with the other, pointing out the details of nearly 40 years’ worth of landscaping.
Eleanor approaches gardening with the same gusto that infuses her creative efforts at Charlotte’s Web, her interior design company, and the results are the half-dozen garden spaces that surround her Monkton home, each a lifelong design-in-progress.
Eleanor grew up in beautiful gardens. Her great-grandmother’s garden at the former “Windy Gates” (now the Devon Hill condominiums on Lake Avenue) was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and her grandmother’s gardens next door at “Edgewood” (now a home for retired priests) were laid out by the famous Philadelphia designer Thomas Sears. Her mother was a prize-winning gardener who gave young Eleanor her own small plot to plant at their home in Towson, near Hampton Mansion. And in adulthood, Eleanor, like her mother and grandmother before her, joined the Garden Club of Twenty, one of the oldest groups chartered by the Garden Club of America.
Beyond the garden club, she learned along the way from other avid gardeners, including the incomparable Harvey Ladew, who offered both advice and cuttings from his now-famous Jarrettsville landscape. Ladew even helped Eleanor with her garden club entries, she recalls. “When I wanted to win blue ribbons, he did the arrangements. Or perhaps I should say he helped me to the point that he did them. In fact, I was at his house the day he had the stroke from which he never recovered. I was over there doing arrangements with his flowers and his containers. And I won two blue ribbons that day,” she says, characteristically nonplused by the admission.
Eleanor met a kindred gardening spirit in Frank Weller, whom she would eventually marry and with whom she designed most of the Monkton gardens before his death seven years ago. “Frank was also born loving gardens and hoped to retire from law and have a career in landscape architecture,” she says. “The garden is about my first husband and our dreams. We were a great team.”
Eleanor and Frank traveled frequently, amassing knowledge about architecture and gardens. Like many young couples, their knowledge fueled delusions of grandeur far beyond their financial grasp. When they moved into what was then a gardener’s cottage on four acres of her parents’ 100-acre farm in 1965, the house was sitting in a bare field.
For the Wellers, it was an empty canvas ready to be filled with foliage and blooms, fountains and walkways. What the couple lacked in money they made up in ingenuity and a little good-natured thievery. (continued on page 116) “There are stories to every plant I have,” Eleanor explains, “because I was either given it, grew it or stole it!”
For example, they bought 400 trees for $10— that’s $10 total— from a state-run ecology program. Eleanor brought the seedlings home in one large paper cup. And when she bought an $80 variegated maple tree from a Massachusetts nursery, she convinced a friend with a DC-9 to fly it home.
The first garden she and Frank planted was the kitchen garden, an oval perennial plot set in a rectangular border, in keeping with a Williamsburg design. Surrounding it is an evergreen hedge accented with topiary foxes that were gifts from Ladew.
Next came the orchard, laid out in an 18th century grid like a tick-tack-toe board. Eleanor saw the design at Stratford, the home of Robert E. Lee’s family in Virginia, and planted her version with bare-root peach, cherry, pear, plum and apple trees. The multiple allée design creates a vista from every angle.
When it came to their hearts’ true desire, a formal garden, Eleanor and Frank relied, once again, on ingenuity and a little luck.
One afternoon they played hooky from a timber-race lunch and, using a hose and a stake, laid out a quatrefoil inside a rectangular frame on the 1/8-acre space they had allotted. The entrance to the now mature garden is a gate made of four window guards obtained from the salvage sale of the Seton Home (first built in about 1840 as a mental hospital) and topped with lovebirds to commemorate the effort husband and wife put into its creation. Flanking the gate are forsythia and lilac bushes.
And defining the interior of the garden are boxwood that Eleanor cultivated into diamond-shaped borders and filled with blue horizon ageratum and tulips. “I go to Nantucket every July, so I wouldn’t enjoy summer plantings,” she explains of her choices. “The tulips are beautiful in the spring, and the ageratum is a riot in the fall.”
At the end of the garden’s long vista, nestled among weeping crab apples, sits a confessional reminiscent of the teahouse at Ladew. It was bought from the Seton Home sale for a mere $40.
The quatrefoil’s hedge was originally bush honeysuckle and autumn olive, but was later replaced by an Ilex and Dutch Box hedge, which is more formal and easier to clip. Layered above the hedge— almost floating above it— is an aerial hedge made from dogwoods and evergreens. The trees’ lower branches have been stripped to a uniform height and the treetops have grown together into a canopy.
The garden benefited from a stroke of luck while Frank and Eleanor were visiting Green Animals, a famous topiary garden in Rhode Island, and struck up a conversation with one of the gardeners. He turned out to be a descendant of Green Animals’ original Italian gardener, and he generously gave them nine of the rare, variegated Tree Box (American) for which Green Animals is famous. The topiary expert at Ladew Gardens made a set of frames and trained the plants onto them to create the spirals and obelisks that are the center of the formal garden.
At each end of the garden are fanciful wood benches flanked by large urns on pedestals. The urns came first. “I always think big, so I got four of them,” says Eleanor. “Of course, then I needed a bench to go between them.” She found a whimsical high-backed design in an English magazine and had a local carpenter make two. Painted pistachio green, they have an almost Alice in Wonderland appearance.
Their creative spirit still unquenched, the couple next transformed an old roadbed into the “lagoon garden.” “It is based on our travels in the South, where there are wonderful, meandering lagoons,” Eleanor explains, adding that it took five years to get the look just right. “It has a lot of shadow and textures,” she says. “I purposely planted bushes that have different colors, like dark green or yellow or purple, so there’s a lot of color.”
Two pieces of garden sculpture preside over the lagoon garden. The focal point is a piece of found art— a soundboard from a grand piano in the wreckage of the Andrea Doria, which sank off Nantucket when Eleanor was a teen-ager. The other is a 5-foot-tall heron from her great-grandmother’s Olmsted garden.
When Frank Weller died in 1995 of a brain tumor, his ashes were spread in the vegetable garden he had begun the first year of their marriage. It was his pride and joy. At his death, everyone from investment banker Ben Griswold to noted landscape architect Barbara Paca came to weed the vegetable patch and make it fit for his burial. His ashes were spread in the Italian arugula patch, where the last photograph of him had been taken. “I always keep his vegetable garden up, even though I’m never here to eat any of it,” says Eleanor. “But I always keep it up.”
By the time Frank died, the formal garden had fallen into disrepair from neglect. During house and garden tours, a sign hung on the closed garden gate reading “Closed: Owner Has Died.”
But a true gardener like Eleanor cannot be kept down for long. “I felt the one thing I could do to honor him, the best memorial, was to reclaim that garden because he loved it,” she says. At its center, she would install the fountain she had commissioned shortly before Frank’s illness was diagnosed. It was to commemorate their impending 30th wedding anniversary, which he would not live to see. Based on a sculpture called “The Vine,” a Harriet Frishmuth piece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the fountain features a fluid figure of a woman, lean and graceful, like the topiary figures that surround her. It was made by Eleanor’s friend Edward Thomas, a retired judge and sculptor, in the style of Frishmuth.
Three years after Frank’s death, and just in time for a nephew’s engagement party in the garden, Eleanor had the fountain installed. Eleanor’s friend Stiles Colwill, the interior designer and antiques expert, arrived at the party with a duffel bag full of champagne glasses for a toast that began with a reading of the inscription on the fountain’s base. It includes a one-line poem Frank wrote for Eleanor and had engraved inside her wedding ring: “The eyes of your eyes are my eyes.” “We used that toast to wish them a happy marriage,” Eleanor recalls of her nephew and his bride. “It was a celebration of marriage.”
In addition to the grander spaces, Eleanor maintains a small cutting garden for fresh flower arrangements and for starting plants she will transplant to the other gardens. It is mostly annuals, like Bellefield coreopsis, iris, boxwood, zinnias, cosmos, moonflowers and forget-me-nots. There is also a porch garden she added in 1972 when a wing was built on the house. Using stone reclaimed from an old mill, she built a retaining wall and was able to create a “garden room” of perennials that bloom from June through November.
When she is not working for her Charlotte’s Web design clients, Eleanor enjoys traveling with her new husband, Arthur Reade, and that leaves precious little time to maintain the gardens. A professional topiary expert keeps the figures clipped. Beyond that, she relies on the help of fellow gardener Liz Kostuik and local landscape designer C.P. Pitts to keep the gardens at their peak. “Taking care of the formal garden is entirely C.P.’s job now and he takes great pride in it, going way beyond the call of duty. I don’t touch it. I’m not allowed to touch it!” she exclaims with good-natured chagrin.
Her favorite groundskeeper remains Joe Wiggins, a gospel singer who was the groundskeeper at the now-defunct Children’s Hospital. “He’s just a master at certain kinds of work— he’s a magician at getting grass to grow— and he has the most beautiful voice you’ve ever heard. He’s a man with a really beautiful soul, the kind of person you read about in books.”
Eleanor is well-known as a garden historian. She co-authored a book on Gilded Age gardens, “The Golden Age of American Gardens: 1890-1940,” and maintains an enormous personal library of gardening books. But she’s firmly rooted in the present, too, still puttering about her multiple garden plots.
Just last year she added a serpentine viburnum hedge to the lagoon garden. She is quick to note natural beauty in all forms, like the color combination created when a yellow bird alights onto a pot of pink flowers. She tucks the idea away, and it will no doubt reappear as the inspiration for a design project, be it in the garden or in a client’s home.