It all began when we took out the wrought-iron fence for a party,” says artist and Maryland Institute College of Art professor Christine Neill, describing the small back porch fence that once divided her and husband Lew Fifield’s house from her neighbors on either side. That was 18 years ago. So began the unification of the three North Baltimore gardens that surround her 1920s Tudor brick townhouse on Wickford Road in “Alonsoville.”
After the fence came down, landscaping the front of the three houses was the next order of business. First Neill asked Mike McWilliams at Maxalea Nurseries to revise and replant her front garden. Then her neighbors to the south did the same. Now pachysandra, lirope, white azaleas, andromedas and blue hostas, punctuated by dogwoods, styrax and cherry trees, thread together the three front yards.
Behind the houses, in a country-like setting on Stony Run Park, the original yards were once rectangular slopes of grass bordered by privet hedges and chain-link fences, with straight cement paths connecting backdoors to the alley. Now they are terraced with more gradual slopes. For privacy, the group uses plantings instead of fences— and there are no straight lines. “It’s been a slow evolution, and it’s ongoing,” says Neill. “We share plants and we share ideas.”
The center that holds: Christine Neill and Lew Fifield
concept: “This is a fall, winter, spring garden,” says Neill, who spends those three seasons working in her studio off this garden and each summer in New Hampshire. Hellebores begin blooming in January, followed by the dogwoods, tree peonies, herbaceous peonies, bleeding heart, skimmia, astilbe and oakleaf hydrangea. When she returns in September, a hardy perennial hibiscus will have just opened its wide white platters of blooms. “I think in texture, shape and form,” she says. “I like the range of greens in the garden. I am not fond of red or bronze leaves. No chartreuse leaves either.” Ironically, this artist, whose work interprets the metaphors and narratives of plants, rarely uses green in her paintings and prints.
connecting thread: Neill’s back porch never regained its railing, but she still connects to the Ziger-Snead garden by that porch and by a shared cherry laurel hedge. A flagstone path leads north into Mary Dempsey’s garden. The two women built an adjoining goldfish pond from river rocks eight years ago. “I dipped into my New England roots of rock walls,” says this Connecticut native. “That pond was my first and last effort.”
individuation: “I have more grass,” Neill says. “I like the softness of the grass, and I don’t use the garden as much as the others do in the summer. I also do most of the design, planting and work myself.” She also never plants things like the dark leafed coral bells Dempsey grows, and she’s had long conversations with Ziger and Snead about the ancient cedar tree she dreams of replacing with a tree more human in size.
relationship to work: Neill began college as a biology major and spent her childhood exploring nooks and crannies of her mother’s rock garden. “The garden for me is the three-dimensional work that feeds my two-dimensional work, but I never paint outside,” says Neill. “I garden in an intuitive way. The garden doesn’t have an opinion. It is its own entity guided by biology. It is wonderfully relaxing, without intellect, totally physical.”
Architectural approach: Jamie Snead and Steve Ziger
concept: When the architect duo moved here in 1987, the rectangular backyard was bordered by privet and a wire fence and featured a long, raised garden bed with warped wooden planks and a leaking fishpond. “It was horrible,” says Snead. After tearing up the walkway, removing the pond, planting rhododendron and a Leyland cypress on the alley, he says, “We decided to really do the garden.”
Snead wanted a formal, Italianate look, while Ziger wanted a more casual English cottage style garden. They compromised. With inspiration from 1920s British landscape architect Cecil Pient, who designed gardens in Tuscany with English garden features, Ziger and Snead created an oval, grassy area off the kitchen to provide a formal structure for the first of two garden rooms. Lirope defines the oval and gives Ziger, the plantsman of the two, a framework for planting. His free-flowing design turned into an English garden full of white and blue blooming perennials and shrubs such as white crape myrtle, lilies, irises, Johnson’s blue geraniums, thistle and even blue daisies. A short shady corridor planted with hostas, ferns and boxwoods runs under the umbrella of a clipped, weeping cherry tree and creates a threshold to the second garden room: a shady bluestone patio with Adirondack chairs and tables. At the end of the garden the tall, ancient cedar “provides a vertical, architectural focus,” says Ziger.
connecting thread:“It’s not very well connected [structurally], except for the porch,” says Ziger. But on that porch, in addition to the grill they share with Neill and Fifield, a long window box overflows with herbs, nasturtiums and geraniums. Repeated plant material connects this garden to the others: rhododendron, cherry laurels, boxwood, sweet bay magnolia, oakleaf hydrangeas, climbing hydrangea up the kitchen wall, and old-fashioned peonies and hydrangeas.
individuation: The two exterior garden rooms are brought inside by the glassy breakfast room that, even without plant materials, feels like part of the garden. Inside and outside become one. “It is beautiful to look out on the garden, even in winter,” says Ziger.
relationship to work:“A release!” says Snead. “We like to dig in the dirt.” Snead cuts the grass, prunes and straightens while Ziger plants and experiments with what will grow best where. They eat breakfast in the garden, plus lunch on weekends and cocktails. “There’s the added advantage of the park,” says Snead. Besides the extra green and quiet of the park, an abundance of gold finches, cardinals and robins feed and nest there.
“And then there’s Snake Hill!” says Ziger of the name given by neighbors to the overgrown area where he was once bitten by a copperhead. It’s their next project.
Entertaining among the trees: Mary Dempsey
concept: “I am a weekend gardener,” says lobbyist Mary Dempsey. “Cooking is my passion, and I love to entertain. This garden brings everything together.”
When Dempsey first moved from Federal Hill in 1989, an odd wooden platform sat as the centerpiece of her garden. A straight cement path ran to the backdoor, a chain-link fence stood by the alley and a falling-down fence divided her yard and Neill’s. Dempsey’s first major renovation was pulling out the fence and building the goldfish pond with Neill. Dempsey then planted grasses that could serve as a privacy hedge.
Three years ago, when Dempsey wanted to make more renovations, Snead and Ziger drew plans for a terrace and Sharon Begin of Maxalea Nurseries drew plans for a densely planted garden of trees, shrubs and perennials. Now a wide bluestone patio boasts a spacious cocktail area, a dining area and two drystone walls, all surrounded by densely planted perennials, trees and shrubs.
connecting thread: In addition to the flagstone path and grasses, perennial astilbe runs from Dempsey’s wide, end-of-group garden to Neill’s. Both women train climbing hydrangea on the backs of their houses with cherry laurel hedges beneath.
individuation:“I did not want grass,” says Dempsey. “I wanted fairly low maintenance.” The bluestone terrace is the centerpiece of this well-designed garden filled with swales of sweet woodruff, lirope, hellebores, hostas, astillbe, huchera. The perennial garden is punctuated and bordered by series of shrubs: azaleas, Korean boxwood, daphne, fothergilla, nandina, viburnum, witch hazel and mountain laurel. Dense planting prevents weeds from popping up and surrounds diners with a tightly woven green tapestry accented with purple, pink and white blooms.
relationship to work: “Like cooking, the garden provides me with an opportunity to create something and reduce my stress,” says Dempsey. It also provides an extra room that Dempsey uses every day in warm weather. An early riser, she drinks coffee in the garden before her morning walk. She ends the day with dinner in the garden, and she comfortably entertains six to eight people for dinner on weekends. “It is the room I use most in summer,” she says.
Landscaping Maxalea Inc. 410-377-7500, http://www.maxalea.com
Plantings Hollins Organic Products 410-828-0210, http://www.hollinsorganic.com; Valley View Farms, 410-527-0700, http://www.valleyviewfarms.com.