Pete Colhoun spent much of his adult life as head of mutual funds at T. Rowe Price, cultivating fortunes, not flowers. But the influence of a gardening mother was always with him. Ella Spear Colhoun shared her love of flowers and plants with her only son and taught him the joy and satisfaction of helping things grow. Since retiring 10 years ago, he has had the time to practice what she preached, in the very garden she first laid out nearly 50 years ago.
Mrs. Colhoun, who died in 1999 at age 96, was a true Renaissance woman who focused much of her artistic talent on architecture and gardening. In 1955, she designed and built a brick and plaster house in a quiet enclave of the Worthington Valley, near Butler, giving it the established look of an old farmhouse and laying the foundations of a formal garden.
The large rectangular garden is structured around long axial views bordered by flower beds. The longer view begins at a thick hedge of enormous rhododendrons and extends along a grassy path to the pool, threading through two trellises planted with clematis, passion flower, Mande- ville, and roses that bloom throughout the summer in a profusion of color. From the patio of the house, the view extends through the garden to an old smokehouse that Pete relocated from a Baltimore County farm some 40 years ago and rebuilt as a garden shed, complete with fox weather vane.
At age 66, Colhoun, one of the original panelists of “Wall Street Week,” maintains a rigorous retirement devoted to philanthropy, several corporate directorships, and adventure travel (he’s climbed Mount Everest, visited the Arctic Circle and Antarctica, and heli-skied in Canada’s Bugaboo Mountains). But when he is home, he is in the garden. “Gardening is my therapy,” he says. “You can see things growing, and it’s like watching your children grow.”
Amateur gardeners everywhere will take heart at his no-nonsense formulas for success. “All my knowledge is practical,” he explains. “I’m a big believer in plants that last a long time, and I think gardens need a certain amount of symmetry. I also think it is important to have open space to allow plants to fill in. Crowded flowers have a terrible appearance, like wearing clothes in colors that clash.”
One of Colhoun’s rules of green thumb is bloom rotation— as one season’s plantings die off, the next season’s should already be growing in. He also considers color and height when introducing new plants, and is always cognizant of sun and shade requirements. Each plant in the garden is staked with its name, planting date, nursery of origin and other pertinent facts so Colhoun can track its progress. (Perhaps the careful habits of a “Wall Street Week” expert die hard.)
In the spring, daffodils, tulips and hyacinths abound, especially along the magical wood-chip path that loops off the main garden. The path curves gently beneath the trees— mostly hemlock, cedar, dogwood and elm— and behind the garden shed. A few weeks later, a bed of peonies behind the pool house will erupt into flamboyant pink and white blooms that last through early summer.
The main segment of the formal garden is at its peak in mid-to-late summer. The annual bed fills with spectacular dahlias and marigolds. Roses, bordered by a trimmed hedge of English boxwood, flourish in the warmth of the Maryland sun. Combinations of phlox, day lilies, late irises, alium, “Naked Ladies” and bleeding hearts, create color and texture. The hillside behind the pool fills with the raucous color combinations of tiger lilies and hundreds of blue-bloomed hostas.
Colhoun orders most of his plants from White Flower Farms, a Connecticut catalog company he considers “the best place to buy flowers.” (The UPS delivery man once asked Colhoun if he worked for the company.) He shies away from planting many vegetables in the garden, saying he could never eat them all. But a few edible cultivars— namely rhubarb, asparagus and raspberries— do make the cut each year.
Some of Colhoun’s favorite plants bloom during the midsummer peak. He considers himself “a big lily man.” The prize among all his lilies is the “Casa Blanca,” a fragrant white flower that produces up to 30 blossoms on a stem. “At about 6 o’clock in the evening, they’re so fragrant, you can smell them all the way to the patio,” he says of the 25 or so plants in the garden.
Neighbors may think of Colhoun as more of a gladiolus guy: He grows 300 to 400 of the tall stalks, planting several rows of bulbs every few weeks in the spring to spread the blooming period through late summer. It’s not uncommon for patrons at the Butler post office to see bunches of Colhoun’s gladioluses gracing the counters, or for Colhoun’s visitors to leave the garden cradling a bunch of blooms in their arms.
Giving away the garden’s bounty is a habit Colhoun inherited. “My mother seeded a lot of gardens,” he recalls. “When she’d break up plants, like the lilies, she would give them away, year after year. Half the gardens in this area probably owe their start to her. She’d also leave plants down on the road for people to stop and take away for free. People would leave her notes like, ‘I don’t know who you are, but I come by here every year and wanted to thank you.’”
Colhoun does not employ a gardener. When he’s not traveling, he does all the gardening himself, and he’ll proudly show off the hands that prove it— slightly calloused with a thin line of earthy grime around the nails. He’s upgraded from a hose to a computerized irrigation system but still tackles other routine tasks such as weeding the old-fashioned way. He spends several hours a day “on patrol,” as his grown children call it, pulling weeds, picking up sticks and putting the garden to right again.
When he’s away, he relies on the tenant of the cottage on the property to care for the garden. In exchange for free rent, the occupant works a certain amount of time each month, leaving the landlord free to pursue his other interests— travel and photography. Colhoun hopes to pull all three vocations into a book about his excursions; an entire chapter will be dedicated to flowers he has photographed around the world.
Colhoun’s home is filled with family photographs, many taken in the garden. A plaque on a teak bench in the garden reads “In Loving Memory of Granny Colhoun & Her Garden,” forever commemorating the woman who began it all.
Considering that Colhoun has four children and eight grandchildren, it seems likely that lovely memories will continue to propagate here as surely as the glads and lilies. References to family come naturally to Colhoun when he talks about growing plants. “A mature garden is so different from a young garden, and you can’t make it grow up overnight,” he says. “I think gardening is about hope, because when a plant goes into the ground, like a baby, you have no idea what it will look like in adulthood. So you tend them and hope they grow up to the aspirations you have for them.”