“We wanted a farm, but the farm was taking too long to come to us, so we brought one here,” says Bolton Hill resident Mary Ellen Chambers, who with her husband, Werner Mueller, has turned three adjoining back yards into a series of elegant perennial and bountiful vegetable gardens.
In 1983, Mueller, an architect, purchased the severely fire-damaged three-story red brick townhouse to restore as a hobby. The back yard “was a weed field,” he remembers, “with rats big as cats.” Fifteen years later, when he met Chambers, he had rebuilt the house, cleared the yard and planted a fig tree. Neither Mueller nor Chambers had ever gardened, but when he mentioned in 1999 that it might be nice to train an ancient tangle of wisteria into a privacy screen, Chambers grabbed an old pair of shears and began clipping.
The next thing she knew she was buying geranium plants, perennials and hostas, and, in one day of torrential rains, digging a 75-foot bed to plant them as a surprise for Mueller. Next came a jackhammer to break up cement pads, a rental truck to haul debris away, 3 tons of sand and a load of bluestone that the two, with the help of friends, laid to create a secluded backyard patio by the fig tree.
Four years later, the geraniums (brought inside each winter) were gargantuan, and the beautification project was spreading to the next-door neighbor’s two adjoining yards. With the owner’s blessing, Mueller and Chambers unearthed two original brick paths that quickly determined where the vegetable gardens would go. Mueller lashed together bamboo poles as supports and structure for climbing peas, beans and cucumber vines and to create another intimate garden room, whose wall and roof of climbing cucumber and cocktail tomato vines shade a café table and chairs.
“It’s all an experiment … and I am no gardener,” says Chambers, a marketing director for the law firm Ober Kaler. But her original 75-foot bed has become a well-established, varied and fastidiously weeded, shady perennial border. And the neighbor’s yard is now a handsome tapestry of green textures, shades and heights punctuated by red, yellow, orange, pink, lavender and white vegetables, annuals and herbs.
All of these Chambers grows from seeds germinated in clear, zippered bedding bags on a sunny third-floor dining room table. Besides tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini and mesculin, her crops include peanuts, pumpkins, okra, artichokes and fennel, plus a peach tree Mueller grows in a pot.
“The soil just grows unbelievably. It’s rich and ‘humusy,’ so lush,” Chambers says. So rich, no pesticides or fertilizers of any sort are needed to produce golf ball-sized radishes or 18-inch zucchini. To keep the crops from depleting the nutrients— like all good farmers— this pair of organic gardeners rotates them.
When the back gates are open, neighborhood folks stroll in and offer suggestions and help. The adjoining neighbors have planted small beds at their back doors and around the main vegetable garden. Wire arches host vines of bougainvillea and grape ivy. Chambers dreams of adding gray and white bantam chickens as free-ranging playmates for the couple’s 2-year-old Illyrian sheepdog, Vesta, and to produce small eggs as delectable additions to summer salads.
Mueller, who spends long hours commuting between Arlington, Va., and New York, collaborating with renowned architect Santiago Calatrava on the new PATH commuter train terminal at the World Trade Center site, says “the garden has become our refuge. It’s a sequential gift. Every day, every week brings something different in color and produce.”