A trip to Cunningham Manor in Baltimore County takes 30 minutes from Baltimore City, not the six hours required to cross the Atlantic and drop down in an English garden. Out Falls Road, through a pair of stone and wrought-iron gates and up a winding drive, a massive stone manor house rises up and looks at least a century older than its seven years. Behind it are gardens on a scale of some of the most magnificent in England.
“I don’t know anything to speak of about gardens,” says Sinclair Broadcast Group executive David Smith. “But I know what I like.” In 2003, Smith broke ground on the 200-acre estate, which he named Cunningham Manor for his mother’s Scottish maiden name. A year before that, Smith and his wife, Jane, started working on the concept for the gardens. “When Jane and I traveled to our house in Maine, the bookstore in Portland had many garden books,” he says. “The ones I became attached to were [renowned garden designer and writer] Gertrude Jekyll’s books and English-style gardens… I like the flowing look.”
Back in Baltimore, Smith’s assistant Cam Smart, who had once lived in England, researched English garden designers. “A lot were big-time operators. Then there was this one fellow and his wife, both landscape architects,” remembers Smith. In October 2003, Smith contacted Surrey architects Michael and Frances Edwards, who have long been involved with Arts and Crafts landscapes like those of Jekyll. Smith sent them a simple drawing and later a plane ticket. Michael Edwards traveled to Baltimore laden with pictures and information about Gertrude Jekyll and her gardens. When he arrived, the Smiths spread out their 50 garden books, and the design process began for gardens within the geometry of the stone walls (already in progress) on the 30-acre parcel of land occupied by house and garden.
Over the next two years, Michael Edwards visited Maryland several more times. (The Smiths also traveled to England to meet with the Edwardses and to visit the Chelsea Flower Show, Jekyll’s Munstead Wood and the more formal Hampton Court.) The two couples exchanged e-mails and drawings as the Edwardses incorporated the Smiths’ likes and dislikes into plans that married Jekyll’s flowing, painterly beds and garden rooms to the geometry of the more grand and formal Hampton Court. The final plan featured a central garden axis leading from the front door of the house through the central hall, the back door, the terrace staircases and gardens, to the back wall, with its opening flanked by a large potting shed and a large greenhouse.
A green lawn off the back terrace was made wider so it could double, in English style, as a croquet court. Instead of one steep staircase to the gardens, the final plan featured a series of three staircases plus two long pergolas on either side of the gardens.
The two pergolas, which parallel the central axis, provide vertical interest, summer shade, perspective lines, structures that lead somewhere (always important to Jekyll), and an opportunity to grow vines and climbing roses. “I’m not sure exactly how we arrived at two pergolas,” says Michael Edwards. “Gertrude Jekyll herself managed only one in her grand house in Surrey, though adding a great many, usually singly, in her commissions.”
Having two meant further reinforcement of the symmetry of the house, and matching Hampton Court.
The Smiths always knew that they wanted roses as the primary horticultural feature of their garden— roses were outstanding in Britain in 2003 when they visited. In addition to the pergolas, which are covered with roses, the lower formal garden was designed as a rose garden with clipped yews and geometric beds radiating out to resonate with the curves of the garden walls.
As it turned out, the roses the Smiths admired in England were carriers of a disease to which American oaks might be susceptible. Luckily, David Austin roses, so popular and successful in England, had nurseries in Texas. “And that became our solution,” says Michael Edwards. In 2006, ground was broken and the garden was installed.
Some 650 rose bushes, 640 tractor-trailers of stone, two greenhouses, several hundred trees and many thousands of perennials, annuals, vines and shrubs later, the gardens of Cunningham Manor now require two full-time gardeners.
Jodi Cantler, garden manager, says the biggest challenge is “keeping the roses happy.” While she and gardener Phil Dickmyer use an integrated pest management system with as many environmentally friendly practices as possible (including about 9,000 ladybugs, 9,000 earthworms and 20 praying mantis cocoons released into the gardens), they do spray to control fungus and other problems.
Besides the rose garden and roses climbing on the pergolas, borders are filled in Jekyll-style in seemingly uncontrived order of masses of colorful perennials that bloom sequentially. Some, like butterfly bushes, were planted because David Smith likes to photograph butterflies. Some trademark English plants like hollyhocks, delphiniums and dahlias thrive under Cantler and Dickmyer’s care, and other Maryland-friendly plants like foxgloves and cosmos have been added as well.
“I think we learned faster than Miss Jekyll,” says Edwards, “as she was known to use her favorite plants no matter which district or county they were being sent to, with the result that her greatest successes were in the counties nearest to her home.”
To give an idea of the quantities of plantings here, annuals grown in the greenhouses number 6,000 each season, with 1,000 purchased from wholesale nurseries for the 96 large containers placed around the gardens and on walls and terraces. Last year the color scheme of the annuals was mostly pink and purple; the year before that it was mostly pink and yellow. “We try to change it up every year,” says Cantler, who says that when she arrived at the gardens in 2006, she had to adjust her thinking. “It has to be big. You have to have something dramatic with the ‘Wow’ factor.”
A recent project has been changing out the clipped yew hedge in the rose garden— the yews didn’t allow enough air circulation around the fungus-prone roses— and replacing it with boxwoods. On the drawing boards now is a woodland garden by the entrance, a nearby dry stream bed and a lower pond.
Three years since its installation, the gardens are beginning to mature and fill in. “It’s evolved, and it still is evolving,” says David Smith. “Anything you plant today is different tomorrow. It’s a work of art.”
It’s also a work of art used to benefit other organizations via fundraisers for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Horticultural Society of Maryland and the Maryland Rose Society. At one of the events last summer David Smith remembers an English woman in a flowered dress and a wide-brimmed hat sitting on the low stone wall in the rose garden. He went to see if she was all right, and she said, “I’m fine. I just have to tell you I feel like I’m in England.”