Photography by Paula Simon
We call it Beechdale Farm,” says the 70-something attorney and garden owner who prefers to be anonymous. Over 34 years, this urban farmer has transformed the three-quarter-acre bit of hilly terrain around his Roland Park house into a series of graceful gardens. “I come in all sweaty after weeding and clearing tree limbs, and I feel like a farmer,”
he admits. A peach basket sits by the back door ready for his daily pruning and deadheading before or after work.
His first a-ha moment with gardens came on a 1961 visit to the Bavarian town of his mother’s family. “I’m first-generation German-American,” he says. “I still have more family in Germany than in America.” There, the whole village “lit up with flowers … many planted by my grandmother.” He grew up in a three-generation household on three acres in Catonsville. He regularly helped his father loosen the soil compacted over decades as cornfields, and his grandmother planted roses and perennials in her extensive garden beds.
In a nod to his Mount St. Joseph High School roots, he prefers that many of the containers standing by doorways and planting islands be filled with purple and white (never the blue and gold of rival Loyola Blakefield or the red and yellow of nemesis Calvert Hall). For more than 20 years, the homeowner has worked with Bob Jackson Landscapes, and once they erroneously filled the planters with the wrong color of flowers. “I made them take them all out,” he says. Jackson initially designed and planted an evolving series of new beds and now comes four or five times a year for maintenance, occasional new installations and the planting of 80 percent of the containers.
Standing in this idyllic spot on a quiet Saturday, the farmer says, “I didn’t want to move from Guilford in 1985. Then a friend told me to look at this Roland Park house. When I looked across the street from the front door, that was it.” A steep, tree-filled hillside faces his house, with only a small European chateau-style house perched mid-hill down the street.
When he, his late wife and their son arrived, spruce, hemlock and towering oaks stood above rhododendrons, pink and white azaleas and assorted perennials around a large flagstone terrace the previous owners had used for frequent entertaining. He expanded the house and extended the stone knee-wall to include a pond so that he, a lifelong bird lover, and his neuroscientist wife, an avid reader, could sit, read, have a glass of wine and enjoy sounds of running water, bullfrogs and birds. “She loved flowers and had a great garden at our house on Great Gott Island, Maine.” Back here, she advised him to fill in the garden as he saw best. Over their almost 30 years together in this house, the couple ate breakfast as often as they could beside the pond and sat beside it in the evenings together or with friends, colleagues, young attorneys and squash buddies. “The garden was her sanctuary. You don’t hear any city sounds,” he says. “She spent her last 60 days down here with all of these birds and flowers
The now, all-white blooming azalea hedge above the low stone wall serves as a staging area for birds waiting their turn at three feeders covered on a warm morning with goldfinch, woodpeckers and chickadees. “Often, if the music is on,” he says, pointing to two clay-colored pots, which are actually speakers. “The birds join us on the chairs.”
These days the chairs on the terrace are often filled with the next generation. “It’s a soothing and comfortable place to talk with young attorneys,” says the attorney-farmer. “It sets everyone at ease and distracts in a healthy way.”
The surrounding gardens include the front-to-back addition of repeated holly, redbud and dogwood trees, more rhododendron, Andromeda, laurels, boxwood and spirea. Curved swaths of perennials fill graceful, enriched beds. Many — such as astilbe, Japanese anemones and hostas — are shade-loving. Liriope, variegated in the shadiest areas, is a frequent groundcover along with pachysandra. In sunny areas, perennials include black-eyed Susans, daylilies, yellow flag iris and wildflowers the farmer spotted on the North Central bike trail and asked Bob Jackson to find for his home gardens. Varieties of sedum grow in planting holes atop the pond wall, while lacy yellow corylopsis punctuates its side.
Because runoff sent mulch into the downhill neighbors’ yard, the farmer built a timber wall and a drystone riverbed edged with Belgian block and groundcover. Another drystone riverbed is on the east side of the front garden as well as evergreen shrubs to keep out the footballs and baseballs from nearby yards. As was once standard practice in Roland Park, green predominates the farmer’s front garden. Color comes only from pairs of containers by the door and from bedding plants by the front steps. Changed twice a season, the beds frequently have purple and white pansies in spring and white New Guinea impatiens in summer. He often repeats the New Guinea impatiens in his back containers, along with white vinca he adds to the herb pots.
In the last two years, the garden has become even more layered and colorful, with a slight French country look. His French companion loves color. “She has had me inject color where it was just green-on-green before. It gives accent and even more life.”
Gracefully curved aggregate cement walkways, flanked by carefully clipped shrubs, connect front and back on either side of the house. A slightly bent path leads up the steep back hill to the alley and the garage, which also is surrounded by garden beds. A staging area there is filled with hostas, Andromedas and a pair of weeping redbud trees on which deer rub their antlers. “At first I was excited [about the deer]; now, not so much,” he says, before recounting how he once held up his briefcase at a large buck that looked ready to charge.
Terraced areas on this back hill create several garden rooms. Below the garage, an intimate seating area offers a quiet spot for conversation during large gatherings. And just above the terrace, on the other side of the azaleas, a flat grass area, bordered by a perennial bed, is a lush spot for tables during dinner parties too big for the back terrace. As with any dedicated farmer, there’s always a project. Most recently, an area, too shady for grass and muddy from heavy rains, received a series of flagstones to create a path flanked by astilbe, hosta, liriope and ferns. Still troubling is an area near the terrace where grass won’t grow.
“I’m past any big changes,” says the farmer. “It’s so much a part of my life, these healthy plantings that offer a sense of the future and the joy of nature.”