As summer shifts into autumn, yard work for many means raking leaves and moving the outdoor furniture indoors or covering it to withstand winter. Whatever color is in the yard comes from Mother Nature’s annual fall spectacular as the deciduous leaves change from green to reds, golds and oranges, the conifers retaining their green. Goldenrod continues to wave on some less tamed properties, and perhaps pots of mums provide bursts of color on patios and porches.
But the properties of passionate gardeners continue to delight the eye with a profusion of flowering plants — whites, pinks and lavenders still visible amid autumnal colors. One such garden belongs to Susan Durkee of Redding, who describes her 2.25-acre property as “a 30-year work in progress.”
While changing daily, in late September in addition to the last blooms of roses, the following were still in evidence: perennial ageratum, coneflower, black-eyed Susans, hardy mums, second flower phlox and beebalm, alyssum, hydrangeas, lobelia, late summer blooming daylilies, moonbeam coreopsis, burning bush, fall crocus (which are far larger than those that are the first harbinger of spring), obedience plant, gooseneck loosestrife, sedum, asters, foxglove, Long Island daisies, Russian sage, wood anemone, and annual bedding plants, including self-seeding cleome.
Among the shrubs, trees and groundcover that give the gardens texture are boxwood, junipers, rhododendrons, azaleas, ilex, pachysandra, andromeda, hemlock, conical arborvitae, and cedar.
“You’re more aware of the texture, such as tiger grass with its fluffy tassels, and cooler-colored flowers — not the hot colors of summer,” Susan notes, “and stone walls, gnarled branches and other things that provide structure are more evident in the fall.”
The property has come a long way under her dedication. When Susan first became aware of the property and the small house on it — which had been built in the footprint of an old saltbox that burned down in the 1950s and had not been occupied in 14 years — it was part of a large, two-parcel offering that itself had been spun off of Mark Twain’s original 227-acre estate, Stormfield. The original house had been occupied by Twain’s social secretary, Isabel Lyon. Susan felt drawn to the property and knew the then-new owner had no interest in the house and asked if he was willing to sell it and the smaller parcel to her.
Standing on the raised stone terrace (there are pictures of Twain sitting on its stone wall) overlooking the backyard, Susan can only shake her head at the memory of what she first encountered. “The only thing here was the overgrown 80- by 30-foot sunken garden — and that had some grass in the middle and some struggling lilies in the beds, which had been overtaken by pachysandra,” she recalls. “Woods filled with prickly bushes went down to the road on the left, a field was on the right. There were two andromedas and some mountain laurel, as well as the remnants of an orchard.” Fruit trees now consist of three apples and “one very happy peach.”
Today, seven-foot-wide beds hug the stone walls of the sunken garden, offering blooms throughout the warmer months, with the spring profusion of tulips and daffodils, the June irises, peonies and poppies and July burst of lilies particularly stunning. In the lawn’s center, an elevated urn surrounded by boxwoods holds additional blooms and a seating area at the far end, backed by junipers that conceal additional gardens.
A long row of tall hemlock and conical arborvitae marks the shared property border — not much more than sticks when they went in — and hides the deer fence. A small vegetable garden — “the usual tomatoes, pole beans, lettuce, eggplant, zucchini, squash, and green peppers” — sits within an enclosure farther back on that side.
Walking the lawn encircling the sunken garden takes you past the junipers into an area lined with hostas — there are five varieties on the property, one still blooming in September — which when in bloom sway in the breeze and are interspersed with low pink and white flowers.
With the exception of planting some trees and shrubs, Susan has done virtually all of the heavy lifting, planting and maintenance of the gardens. “I’ve always been athletic,” she notes, “and I consider gardening great exercise.” Plus, self-deprecating about her five-foot stature, “being low to the ground makes it easy to dig.”
A professional painter, primarily of portraits, she also acknowledges that working in a studio on the property makes it easier to do all the maintenance. “If I need a break or get stuck on my work, I can just step outside and be among nature, and then the solution will come and I go back inside.” She frequently deadheads — snapping off spent flowers, which encourages another growth — during such breaks.
And while she often photographs the gardens, she rarely paints them, noting landscape painting “has a different language of color and brushstrokes than portrait or still-life painting.” She is generous, however, in opening her property to other artists and gardening groups for tours.
Susan’s gardens have more evolved than come from a specific plan. “Plants have a determination of their own where they want to be,” she says. “Plus, when you start dividing things, you have to put them somewhere, and the next thing you know, you clean a space for them and have another garden area …”
The fall crocuses, which she continues to divide, were a gift 23 years ago, and offer splashes of color in a variety of spots. Her artist’s eye is evident throughout with the balance of sizes, shapes and colors, the addition of an arch, birdhouse or seating area to give the viewing eye a place to rest.
Behind the barn that serves as the studio and office of Susan and her husband, Terry Vontobel, is a boxwood and ilex topiary garden that features both animal and geometric shapes, as well as a dozen frog figures. “When children visit this area, I like to ask them how many they can find. I also especially like this area in the winter when the topiaries are dusted in snow,” Susan says.
She also notes that if you want those potted mums to bloom again, don’t plant them now when they don’t have enough time to acclimate, but overwinter them in the basement or garage, cut back, then plant in the spring.