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Vive la difference: Middlebury gardens on display

Sunday, June 8, was a gardener’s paradise. Coming on the heels of a long cool spring, the weather felt deliciously warm and sunny and the perfect afternoon for the annual Middlebury Garden Tour, run as a benefit for the Sheldon Museum.
Dick and I joined some 250 other garden lovers, many decked out with parasols and colorful sunbonnets, as we leisurely strolled around nine beautiful gardens. Everyone marveled at the lovely flowers of early summer — yellow, blue and white irises; pink, red and white peonies; crimson rhododendrons and many more — as we watched 11 artists working en plein air to capture the essence of the day in paint. Then, late in the afternoon, everyone gathered at the Sheldon for a delightful reception, to look again at the paintings that were being sold to benefit the museum, and to chat with fellow gardeners.
Although over in a single day, this event was the culmination of months of planning by museum staff assisted by 57 volunteers, not to mention all the incredibly hard work on the part of the homeowners to get their gardens ready for public display.
At the reception I was quizzed by several people asking, “So, which one was YOUR favorite?” I could only answer that each garden was special in its own way, and that what I love about tours like this is the opportunity to relish the many different interpretations of the word “garden.”
I feel that, ideally, every garden is a personal creation that combines the dreams and aspirations of the owner with the uniqueness of the land — sometimes called the “spirit of place” or “genius loci.” And this tour was surely a living demonstration of that ideal.
While I cannot possibly describe all nine gardens in the space of a short article, I would like to explore how this idea played out in three very disparate Middlebury gardens on the tour.
Our first stop was at the garden of Diane and Karl Neuse on Seminary Street Extension. The land behind their house was always open and relatively level. So, with a little reshaping of the land, they have been able to create a large sunny space for a classic perennial display garden. Enclosed by wide stone walls and picket fencing, this formal rectangular garden combines neatly edged beds filled to the brim with carefully tended perennials, set off by crisp lawn paths. And, over to one side, they also maintain an extensive kitchen garden where visiting deer are kept at bay by a truly serious fence.
On the day of our visit the irises, poppies and peonies were all in bloom — with bold colors that really popped out when seen from afar. It was easy to imagine Diane and Karl, relaxing on their back deck and smiling with pleasure as they look out across the veritable field of color they have created. Everything about their garden transported me back to my childhood and the traditional English country gardens I loved to visit with my mother.
IT WAS THE perfect day to stroll past the lush perennial beds in the beautiful garden of Diane and Karl Neuse. / Photo by Richard Conrad
Then, for a complete contrast, we headed up Chipman Hill to the hidden garden of Sunhee Choi and Jim Larrabee. At the entrance an elegant abstract waterfall sculpture by Bristol potter Robert Compton set a mood of serenity. Then, as we strolled around the house past the tall flowering rhododendrons, we discovered the land dropped away sharply, forming an exquisite natural amphitheater, a private retreat out of sight of all neighbors.
Over to the far side, steps led down to a lower patio that was comfortably sized to seat six people. A generously proportioned cedar roof provided protection from sun or rain. This was the perfect spot to look up and contemplate the intricate hillside garden, with its gravel spaces, carefully positioned rocks, small shrubs and low growing perennials that stretched all the way up to the house.
Green is the predominant color here, and the eastern influence is readily apparent; for me it was reminiscent of a beautiful serene monastery garden I visited over 30 years ago in Tokyo. Indeed I have a hunch that maybe Sunhee and Jim chose this piece of land so that they could build their own individualistic garden to evoke some of those same feelings.
THE LOVELY HIDDEN garden created by Sunhee Choi and Jim Larrabee uses the natural amphitheater behind their house to great effect. / Photo by Richard Conrad
Then, for another complete contrast, we visited the bijou garden of Kate Gridley and John Barstow. Situated on a tiny lot in the heart of Middlebury, Kate and John have laid out their compact property with the utmost care to accommodate everything they need in the space available. Much of the garden is devoted to six raised beds, carefully separated by tidy stone paths, where they grow an amazing assortment of vegetables. Toward the back of the property, the studio where Kate paints sits on the right. A gently curved sitting lawn backed by a substantial flowerbed where they grow all kinds of perennials is over to the left.
So, as I reflect on the nine gardens we visited on the Middlebury Garden Tour, as well as the many, many others I have visited over the years, it is always the unique way each gardener has worked with the individuality of his or her land that makes the result special. As the French like to say, “Vive la différence!”
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.

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