Cliffs Living: Grow Home

Garden evolves into deeply rooted space.

And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. ~ William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”

Hidden within the folds of Glassy Mountain, cradled on a bed of granite, Chuck & Mary Elder’s garden employs the vernacular woodland plants and rock with the artistry of a master storyteller.

A giant bronze rabbit named Chauncey stands at the entrance of the Elders’ home in The Cliffs at Glassy, his ears comically oversized and front paws poised close to his body in a pose that suggests he is examining every human passerby. Chauncey is a welcoming committee of one, setting the tone of the garden and representing the spirit of its owners.

“He is fun and whimsical, just what a garden should be,” laughs Mary.

Tall, evergreen hedges effectively seclude the garden from roads on two sides, yet seem to melt into the surrounding woods. Inside, a Celtic-inspired sky blue gate opens to an intimate clearing with just enough room for a fire pit. On the far side of the clearing, a steeply sloped glen encircled by generous stone steps forms a cocoon at the heart of the garden.

Two monumental stone cairns flank the path, conjuring a visceral jolt with their stoic, bearlike forms, and the elevation change creates the feeling of discovery. Within this dramatic frame, an ever-changing tapestry of native understory plants cloaks the forest floor, offering a gentler yin to the yang of tree and stone. The combined effect is one of a transportive secret world that feels cohesive with the surrounding landscape.

When the Elders relocated to The Cliffs from Des Moines, Iowa, their home was newly built and the surrounding property was yet to be magical. The site had been scraped of much of its native flora for the building process, and the remaining trees provided little inherent privacy.

A keen gardener herself, Mary reached out to garden designer Dabney Peeples to enlist his help in creating something of her own. The pair struck up a friendship that has grown in tandem with the garden.

“The side yard was nothing – just a hill going down to the street – but it had a huge, natural bolder,” Mary recalls. “[Dabney and I] sat together on the boulder just talking about his ideas and my ideas. I knew that I wanted a garden that was private, not an entertaining space. I wanted it to be personal.”

The Collins Group, a local landscape contractor known for craftsmanship and execution, oversaw the installation, including construction of the bespoke stone cairns.

“We let the mountain tell us what to do,” Peeples says, noting that Mary didn’t want a typical, suburban-style garden. “It’s actually less maintenance because everything that we plant is chosen to suit the environment … we used mainly native plants and tried to work within natural plant succession.”

The garden has matured beautifully over the past decade, settling into a comfortable rhythm punctuated by delicate spring ephemerals, lush summer greens, and starker winter structure in turn.

“Gardens are kinetic, never in stasis,” explains Peeples. “We set the table and now we are watching to see what the garden tells us and how it responds. It has been interesting to see how it has evolved.”

Professional gardener Michael Styers joins Mary periodically to lend a discerning eye and practiced hand.

“Old-growth trees and shrubs are the bones in the garden,” Styers says. “Stone is a major portion of the garden, and one has to work around it. That has been a challenge but one that brings a lot of satisfaction; we put things into rocky nooks and they rise and fall in a seasonal fashion.”

For example, he planted 100 plastic pots of tulips to add to the spring show while protecting the tasty bulbs from voles. The fluid style of planting also gives Mary freedom to experiment on her own.

“I want it all to be as natural as possible,” she says. “That’s the whole story of this garden. It has naturally evolved with the terrain, and Dabney has been involved from the very beginning.”

A true gardener’s garden, the place feels deeply rooted and subtly spiritual.

“It is not a massive garden and that is part of its charm,” says Mary. “It’s just a place where I can go and walk and be amazed at nature.”

This story was featured in Cliffs Living magazine. To read more stories like this one and learn more about The Cliffs, subscribe here.

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