A few years ago Catherine Davis decided to take on the task of restoring her historic Neenah garden. Her work has resulted in a series of outdoor rooms inspired by New Jersey childhood memories that are lush with rhododendrons and dogwoods. Catherine’s work combines formality and historic techniques with elements that are uniquely her own, like the Arts and Crafts philosophy of the early 1900’s. This garden has become a shared passion for Catherine and her 94 year old mom, Connie Young.
Before Catherine started on her garden, time had taken its toll. Trees had matured to create heavy shade that kept both light and moisture out; a dog run took up a portion of the back yard. On the positive side she inherited a series of metal-edged beds.
“I was committed to making these rectangular beds work because they were part of the property’s past and I liked how they lined up with the original stone terrace and porch,” Catherine tells me. “They set up my theme of geometry and symmetry.” Today a beautiful wooden fence that Catherine designed herself frames this area. Matching beds of vintage peonies add texture and height. I was most struck by the long rows of boxwood trimmed into a diamond pattern. “I tried everything along these narrow beds. Between the lack of sun and the rabbits I couldn’t get anything to work, so I turned to this idea of a boxwood hedge in an interesting pattern.” The hedge is of Catherine’s own imagination, but this technique dates back to formal gardens from the 1700’s.
Catherine loves to work in her garden, and her digging led her to discover what had been a sunken rose garden. With the goal of embracing what was original, she excavated the area and restored it. Now a circle of begonias surrounds a stone urn that reinforces an axis going from the house to the rear gate.
One of my favorite spots is the Belgian block garden. A curved teak bench backed by spruce and ninebark provides a welcome spot from which to catch glimpses of different sections of the garden. “The granite paving would have originally been used by ships as ballast and repurposed this way. In addition to providing a transition between spaces, it adds history to the garden and brings back fond childhood memories.
The newest part of Catherine’s garden, the picturesque woodland, is laid out along a meandering flagstone path that she put in herself. A grove of dogwoods is underplanted with hostas. This section is designed around a drift of Virginia blue bells original to the house. The contrast between this naturalistic area and the formal garden adds energy to the design.
Catherine lights up when describing her mom’s involvement: “she’s my second set of eyes.” Catherine shared a funny story, “when I got the garden all ready the way I liked it, my mom flies herself out here, takes a look and says ‘almost there but you need to do this and this.’ As soon as I made the changes I could tell that she was right! I appreciate her experience as a master gardener and floral designer; she is very good visually and artistically.”
When Catherine opened her garden this summer to raise money for Homeless Connections, her mom came back to do all of the flower arranging. Catherine explains, “I had a vision of creating a living table cloth of moss. I collected sheets of moss, used chicken wire as a base, was so proud. Then my mom comes and takes the whole thing apart, shaved the top to one length, and used a pencil to poke holes into the sides to integrate flowers. It was magnificent and one of my favorite elements.”
Among her other favorite sources for inspiration are the Paine and Green Bay Botanical gardens, East Coast house tours, and European castles and manor houses. Catherine isn’t afraid to adjust ideas. “I fell in love with these cast iron peony stands in England but couldn’t find them anywhere, so I designed my own version and had them made right here in Wisconsin.”
When asked about what she’s learned from gardening her advice covered soil, mulch, and rabbits. On soil, “Understand your soil and improve as needed. I got semi loads of composted cow manure, tons at a time.” On mulch, “Even though I don’t like the look of mulch, it’s great in the newer parts of the garden to keep weeds down and moisture in.” And on rabbits, “nothing works, so install plants that rabbits don't like and enjoy their company.”
Being in Catherine’s garden is a real treat. She has created distinct garden areas –each one is a pleasure to be in. Focal points create places to rest the eye and benches provide spots to relax. Garden gates and pathways offer invitations to explore; and old-world garden design techniques reinforce key elements original to her property. Catherine has added layers that reflect her personality, but done so with restraint so that each element has its own space to look its best and be appreciated. Most of all it is wonderful to see how Catherine and her mom have worked together to enhance this special garden.