When you first see this country cottage with its handsome paving and rich mix of perennials, annuals, and shrubs, the words "low maintenance" are not what spring to mind. But when the people who created it -- Missy Stevenson and Tommy Simpson -- talk about what they have done, they stress that a top priority was a garden that would demand very little time each day. Both are busy artists -- his main work is in furniture, hers in needlework pictures, but both work in many mediums including painting, metalwork, and ceramics.
The land from which their garden now grows had been an empty meadow adjacent to an old Connecticut farmstead. Their garden is a testament to what can be achieved in just a few years. Because the time they could spend on the garden was limited, they did the work in a series of steps -- they finished one project before starting the next. And, of course, it helped that they have an ample supply of very good taste.
Here's how they proceeded:
First season: They built a network of paths in front of their home and planted sunflowers in the beds between them.
Second season: They started work on the lower garden beginning with brick paths that define a four-square garden, each section eight feet on a side. They enclosed the area with split-stick picket fences. In the upper garden, they began planting perennials.
Third season: They built a pergola near the house and filled the area between it and the four square beds with more paths and beds, and they continued planting.
Fourth season: They built a small garden shed beyond the vegetable garden and a low stone wall between the shed and the pergola.
Fifth season: They worked with their plants and soil.
Sixth season: They built a small "summer house" near the tool shed and filled the area between the two structures with a bluestone patio.
At that point the garden's structure was essentially complete, though this past year -- their eleventh season -- they added a raised pool built around a galvanized water trough from a farm supplier. Each time the garden grew, Tom built more fence. He sawed saplings and branches in half and nailed them together to create panels. He then nailed the panels to pressure-treated posts.
The whole garden is filled with interesting handicrafts, from the paths to the gates to the row markers and pottery. And once inside, you can see that the garden really is designed to take care of itself. Plantings are thick, so they crowd out weeds. Beds are small and easily tended by hand. The fence, paving, and walls keep out invasive grasses and pests of the furry persuasion.
The garden in front of the house matured to a near-steady state in about the fourth season, Missy told me. It is dominated by hostas, peonies, campanula, and daylilies but holds a wealth of perennials and self-sowing annuals. Slight yearly adjustments and maintenance is all the work they need to do. So the garden has become just what they had hoped for -- a place where two people who love plants can work to their hearts' content. But when time won't let them, the garden can cruise along beautifully on its own.
The interior of the Simpson-Stevenson home is as artful as the garden. It is featured in a book of artists' homes that Tommy Simpson did with photographer William Seitz, called Hand and Home: Homes of American Craftsmen (Bullfinch Publishing, 1994, $45).
Jack Ruttle is currently a consultant to Garden Design magazine.