A hollow in her front yard inspired a gardener in North Chatham to build one of the town’s most scenic collections of flora.By Scott Lajoie | Photography by Dan Cutrona
When Maryellen Sussman and her husband bought on Fox Hill Road opposite Crow’s Pond in 1999, they were expecting to upgrade to something larger and possibly on the water in the future. The home sat on what was once the foundation of the old Navy base’s mess hall. But as years passed, they started meeting people in the neighborhood. Soon, it became hard to imagine leaving the house behind. So they did a head-to-toe renovation, even taking the roof off the back to allow them to expand the house on its restrictive footprint.
Of course, that was the easy part.
A hollow in the front yard was long an eyesore to Sussman, an avid gardener. When she approached the conservation commission about filling it in, they said no. Out of frustration emerged inspiration. Why not build a dream garden in the bowl for all passersby to appreciate?
Several landscape architects drew up plans for her, but Sussman was never satisfied. Then someone suggested she look at the work of a couple of acclaimed landscape architects from Washington, DC., James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme, who had done some memorable work at the national arboretum. “They had some bold swaths of plantings—much more relaxed, with lots of ornamental grass,” she says. “That’s what I wanted.”
With the help of a designer based near her Connecticut home, Sussman was on a mission. The first step was to remove the invasive species, the silver poplar, the honeysuckle. Then she installed a dry well in the fall of 2002. It kept the bottom of the hollow somewhat dry, but she went ahead and installed some large flat boulders and pea stone from Cape Cod Stone to create a walkway down the middle. “I wanted it to be a little bit of a journey,” she says.
Her gardening philosophy was not concerned with colors in so much as varying the textures. (“I like to see all the greens getting along together,” she says. “The flowers are just icing on the cake.”) She says she was extremely conscious of when things come in bloom and how to keep the garden changing throughout the year. Even in the off-season, she leaves the stalks and stems standing as long as possible to provide something to look at.
It is always a work in progress. For instance, when we spoke, she said she is probably pulling out the summer sweet in the spring. “It smells nice for two weeks, but it’s a really lazy plant,” she explains. “There is a newer variety that is more upright.” She does all her purchasing herself; she says she goes to Crocker’s and Agway locally, and to Westport’s Sylvan on occasion. She even orders items by mail.
Sussman, a recently retired lawyer, has been gardening in some capacity since she was ten, but surprising—considering her passion—never did it professionally. “I never considered it something you did as an occupation,” she says. “It’s too much fun.”