Woven Flora

Under the supervision of a 95-year-old former engineer, an English knot garden matures in Chatham.

By Jennifer Sexton | Photography by Jay Elliott

A knot garden is much like a mathematical equation expressed with plants, elegantly ordered and precisely executed. To establish one, a gardener must first be a meticulous planner. Then, the living shapes and forms must be sculpted near-daily to maintain the symmetrical woven designs of ancient Celtic knotwork.

Since a knot garden requires a staggering amount of skilled labor, they have been supplanted in popularity by less labor-intensive decorative plantings such as parterres, patterned gardens with an embroidered effect rather than a sculpted woven design. Knot gardens are traditionally associated with British and French culture, and although they can be found all over the world, only a handful exist in the United States.

“Why a knot garden? I like the precision,” explains Dr. Stuart Stearns, 95. “The clear cut lines of definition appeal to the engineer in me.” As he has grown older, Stearns has had to give up his first love, sailing. “It broke my heart,” he says. Golfing? “It’s a good walk spoiled, as someone famously said,” he says. His interests turned to gardening, and because he doesn’t have much acreage on his lot in North Chatham, the knot garden was perfect.
Stearns built his house, a ¾ Cape, in 1968. It started out with a picket fence and roses out front. In 2000, he moved in permanently from the family’s home in Newton following the death of his wife.

“We scoured it all out, removing the existing plantings,” he explains. His friend Anne O’Brien, a member of Chatham’s Friends of Trees group, helped with the knot garden’s first phase in 2002. “I designed the rest,” Stearns says. Formal lines and classical aesthetics are in Stearns’ blood. His family tree has produced master builders, carpenters and architects for over 220 years. Calvin Stearns was a master builder who created buildings for Charles Bullfinch, widely considered the first native-born American professional architect, in Boston in the 1700s.

“My family introduced the neoclassical style of arch to Massachusetts in 1800,” Stearns says. “In Northfield they built 14 houses, which are still standing.”

Stearns intended to follow in the familial footsteps and become an architect as well, until urged by his father to reconsider. He instead went into electrical engineering and chemistry, finding himself in charge of designing, building and staffing a new penicillin manufacturing facility for the nascent Merck & Co. pharmaceutical company. It was during his career in pharmaceuticals that Stearns became fascinated with natural products, medicinal plants and botanicals. During his career and after his retirement, at which time he launched a consulting business, Stearns visited many botanical and commercial gardens in the U.K., France and Italy.

“I fell in love with English gardens, in particular the knot garden. They appealed to me as the answer to a striking garden in a small space,” Stearns explains. “I love the geometry. I also collect patterned Sandwich glass, and my favorite pattern is cable, celebrating the completion of the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable in 1858. The woven cable motif appeals to me in both the glass and the garden.”

A team of professional gardeners maintains the knot garden, located on Strong Island Road. Doug Karn of Orleans is in charge of perennials. Deane Folson II of Orleans handles the over 100 man-hours of work necessary each year to maintain the closely clipped topiary forms. W.W. Landscaping of Chatham takes care of topography and landscape.

As in many traditional knot gardens, two central features add interest in Stearns’ carefully planned sanctuary. A stone obelisk and a cast statue of an 18th century gardener resting on his spade (known around the grounds as “Chumley”) came from Haddonstone Co., and were created at the company’s Brixworth manufactory in Northamptonshire, England.

Phase two of the knot garden was completed around 2008.

“A simple trefoil effect,” explains Stearns, gesturing to a continuous looping of three curves, all constructed out of green living topiary. “We taped pieces of wrapping paper together to make a big sheet. Then we put the paper pattern directly on the ground with an indication of where the plants were to go. We planted right through the paper, leaving the pattern there in the soil. W.W. Landscaping did all of the walls, leveling, and putting in the armatures of hedges.”

Traditionally, knot gardens use English boxwood. Here, Stearns deviated from tradition. “I didn’t use boxwood, because they don’t winter well here,” he says. He went with ilex helleri, a Japanese holly which is extremely strong, but has clear definitions, though it adds to the maintenance. “The gardeners are so conscientious and take a lot of pride in their work,” says Stearns. “Sometimes they bring family around to show them what they’ve been working on.”
It took 52 man-hours for the topiary alone in July, and another 52 in October. There is no weeding, because it’s all mulched. The beds in front are changed every two months. “We have an agreement,” says Stearns. “I said, ‘Doug, the garden is yours as far as flower choice.’ He started with celosia, with a vibrant golden color and red. He is very skillful at making sure something is always in bloom.”

“It takes three to four years for a knot garden to become established, so this one has just now settled in,” he says. Last summer, a Chatham walking group of some 50 members visited the garden. Stearns prepared a talk for them about the garden, which he delivered from a chair carried out and placed in a spot with a commanding view of the garden’s meticulously clipped curves and bursts of color.

Stearns smiles. “It’s been very rewarding,” Stearns says. “Yes, life has been good to me.”