All in Good Taste
Unexpected details add spice to a luxuriant formal garden
Fourteen years ago, when plant collectors Doug and Donna Morris went house shopping, they knew exactly what they wanted. "When we were looking for a house, we were really looking for a yard, and the house just happened to fit us," Doug says of the property they bought in Salisbury, Massachusetts. The lot—Doug and Donna's future garden—measured just over one-third of an acre and came with a historic Greek Revival house. David Moody, a carpenter, built the clapboard cape in 1846 along with the surrounding homes, but the Morris's dwelling was where Moody lived.
When the Morrises bought the house, Doug had a vision of what the garden would be. "I wanted formality because I imagined walking on paths through garden rooms. But I'm not a stuffy person, so at the back of the garden, where I could have put a privet hedge, I have a hedge of asparagus. A formal garden doesn't have to be like you would expect it to be; it can be unexpected."
Today the near-barren yard that the Morrises purchased is lush with trees, shrubs, herbs, annuals, and perennials. The garden is formal, in keeping with the historic nature of the house. Over many hours and years, Doug and Donna transformed the long, narrow property into a series of small garden rooms and entertaining spaces, including an outdoor cooking and dining area. But the plants, some of which are annuals that change each year, look loose and casual in their formal beds to better suit the family's relaxed summer style.
"You can walk through the garden, and it's like a tapestry," Doug says. "The garden's not necessarily about bright color, because I'm more into texture than I am into flowers. Texture creates movement in the garden, and it's constantly changing from season to season."
Doug and Donna built the landscape step by step. "We put the paths in first, then put in the gardens around the paths," says Doug, who initially made the walkways three feet across but widened them to five feet the following year. The main path leads through two formal garden rooms. Each room measures 30 feet by 30 feet and has a circle eight feet wide in the middle. At the center of the circle stands a classical urn on a tall pedestal made from recycled cinder blocks. Doug used lavish plantings of flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees in both rooms. "I designed the formal gardens so you can't take in everything all at once. You have to keep walking to see something else," he says. "You're in your own little world in there. My favorite place in the whole world to go and sit is the bench in the second circle garden."
At first, the only cultivated plants on the property were a pear tree, an apple tree, and a giant forsythia about 10 feet in diameter. The latter became a key plant in the garden's design. "We didn't have the energy to dig the forsythia out, so we hacked it back and turned it into a hedge," Doug says. "Once it became a hedge, we liked it." He adds that the plant brings a burst of yellow in spring, it is leafy and green all summer, the foliage turns reddish purple in fall, and the birds love it in winter.
Functionally, the 6-foot-tall hedge screens the view of a neighbor's backyard and aboveground swimming pool; it also creates privacy walls in the 30-foot by 40-foot lily garden, separating it from the rest of the yard. "People don't plant formal hedges these days because of the maintenance—I usually prune our hedge once a month starting right after it blooms, especially during garden party season when I prune the forsythia every couple of weeks. I love my battery-powered hedge trimmers."
Along with their practical, do-it-yourself approach to gardening—Donna took a week off work to dig the sod out of the grill area—comes a passion for interesting plants. "We collect plants everywhere," Doug says. When they started landscaping the house, they would buy rare plants at the nursery of the late Allen C. Haskell in New Bedford, Massachusetts, then drive to Connecticut to continue their search for new treasures. Locally, many of their plants come from Pettengill Farm in Salisbury, Churchill's in Exeter, New Hampshire, and Rolling Green Nursery in Greenland, New Hampshire. Although many designers install plants in groups of three or five, Doug says that two thirds of his garden plantings are one of a kind, which lets him buy more plants.
"I love every plant," says Doug, who can recite when and where he and Donna bought each one. "If I didn't love it, I'd replace it, thinking it can go to someone else's house now."
He does have favorites, however. Calycanthus 'Venus', a melon-scented, white-flowered hybrid sweetshrub, wins Doug's heart in the first room, and in the second he adores the yellow peonies. "I have to admit, though, that I really like the asparagus hedge in the first room when it takes over in the summer. It's so feathery and light, and the wind catches it," says Doug, whose plant predilections change on a whim. "It's a fun accent plant that we get to eat for a few weeks each spring!"
Part of Doug's vision includes the striking containers he creates throughout the garden. His containers of succulents—desert plants with leaves and/or stems thickened by water-storing tissue—have been in the garden for ten years. He hauls them into the basement each fall and back up the steps in the spring. "As for my succulent containers, I have a vision and I don't mind pulling something out," he says. "They're the lowest maintenance of all the containers. No extra watering, no fertilizer, absolutely nothing. Once they go out, I don't have to do a thing."
He fills other containers with annuals and tender perennials that flower nonstop throughout the growing season. "I start by looking at the containers and making a list of what I need for them," Doug says about the design process. "When I shop for them, I buy the centerpiece plants first, the eye poppers. You only need one plant in a container that makes people ask, 'What is it? Where did you get it?' That's the plant you have to have. For the rest, I pick out upright, middle, and hanging plants and buy what I like."
In addition to his container gardens, Doug also creates fabulous floral arrangements. "In the summer, every arrangement starts with some kind of hydrangea," he says. "I always put in ornamental grasses and sometimes make arrangements just from leaves." In late fall, he often participates in decorating the Historical Society of Old Newbury's Caleb Cushing House Museum in Newburyport for the annual Christmas party and tours. For that event, Doug represents Salisbury's Sea Spray Garden Club, one of several clubs decorating individual rooms.
All the talents of Doug, a baker, and Donna, a food service manager, come together in their cookouts and garden parties, which are regular events. While friends stroll through the rooms, admiring the flowers and unusual foliage, Doug is busy in his outdoor kitchen with its big stainless steel grill from Capital Cooking Equipment. "It's a fun place to entertain and network," says Doug, who grills sweet and savory pizzas made from his own recipes. The Morrises also relax outdoors; Donna reads a magazine at a grill bar made from an old bench and recycled chimney blocks, and Doug sits and thinks in his favorite garden room with the asparagus hedge.
"Naturally, Donna and I nurture the garden," Doug says of the place where they celebrated the retirement of Doug's dad, the last cobbler in Newburyport. "We dug the garden together, we collected the plants, and we made it our own."