A plant lover finds places to add just one more
If you pass Ann Barker’s house in Newton, Massachusetts, and see an elderly woman lying flat in the grass, do not call 911. It is Barker simply enjoying her hemlocks or Japanese maples from the perspective her aching spine finds most comfortable: on her back. And she is prepared. After passersby went into a panic upon seeing “a little old lady lying on the ground,” Barker’s husband, Townsend, insisted that she carry a cell phone into the garden with her.
Catching Barker in repose is almost as rare as many of her plants. Whether it is the 40 years she spent as a garden designer, the degrees she has earned in botany, chemistry, and genetics, or this place—her garden, her joy, and ultimate horticultural creation—it is clear that Barker is a dynamo.
Barker collects plants. Lots and lots of plants. They endlessly intrigue her: rare ones, common ones, old, huge, tiny, unusual. She has 150 rhododendrons, 200 conifers, two dozen Japanese maples. Her 1840 house on nearly an acre in the Newton Highlands section is almost swallowed by leaves. Barker’s description of the style as a “cottage garden, but with more trees and shrubs,” is an understatement.
There is so much to see, you could spend hours wandering the paths, marveling at the ingenious plant combinations and meditating on the existence of so much herbaceous variety.
The south-facing front yard receives the most sunlight, so that is where most of the flowers are. It spills over with roses, foxgloves, hydrangeas, campanulas, and daylilies, buttressed by green and burgundy foliage of all shapes, shades, and sizes. Forget-me-nots and delphiniums, two of Barker’s favorites, add their soothing shades of blue.
Massive azaleas, each 10 feet by 14 feet wide, stand on either side of the porch. Already established when the Barkers bought the house in 1975, she kept them despite, or maybe because of, the fact that they flower, she says, “in screaming magenta.”
Where most gardeners might collect roses or irises, Barker has a passion for hemlocks. She planted a bank of them. “I call it Little Hemlock Gorge.” It includes four different weeping varieties. Between the hemlocks are planted bright red New Guinea impatiens. “I’ve also grown red primroses there,” she says.
“Little Hemlock Gorge is a very dry area. The entire garden takes a lot of water. I use sprinklers and hand water every other day,” Barker says. She calls the four giant sugar maples on the property “sieves for water. I’m on my fourth sprinkler company.”
Barker’s garden is renowned for its living archways, which Barker creates by cabling together the leaders of two evergreens, Japanese maples, or magnolias so that they grow into one another, forming an arch. Barker loosely ties them together using wire encased in black tubing, “the kind you get at an auto parts shop.” The tubing keeps the wire from cutting into plant tissue.
Barker grew up in Duluth, Minnesota. “Lake Superior was in my backyard,” she says. “That’s where I learned to swim.” And that is where she learned to garden. Studies at Mount Holyoke brought her to Massachusetts, where she met her husband, who was studying at MIT.
They settled in the Newton house, where she one day found herself a bit down. As a distraction, she decided to start a garden. She marched down the stairs, picked up some tools, and started digging. By the time her husband got home from work, half the front lawn was dug up. Since then, the lawn has gotten smaller and smaller, and the planting has not stopped.
“In the beginning, we ate late a lot because I worked in the garden all day,” Barker recalls. “I used to laugh when the men walked past me in the garden as they went home from the train station in the evening. They must have been thinking, ‘Glad I’m not married to her; there would be no dinner on the table!’”
So many people asked for her gardening advice over the years that she decided she might as well charge for it, which is how she became a garden designer. But there was also another reason. “I wanted to make gardeners out of my clients,” Barker says. “Some became passionate about it, some didn’t. Regardless, I expanded their knowledge.
“When I first started gardening, I had terrible soil—what I call junk soil. It was acid, junk soil, not sandy, not clay. For years I added organic material. I don’t augment anymore, because the soil is so rich. Now I use cottonseed meal and bone meal to fertilize.” She mulches with buckwheat hulls and uses an inorganic or synthetic fertilizer on annuals because she wants lots of flowers and foliage, fast.
“What’s most important is the soil.” Barker states. “Clients often have bad soil. They think because the soil is black, they have good soil. So many people want to spend their landscaping money on plants and don’t want to spend money improving the soil.” Barker gets hers tested regularly at the University of Massachusetts Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Lab in Amherst.
“When it comes to choosing plants, I look for things I like but haven’t seen before,” she says. Her favorite nurseries through the years include Katsura Gardens in Plymouth, Stonegate Gardens in Lincoln, and Millican Nurseries in Chichester, New Hampshire (wholesale only; will provide retail vendors on request).
Barker’s favorite places in her garden are Little Hemlock Gorge and the flowering perennial garden out front. “Because I get to talk to people passing by.”