At first it looked like a traditional Connecticut garden tour. The quiet Colonial house sits in the woods, down a country lane in a rural area. Oh so New England. All surrounded by stone walls, of course. I expected a flowery cottage garden edged by a pretty lawn, herbs outside the kitchen door, more stone walls, that kind of thing.
But once we got into the garden, the sense of place shifted. There was something more exotic and much more artistic and definitely provocative.
This is Lee May's garden. Lee is a retired journalist, with an impressive career over the years at the LA Times and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and you can read about him on his blog Lee May's Gardening Life. How a man who grew up in the deep south landed in the woods in Connecticut in his retirement is puzzling, but what a garden he has made here.
There are almost no flowers. Bloom interest comes from hydrangeas and lilacs and rare variegated dogwoods and woodland shrubs, even some groundcovers, but there are few perennials. There was absolutely no lawn. None.
The entire garden was rocks. Not a cute rock garden, but big chunking rocks throughout. There were streams of rocks tumbling down slopes, a whole bed of large gravel, seemingly random (but carefully placed) rocks everywhere.
If you garden in New England you fight the rocks. Lee doesn't fight them. He uses them. Since there is no lawn to mow, he could get creative with scattering rocks all around in the thick carpet of moss.
I mean, really. Even a pile of them as a deliberate focal point. Provocative.
Check out the flickr photo stream on his blog to see the creative ways he uses stone accents.
His plants tend toward an Asian feel, with severely pruned, almost bonsai Japanese maples growing in the entry bed. A little eerie, but dramatic and deliberate.
Even the woods are heavily pruned, and the effect is startling. Would you think you could prune a large forest tree so artistically?
Tree trunks in the forest are pruned up to make woodland rooms. This is not a naturalistic woodland walk, it's truly a tearoom under a leafy canopy held up by narrow limbed up pillars.
And you must have carpets in your rooms, it's just civilized.
Everything in this garden is artificial, every tree pruned, every space constructed. There are baubles and sculptures and silly whimsy. But it had an amazingly calm, serene, shady, restful feel.
I did not like all the severe shaping or all the goofy artifacts in the garden, but I loved the overall effect it gave. I did not like the spare, trimmed Asian style in the Connecticut woods, but I loved how provocative it was. I expected flowers, but really enjoyed how a garden can be so much more with only rocks, tree trunks and carefully chosen greenery.
And I loved Lee's obvious delight in what he has created.
He started with a run down house and flat boring lawn in 2001. He ripped out all the lawn and started planting, moving rocks, and pruning, pruning, pruning. He is happy to share it all with visitors, and with audiences at his gardening speaking events. His talk (and book) about reconnecting with a long absent father through gardening is touching.
I was about ready to haul up on his shady porch, grab a lemonade and talk gardening with him all afternoon.
A true Southern gentleman and a plant lover in all zones, he would have indulged me, I'm sure.
By the way, if you visit Lee May's garden and you are no longer a young man, do not wear cargo shorts. Do not. He'll tell you why.