October 14, 2011

A Provocative Garden

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.


  1. What an interesting place. I wonder how he limbs up his trees so high?? You have tweeked my curiosity. I will have to pop over to his blog and see what he is up to. I love all of those rocks. One does also wonder how he got to Conneticut.

  2. Laurrie, you captured your visit so well here. The pleasure Lee expressed when speaking of his garden adventure made the tour most special.

    I'm so glad we were able to meet there.

  3. I can see spending an afternoon wandering through this provocative garden but what most captures my imagination is that carpet of moss. Amazing! You can imagine, we don't see much moss down here and I miss it terribly.

  4. It's exciting to visit a garden that is the result of a gardener's unique individual vision and passion. I agree, it doesn't matter whether the elements are to your taste or not, it's just really stimulating to see a different way of looking, growing and using materials. You captured it all really well. If I was anywhere close, I'd visit this garden.

  5. Laurrie, Laurrie, Laurrie,

    Imagine my surprise when I tuned up your fine site, began reading and discovered images and words about my garden. Now, imagine how wonderful and interesting it is to see my acre of spaces through your eyes.

    And, what great eyes you have. What you saw and told gave me immense satisfaction – as the gardener, and as the reader.

    Come back soon, so we can sit on the porch and swap stories.

    With appreciation,

  6. Lisa, I hope you do visit Lee's blog, it's a treat!

    Joene, it was great to see you there. What a great host Lee was, and his garden was so interesting.

    Cat, Actually the moss was intriguing. It was thick and there were beautiful sweeps of it that you could walk on. A very shady space, of course.

    Lyn, the vision and execution of this unique garden were really worth seeing.

    Lee, I am glad you stopped by here. I couldn't begin to capture all that was fascinating about your garden in one post, so I do hope readers use the links to get to your blog and your much better pictures. I wanted to highlight your bamboo screen and the swale of grasses, and the unique plants and the bed in the woods --- but one post is too short!

  7. Hmmm... Very cool and interesting but the limbed up trees would seem pretty weird to me. I love the idea of the rugs. Very humorous! It seems logical to me to use the rocks to his advantage. I'm a big believer in "Use what you've got". Unless you're out of chocolate and then you need to go to the store immediately!

  8. This is not my style, either, but it's certainly an interesting garden and one worth visiting. I'm still thinking about that rug:)

    Enjoyed his article about cargo shorts--there are certain types of clothing both men and women should give up after a certain age. I wore mini-skirts in my 20's, but you wouldn't catch me wearing one now:)

  9. Wow, I just have never seen this dramatic use of woodland space before. I mostly love it! Especially the rocks and moss - perfect. Oh, and the carpet, I love that humorous touch. :)

  10. Hi Laurrie, What an interesting and original garden! I really appreciate the creativity involved in using rocks and plant materials in such an unusual way. I will have to check out his blog.

  11. Tammy, the rugs in the woods were actually very subtle and looked like they belonged there!

    Rose, it was a garden well worth visiting, but I need to go back to see and absorb the details.

    Garden Ms. S, dramatic is the right word, his garden used natural and artificial effects very dramatically.

    Jennifer, I hope you and the other readers do check out Lee's blog, it's interesting and so much more than what I could highlight here.

  12. Very interesting garden! No something that could be done here, not with our friggin bermudagrass that pops up everywhere. His garden truly sounds like his own unique vision and an expression of his creativity.

  13. Sweetbay, I do think a lawnless yard still takes maintenance. There were a couple spots in Lee's areas where weeds and grass had invaded. He must work to keep it so clear and clean looking.

  14. While I'm not a fan of overly manicured gardens (so much work!) I do really like the simple elements in this garden. Perennials are wonderful but a garden without them can be quite amazing as demonstrated here.

  15. Marguerite, you captured the appeal of Lee's garden --- it is constructed and artificial but very simple.


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