Lush Topsfield Garden
Stewardship and a mature garden thrive in Topsfield.
Photograph by Kindra Clineff
Photographer Kindra Clineff is keen on anything with roots. Show her a house with history and she is deep into the details, probing the pilasters and delving into the dovetailing. So when she noticed the “For Sale” sign on the First Period Standley Lake House in Topsfield in 2003, Clineff and partner Tim Preston immediately dialed up for a tour. From the road, she could readily see that the late-1600s house was steeped in personality unmuddled by time or thoughtless renovations. What she did not know was that a captivating garden lay hidden from street view on the far side of the house. The garden was the dealmaker. Looking back, she cannot recall what tugged hardest at her heartstrings—the old stone wall or the brick pathways. And that was before she actually saw the profuse plantings.
The previous owner was a gardener, but the full glory of her magic was not fully apparent when Clineff and Preston went on their initial late-autumn tour. And on their midwinter moving day, the stone walls were so buried that the van came within inches of taking them out. So Clineff didn’t discover the full breadth of the garden she had bought into until spring. If it was roots she wanted, then the mother lode was plunging deep into the beds behind the house. What started in spring with a breathtaking influx of dogtooth violets, trillium, bloodroot, lily-of-the-valley, lungwort, muscari, and many other time-honored springtime cohorts continued unabated to flesh out the entire growing season. Planted with a nod toward formality (thanks to the hedges and boxwood) juxtaposed with broad romantic gestures created by profuse volume, the emphasis is on vintage plants with a generous dose of cottage charm.
Although the garden clearly descends from the Colonial Revival quadrant style, it takes a far less severe (and probably more realistic) approach to that style. The slender settled brick paths (Clineff keeps a stockpile of old bricks ready for the inevitable moment when repairs will be needed) lead through a series of six raised beds slightly varying in size and shape to make best use of the space snuggled beside the footprint of the house’s foundation. Those beds came with inherent personality, as seasonal perennials step into their blossoming prime and then bow out, giving way to the next wave. Oriental poppies, Egyptian onions, soapwort, Siberian iris, peonies, golden glow, chives, wild ginger, lamb’s ears, and maidenhair ferns were already in residence when Clineff and Preston moved in. They were encouraged and lend the garden a sense of age with their numbers and heft.
Not only did Clineff inherit the plant version of patina, but she was also given plants that are currently not often plugged in. Jack-in-the-pulpit, hepatica, monarda, Jacob’s ladder, and bloodroot are now often relegated to the wildflower and field outskirts of a landscape rather than trying to incorporate plants with scamp-like behavior in their blood into designed settings. But this method of gardening is not a piece of cake, resulting in a lot of refereeing as Clineff attempts to sort out territorial disputes. Plus, she wanted to put her personal stamp on the space. In her frequent travels as a garden photographer, she brings home plants to insert as living souvenirs—lupines from Canadian seed, landscape roses from Connecticut, and delphiniums from coastal Maine are now part of her living history.
The raised bed garden behind the house has the strongest personality throughout the growing season, but it is only a piece of a much bigger picture. The lilacs that edge the driveway step into the fore during a glorious but brief interlude in spring. Fruit trees—including the Bosc pears standing in the center of the beds—create a lush mood with their springtime blossoms. After Eleazer Lake bought the house in 1701, his family of country lawyers lived on the site for several generations, planting an orchard at one point in their tenure. Remnants of that orchard remain.
Playing steward, applauding a garden with age, seeing to the needs of a botanical grand dame in its maturity, and inserting the annual touches that show a personal commitment can become a tricky juggle. But the rewards of fragrant peonies, unabashed bee balm feeding the hives of honeybees, and all the rest of the profusion that has resulted are invaluable. And yes, the garden has crept into partial view from the street. When a garden with roots is preserved, everyone is richer.