Subscribe Now

The current chapter of this Newbury garden is dramatic and full of colorful characters

For Beth Welch and Chuck Christensen, it was literally love at first site. Gardening wasn’t really on this couple’s radar—that is, until 2005, when they found the 1 1/2-acre property that they’d always wanted in Newbury. Instead of downsizing, they moved up to a Victorian. Although the site had no gardens upon purchase, it offered an impressive framework of old trees as well as deep, fertile soil. But as always, the location was key: The home is situated just a hop away from Newburyport, a town that inspired novels by Welch’s Pulitzer Prize–winning grandfather, John P. Marquand, and was therefore dear to Welch’s own heart.

Although her grandfather never identified the town by name, everyone suspected that Newburyport served as the “thinly veiled” location (as Welch refers to the novels’ early-20th-century setting) for Marquand’s social commentaries with a plot. So, based on this and other family connections to the town, the two turned their focus toward country living.

The first order of business was a house renovation. But they chased construction immediately with the installation of a lush garden footsteps from the kitchen. With a massive maple tree as its protagonist, the garden’s story takes its cue from the Victorian house—with a little levity tossed in. Other characters include the sedate white picket fence that surrounds it, a fountain, and just the right number of urns holding brightly colored annuals, providing a palette steeped in the greens and muted variegation of geraniums, hostas, ivy, Hakonechloa, and dappled willow (Salix ‘Hakuro-nishiki’).

But the real scene-stealer is Marvin, the name (after Marvin Myles, a female character in one of Marquand’s novels) given to a massive face sculpture whose sex is debatable. “She looks like Georgia O’Keefe, in her later years,” says Welch. Even with the arresting larger-than-life face, though, it’s a restful place. But that was just the beginning; Welch and Christensen always intended to bring the full acreage into the dialogue.

Although they were newbies to gardening, the two came into the project armed with all the right instincts. Their Victorian could feel imposing, but they painted it a muted yellow/cream with white trim accented discreetly by navy detailing. Corseted all around in plantings, it lets the surrounding shrubs and trees steal the scene. To give it breathing room, the sole nod to a typical backyard lawn spreads beyond the shrubbery.

Both Welch and Christensen have literature in their roots— Christensen is a retired publisher, and Welch comes from a family of educators and authors, beyond her famous grandfather. That being the case, the plot was bound to thicken.

More than one garden expert guided the evolution of the garden. Kim Turner and Ann Uppington served as the primary collaborators, finding appropriate plant selections to fill each space. At one point, the family considered a pool. But, not wanting to tackle the maintenance involved, they went for a croquet court instead. Because croquet calls for a cozy, shaded spectator space, they installed a long pergola, paved beneath in brick and fitted with grape vines. It became one of many delightful destinations on the property.

From the beginning, a whole lot of bushwhacking was required to muscle out plants that had claimed land over the years. More recently, Raina Finn of Trinity Gardens was hired to clear around some previously existing spireas. Finn proved quite enthusiastic and accomplished, and she effectively opened up space for a whole series of magical paths and garden areas.

Christensen has become a collector of everything from fascinating shrubs and perennials to sculptures and a variety funky items (often, but not solely, from Todd’s Farm). Thanks to the sculptures that have been introduced, every area of the garden has its own point of interest and personality. The extant orchard surrounds a substantial Buddha collected in Great Barrington. Even an ornate gazebo is given a spritely spin by the “meter maid” sculpture that it protects.

Flowing around its base, four quadrants are each devoted to plants of a specific color. “It was Ann Uppington’s interpretation of an English wild garden,” says Welch. The yellow bed hosts miscanthus ornamental grass, roses, hemerocallis (daylilies), and Hypericum. In the blue bed, vitex, baptisia, and nepeta dwell. White giant fleece flower (Persicaria polymorpha), yucca, Stephanandra, and dogwood (Cornus controversa) harmonize. The red section is dominated by Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and Spiraea ‘Anthony Waterer.’ But Christensen is continually adding ingredients. “Every Wednesday morning I arrive to find a group of shrubs and plants that Christensen has collected at nurseries. The challenge and fun is to find places where the plants will thrive,” says Finn. “The garden just comes together.”

Working in their favor is the incredibly fertile soil that was undoubtedly farmland in some previous incarnation. In fact, Tendercrop Farm cultivates adjacent fields leased from the local land conservancy. “The conservancy land makes the property feel so much bigger,” Welch comments. But really, the conquest of their own space combined with the magic of many pathways winding through nearly seemingly wild plantings is the enchantment that renders the spot so beguiling. Recently, a screened hideout was added to the property’s farthest reaches, and can be discovered only after a journey through a series of equally spellbinding settings. Getting there is half the fun.