Down by the Bay

A feast for eyes and tastebuds flourishes in three Chesapeake gardens.
By Adrian Higgins
Sunday, April 20, 2008

THE TRADITIONAL EASTERN SHORE LANDSCAPE SETTING IS ONE OF HISTORIC GRANDEUR -- the colonial house at the end of the shady drive, terraces dotted with pungent old boxwood. It's all very rooted. But, to my mind, the more interesting gardens in eastern Maryland are the ones that rely on that other great Delmarva tradition -- farming. A long growing season, warm soil and heapings of sunshine yield humble vegetable and flower gardens of amazing fertility.

So, I asked two professional gardeners in Chestertown -- Carol Mylander and Trams Hollingsworth -- if they could point me to some kindred spirits who might offer personal expressions of what it means to be a Chesapeake gardener. They came through brilliantly, showing me the waterside properties of three gardeners who have combined a respect for the overwhelming presence of the natural landscape with the sheer joy of planting seeds and watching them grow. These landscapes are not quite cottage gardens but are true to that spirit, where the owner is reveling in eager annuals and, by July onward, luscious fruits and vegetables.

I meet Hollingsworth at her large old farmhouse overlooking the Chester River. As I take a sip of iced tea on the porch, she enthuses about the gardens she wants me to visit.

"You have to see Susanne's garden," she says. "She works in it all the time." We drive a mile along the twisting riverside highway out of historic Chestertown until we turn into a side street and pull up in front of the 1950s split-level home of Bill and Susanne Chaze. The side of the 1 1/4-acre property is lined by a tall screen of trees that includes one of the largest yews I have seen this side of Ireland. I guess it to be at least 150 years old.

The screen backs a row of mature fig bushes, in summer full of soft purple fruit for the taking. The site's most striking feature, a large pond, is half-hidden by its low setting and high banks but is a magnet for the rich cast of birds and other wildlife that are part of the pleasures and the occasional pain of gardening on the Eastern Shore.

"Ospreys swoop in, and the herons are there all the time," says Susanne Chaze. "There are lots of bluegills in the pond. Eels in there, too."

The end of the property offers a clear view of the river, wide and languid. The lawn is framed by a pair of plant borders stuffed with spring bulbs and, as the season progresses, dazzling annuals, perennials and shrubs. It is not unusual for Susanne to look up from her labors here to see a sail or two shifting slowly along the river, a scene reminiscent of her early years on Lolland, one of the islands of Denmark.

But it is in the decorative herb and vegetable garden where Susanne, 58, a part-time gardener for Mylander and Hollingsworth, spends most of her time. This was the first planting project that she and her husband tackled when they bought the house five years ago, and it remains the heart and soul of the garden. In particular, Bill Chaze, 66, a retired magazine editor, loves to cook, and the garden's proximity to the house provides as much an emotional as a physical link between the indoors and out. It also yields some pretty good tomatoes for slicing and sauce-making. By midsummer, basil is abundant: "Roman, lemon and Thai -- we do a lot of Thai cooking," Susanne says.

In May, the herb terraces are perfumed with masses of lavender. But even as the lavender spikes fade in early summer, the herb garden remains fresh through the season with purple-leafed sage, white-blooming garlic chives and silver-leafed cardoons.

Plant hardiness maps place this part of the Eastern Shore in the same growing zone as Washington, but gardeners here know that this coastal plain climate and highly variable soil, from clay to sand, produce markedly different growing conditions. In spring, the bay and its rivers are still reluctant to relinquish winter's chill, but at season's end, the same water holds summer's heat, wards off frost and allows autumn's blossoms a long and attractive ride.

The Chazes moved here from an old farmhouse on 20 acres in northern Kent County, where they had lived for 16 years and where Susanne cut her teeth as a gardener. She grew up on a farm on Lolland, so learning to grow herbs and vegetables was simply a case of stirring the genes. Two aspects of the Chaze garden give it a singular charm: the prominent location of the herbs and vegetables, and the fact that it is a personal garden, intensively cultivated. The house is draped with three black-eyed Susan vines. Nearby, Susanne has set up a simple table used for potting and mixing soil. "We sit out here in the morning and have coffee," she says. "It's a very nice place to be."

The link between the vegetable garden and the front yard is marked by an arched rose arbor, painted white and draped with a bicolor orange-and-red climber. The fences are white, too, forming a bold framework even as the plantings fill in.

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