Partners in Paradise: Vermont Couple Have Built Their Lives on a Hillside Garden of Bounty and Beauty

It has been 32 years since Eck and Wayne Winterrowd found a 23-acre woodland at the base of the Green Mountains in Vermont and named it North Hill.
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

READSBORO, Vt. -- Joe Eck is leading me along a lush hillside path on our way up to the vegetable garden to gather blueberries. Eck has his sights on the berries. But I want to linger on these mossy stone pavers, listen to the stream, examine the impossibly large-leafed ground covers and take it all in.

Eck takes pity, stops and turns. "When we came here, this was forest," he says. "We took down hundreds of trees. My father said, 'You have ruined the land,' but we had in our minds a clear sense of where we were going. In the first 10 or 15 years it was pretty messy."

It has been 32 years since Eck and Wayne Winterrowd found this 23-acre woodland at the base of the Green Mountains and named it North Hill. Here, at an elevation of 2,000 feet, they built a cozy cedar-sided cottage and added structures over the years: a greenhouse, a guesthouse, quarters for their livestock. It is now anything but messy; it is exuberant with plants and yet settled and contemplative. Sort of like its creators.

Eck and Winterrowd have been together for more than 40 years. They are well known in the gardening world as landscape designers, lecturers and writers. So are a number of people, but as individuals. Eck, 64, and Winterrowd, 67, have made the garden here as a couple, and it is a product of this partnership. "Product" seems so inadequate a word, of course.

The garden is remarkable on a number of fronts, not least in its design touches that transcend its location and apply to gardens everywhere. For people who think sloping gardens are a nuisance, and there are such people, this place demonstrates that changes of elevation add drama and mood to the landscape. People who think shade in a garden limits its potential would be astonished to see how varied and beautiful foliage plants can be and how the drizzle brightens their colors and sheen.

When Eck and Winterrowd came here, it was a landscape in Plant Hardiness Zone 4, meaning that temperatures in winter could be expected to drop to between 20 and 30 degrees below zero. What they discovered, through trial and practice, is that while the hardiness zones have value in directing what plants to grow, they are not always correct. "With careful manipulation of other variables such as soil quality, drainage, water, fertilizer, mulches and various winter protections, any gardener should be able to extend the range of his garden by perhaps two zones above his own," they write in their new book, "Our Life in Gardens" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30).

Sometimes that takes effort. In the clearing behind the cottage, robust blue flowering agapanthus plants rise from the garden as if they were in coastal California. They are in huge and now hidden pots and are overwintered in either the greenhouse or the cool conservatory attached to the house. These rooms will contain hundreds of cherished plants come October, including banana trees, a collection of camellias now outdoors setting bud for next winter, and sweet bay and fig tree topiaries. Outdoors, the gardeners use enclosures to protect English boxwood, started as cuttings but now five feet tall. All these plants will grow outdoors in a sheltered Washington garden.

"Ah, yes," says Eck, "but we can grow meconopsis." This is like a twist of the knife, for meconopsis, or the Himalayan blue poppy, may be one of the most coveted of garden plants but is denied to gardeners in hot, humid climes.

Like all successfully designed gardens, North Hill is not seen; it is revealed. The stream forms a central axis, but the layers of vegetation provide screens and enclosures that you move through as separate spaces. Near the streamside base of a sweet bay magnolia is a leafy aquatic plant named Lysichiton americanum. The paddle-like leaves are maybe four feet long and nine inches across. "When we bought it 25 years ago," Eck says, holding his thumb and forefinger two inches apart, "it was this big." They griped about its size when they met the late plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas in England. "He said you must be patient. He said they are larger every year of their life, and their life is five to six hundred years," Eck says.

We descend past banks of small-leafed hardy rhododendrons, now six feet across (they, too, were mere slips when planted). The woodland path opens to a lawn near the greenhouse, and here a natural seep has been fashioned into a bog garden, with a gritty bank of rock garden plants above. The shed attached to the greenhouse has a large, rustic wooden table that would sit perhaps 20 people. Lanterns and candles are stored on the shelves. There are feasts in this unlikely place.

Winterrowd is an inveterate cook who inhabits the kitchen every night. Most of the food comes from North Hill, either from the intensive fruit and vegetable garden or from their poultry, pigs and cattle.

The vegetable garden has moved around over the years but now has found a permanent site at the top of the property, on flat and sunny ground. You must get to it through a sloping meadow, now alive with rudbeckias, goldenrod and an annual daisy named wyethia. Beneath this floral frenzy, 100,000 daffodil bulbs lie dormant, but in April and May they will herald the end of the long Vermont winter.

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