To find the secret garden, you must travel down a long road in Darnestown, Md., to a stately brick Colonial. As you pull around the circular drive that cuts through the wide lawn, blowsy pink peonies provide a cheerful welcome.
Around back, a large grassy area unspools down the center. To the left, a thicket of trees and shrubs blocks your view. It isn’t until you stroll around this copse that you discover John and Toby Mattingly’s surprising gem, an award-winning Asian-style landscape.
Ming dynasty garden designer Ji Cheng wrote in his book “Yuan Ye” (Craft of Gardens) that although a garden is made from the hand of man, it must look as though it was made in heaven. This principle guides the design of Japanese and Chinese gardens: They are a serene balance of textures, forms and colors that is both artistic and contemplative. Maximum effect through minimal means.
Many of the elements are symbolic. Craggy boulders represent mountains and hills. Water, representing the seas, softens the harshness of the rocks. Paths zigzag to elude evil spirits, which, according to myth, travel only in straight lines. These meandering paths allow Asian gardens to be mysterious. They don’t give themselves away all at once.
Perhaps fittingly, the inspiration for this Asian garden slowly revealed itself to its owners.
When the Mattinglys contacted designer Ryan Davis of McHale Landscape Design, they told him they wanted a pool and a patio.
Because John has a keen interest in wildlife, he also asked for a koi pond. Davis’s first few designs combined the pool and pond. After a few revisions, the Mattinglys realized they weren’t going to use the pool often and decided to go in a more Asian direction.
Toby is an Asian garden enthusiast with botany in her DNA. Her father was a wholesale grower in Florida and South Carolina. Her maternal grandfather was a florist.
“I probably should have done landscape design or something in college,” she says.
Instead, she studied history, including Japanese and Chinese history, and became a flight attendant. When she flew to San Francisco, which was often, the airline put her up in San Mateo, where she discovered a lovely Japanese tea garden. This garden became one of the inspirations for her garden.
“I like the kind of plants and its serenity,” she says. “It’s peaceful.”
John, a retired chief financial officer, has a plant background, too. His grandfather raised peonies on Georgia Avenue and sold them to funeral homes. His uncle had a peony farm, and his mother was a flower show judge who did floral arrangements at the White House.
Davis began sending the Mattinglys sketches of Asian-inspired gardens that evolved into a hybrid of Japanese and Chinese gardens that doesn’t stray far from the canon of either one.
One entrance is through a majestic moon gate, a traditional entry to Chinese gardens. Because the circle is a symbol of perfection to the Chinese, it signals that visitors are about to enter a special place. The nearly nine-foot edifice is made of ramone brown and luna azul stones. Just past the entrance is a large boulder.
As she leads a visitor through her garden, Toby apologizes for its state. The harsh winter killed five trees. Then rain washed away more plants. As a result, Toby has spent her spring planting. But to the fresh eye it is not clear what is missing. All that’s apparent is a quiet palette of verdant foliage that includes a red horse chestnut tree, a red jade weeping crabapple tree, a sweetbay magnolia tree, a weeping cherry tree, a Japanese umbrella pine tree, spruce trees, a full moon Japanese maple tree, a split leaf Japanese maple tree, hostas, ferns, itea, clethra, astilbe, cryptomeria, milkweed, rhododendrons, water lilies and lotus plants.
“I told [Davis] I don’t want any bright colors,” she says. “I want it all white or pale lavenders.”
The path meanders around the koi pond with its pagoda-style pavilion that appears to float on the water. It passes the Japanese stone lanterns that glow at night, the antique iron crane statues that Toby bought in Pittsburgh before she even had the garden and the sturdy stone bench.
The garden “is designed to give you a different view at every turn,” John says. “I love coming down every day, taking a tour and seeing what’s blooming.”
It is also designed for all seasons.
“We don’t want any time of year for this garden to not have something going on,” Davis says. “Even in the middle of winter ... there’s a good blend of evergreen and also a blend of deciduous material with very interesting branching habits to create silhouettes. Also, the waterfall has icicles cascading off of it.”
Eventually the path passes the second entrance, a stunningly mammoth tree gate.
The yellow pine tree trunks are more than a foot in diameter, sink nearly six feet into the ground and rise more than 15 feet into the air. A small plaque bears Chinese characters that mean “hidden garden.”
Beyond the second entrance is a small bridge to the pavilion, an elegant structure built from cedar and pine. The whoosh of the water cascading over the rocks in the waterfall and the melodic birdsong provide a soothing backdrop for visitors sitting on wicker chairs in the pavilion. The floor is made of ipe, a Brazilian hardwood. A ceiling fan generates cool breezes on hot summer days.
“Gaze up, and you’re in Casablanca,” John says.
At night, the pavilion glows as lights in the water illuminate it. Scattered throughout the garden, subtle lighting is designed to highlight key features and guide you at nighttime.
Constructing the garden was no easy feat. It took several tractor-trailers to haul in nearly 75 tons of Pennsylvania fieldstone for the koi pond and waterfall.
Drainage issues killed some plants; others just haven’t thrived. The Mattinglys have a three-zone irrigation system, which they continue to tweak to prevent overwatering.
The garden attracts wildlife. Butterflies are drawn to the milkweed. Catbirds and hawks are frequent visitors. Frogs can be found at the pond.
Not all wildlife has been welcome. Deer ate the hostas until the Mattinglys added metal poles and string mesh to their fencing. A blue heron has been a particular nuisance, feasting on the koi.
“That blue heron, he can wipe you out,” John says. “They are superb fishermen.”
The Mattinglys have only one koi remaining. John named him Bubba. The rest are comets, a type of goldfish.
The garden, which won the 2012 grand award from the Landscape Contractors Association MD-DC-VA, continues to evolve. Toby would like to find a specialist who can create a bamboo fence. She is eager to add a Japanese fountain. (Water flows through a hollow bamboo pipe into a stone basin.)
Their son, Johnny, added his own touch: a Kermit the Frog statue in a lotus pose. Johnny calls it a Zen garden.
Whatever it is called — secret garden, hidden garden or Zen garden — this backyard oasis is a source of pleasure for John and Toby.
“It is peaceful,” Toby said. “You think you’re out miles away.”
Kathy Orton is a Washington Post Real Estate writer.
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