Kentucky’s Secret Gardens

By Leslie Potter | 5/09/19 8:00 AM

 Included in the program are visits to a variety of private gardens, both large and small, rural and urban throughout the state. Stops include the Garden at Lincliff, the Louisville garden of the late mystery writer Sue Grafton and her husband, Steven Humphrey, who painstakingly restored the grounds of a classic 1912 estate; a secluded and art-filled backyard at the home of orchid expert Tim Brooks and bonsai enthusiast Joe Dietz; a Berea backyard that has been transformed into a collection of delightful garden rooms; and much more. Author Tavia Cathcart Brown hosts.

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Tavia Cathcart Brown’s Louisville Garden
Tavia Cathcart Brown and her husband enjoy their own piece of paradise in the form of their Louisville garden. For Brown, executive director of the Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve in Goshen, Ky. and author of several books on wildflowers, the garden is more than just pretty flowers.

“It serves as a source of joy for my husband and for me,” says Brown. “It engages us with nature in a hands-on way. It serves pollinators such as bees and monarch butterflies and birds, which really need help right now. In fact, it’s a certified monarch waystation.”

The Browns’ gardens include folk art pieces around the garden to add points of interest. Bird houses and bird feeders throughout the property attract wildlife.

When it comes to deciding what to plant in her garden, Brown says she looks for flowers that add color and beauty. Among Brown’s favorites are the hibiscus — Kentucky has five different native species of these large-flowering perennials. Foxgloves can thrive in sun or shade, so they accent all different areas of the Browns’ gardens. Cardinal flowers are a native wildflower in Kentucky that grow along stream banks.

Mary Startzman’s Berea Garden
Mary Startzman’s garden at her Berea home is designed like a wheel with an outdoor fireplace at the center. The different sections of the garden surround that center point.

“My garden is divided into different vistas,” says Startzman. “They all have their own little special plants or their own special effects. They’re all different but they’re all part of the one.”

Within the rooms of the garden is an above-ground koi pond that started as a shallow, in-ground body of water. There are walkways that connect different parts of the garden with the fireplace and seating area at the center. Visitors can wander through the treehouse, the rose garden, and a secluded garden at the side of the property.

Startzmann likes to add a few art elements around her garden vistas. Some of the art is made from found objects, like some antique bedsprings that she found at a rehab store. They now hang as a divider and catch the setting sun.

“Nothing was preplanned,” says Startzmann. “It was just a matter of feeling the flow. Don’t do things in a straight line. Don’t see everything at once. Because if you sit in one place and you can see the whole thing, all right, you saw it, you can move on. But if you have a curving path or you have a tree that’s blocking it or something that’s overflowing on a bough, it beckons you and it’s a mystery and you want to see what’s on the other side.”

The Urban Oasis of Emery Schmidt and Jim Swearingen
A beautiful garden doesn’t require a lot of land…and Emery Schmidt and Jim Swearingen’s pocket garden in the city of Newport proves it.

Swearingen says they started with a blank canvas on their urban lot. They added a fence, then the paved area, and then filled in the yard and garden. “The design things just happened by accident,” says Schmidt. “We are using a lot of perennials so we don’t have to continually plant the entire garden. We just add annuals for color.”

By mixing different types of flowering plants along with greenery and art accents, the garden fits a lot of interest into a small space. They’ve added plants on trellises and elevated areas to add color vertically. Mirrors on the fence make the garden appear larger. But they’re careful not to overcrowd the usable space in their backyard.

“One of the themes of the garden that I always wanted was to have the space where I could garden and also entertain,” says Schmidt. “When you’re working in a smaller garden, the main challenge, I feel, is to keep it balanced and a space that you can use.”

Schmidt and Swearingen also have raised-bed gardens to grow vegetables, using the sunny side of the brick house that captures a lot of heat. They transformed the grassy slope in the front yard, which was difficult to maintain, into a terrace garden.

Wes and Scott Ledyard’s Outdoor Art Gallery
Also in Newport, Wes and Scott Ledyard have made a beautiful backyard in an urban neighborhood.  The soil isn’t great, but the Ledyards have worked around that — and maximized how much they can fit in their small plot — by using containers and creating levels.

“You can have more variety when you plant in containers rather than in the ground,” says Wes. “You can move them around if they need more sunlight…”

Wes loves the color and the beauty of the flowers, like the impatiens she describes as a reliable source of color. Scott has his own preferences. “My favorite plant is one that I eat,” says Scott. “The herbs in the garden allow me to cook. One of my favorite pastimes is to use them to make dinner.”

The Ledyard’s garden includes lots of eclectic art, perhaps the most notable of which is the fountain.
“We have a water fountain that we made out of a fire hydrant,” says Scott. “My son Cory and I were able to plumb it and pour concrete, so it looks kind of like a city curb with an old grate that we had at the front of our house.” Wes collects art she finds out in the world, like old stained-glass windows she found in New Orleans, or frames and flower pots from Goodwill or yard sales.

Scott suggests new gardeners seek out a local garden club, like the one he and Wes belong to in Newport. It’s a good way to meet other people who can inspire and help problem solve.

Dr. Marilyn MacMillen’s Acres of Southern Charm

On a 435-acre farm in Eubank, Dr. Marilyn MacMillen has created her dream garden, with professional help from landscaper Gary Chidester. The “yard” for Dr. MacMillen’s home is a bit more than 20 acres, which allows for plenty of creativity and variety.

The first thing visitors will notice is the walkway through a canopy of maple trees. Chidester selected a fast-growing variety for this purpose. “Neither Dr. McMillen or myself are spring chickens and if we planned on seeing these trees touch, it was going to have to be something that was going to have to grow pretty quick,” he says.

The walkway brings guests into the various rooms of the garden. “We have a lot of open space, and it could be almost intimidating,” says MacMillen. “I have to give credit to Gary for the idea of garden rooms. Each garden can stand on its own or be part of the other gardens. I hope it gives you the feel of wanting to walk around the corner to see what’s next.”

MacMillen enjoys having interesting features and art in her garden. A statue of Pan in the sunken garden is one of her favorites. A fountain that was never connected to water or electricity makes for a beautiful location to display flowers. Antiques from MacMillen’s extensive collection are rotated through for a constantly changing display.

Allen Bush’s Natural Haven
While some gardens are carefully curated works of art, Allen Bush of Salvisa wanted his farm to have a more wild personality, and to benefit local wildlife. Bush says homeowners, even those with only small amounts of land, can plan a prairie meadow on their own land. He suggests starting by contacting your county extension agent for soil testing. The existing turf or weeds will have to be eliminated with a controlled burn. And that’s just the start.

“First year you have to mow a couple of times, four or five times to a height of about 15 inches or so just to kill down the annual weeds,” says Bush. “Then the next year, one high mow in about the middle of May, and then let it go. As a gardener, it was hard to agree to those terms of letting it go.”

“The advantage for putting in a meadow, whether it’s a five-by-five space or two acres or 25 acres, is you’re giving your soil a break and giving the land a break. The land has been disturbed most everywhere, certainly in suburban neighborhoods and on our farm where it was farmed pretty intensively. “If you’re thinking about planting a little meadow or prairie I would encourage you to just start small,” he continues. “You don’t need acreage. I think you’ll really enjoy seeing the butterflies wander in, the bees, the birds. It really is phenomenal.”

Tim Brooks’s and Joe Dietz’s Lexington Enclave
Despite the proximity to a major commuter road, the Lexington gardens of Tim Brooks and Joe Dietz feel like a secluded piece of paradise. “We are very close to New Circle Road,” says Dietz. “We have lots of plants in the front yard and the back yard. Those plantings help to suppress the noise that comes from New Circle…We have our own oasis here in the middle of the city.”

Brooks and Dietz have owned the property since 1992 and have worked on cultivating their gardens throughout that time. The home’s landscaping is inspired in part by the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “When you look at the house and the garden, it’s sort of an eclectic mix of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life,” says Brooks. “From the front it’s more bungalow, to the back with all the glass it’s more mid-century modern.”

The shallow layer of soil in the front yard isn’t ideal for trees with deep taproots, but evergreens do well there. The side garden is open with spring bulbs like daffodils and summer perennials that allow for a sunny area.

Brooks and Dietz’s garden expands to an indoor space in the form of a two-story conservatory. “It’s mainly for orchids and other tropical plants,” says Dietz. “I’ve always loved the epiphytic nature of orchids and bromeliads. There are over 25,000 species of orchids. I’ve probably got three or four hundred orchids here. Probably 50 different varieties.”

Brooks has a degree in forestry and Dietz has degrees in horticulture and landscape design. Their extensive expertise has helped with the ongoing project of creating a varied and beautiful oasis on their property. They encourage anyone embarking on an ambitious landscaping or gardening process to seek out experienced assistance.

“Know what type of home you’re planning,” says Dietz. “Is this going to be your starter home and you’re there a few years and wanting to move on or could this possibly be your life home? Plan accordingly. Think of the plants that you like that may take a while to grow. Get those started and think of how you will use the garden. Be prepared to always have your garden in flux and in change. It’s part of the joy.”

A Woodford County Rural Hideaway
When Buzz Daugherty and Susan Bradley moved to their property, it was a flat, open pasture. Through a lot of work and planning, they’ve taken inspiration from gardens around the world to create their own unique outdoor space.

Initially, the couple wanted a conifer-based garden. “That worked well until we got too much shade in this garden,” says Bradley. “We’ve had problems with some of them drying out, others having to be moved somewhere else. We have a sink or swim attitude. If it dies, it dies.”

The garden is centered around the water features. “The pond is the main feature of our landscape,” says Daugherty. “Everything kind of revolves around that. As we move out and you get away from the pond it became a little bit of a different type of landscape.”

The multi-tiered waterfall provides a visual and audible treat for visitors. “It’s a moving, living thing,” says Bradley.

The couple have fun with their vast garden as well, having created what they call “the zoo” on one side of the property where a giant weeping willow tree came down. “I asked my husband to leave the trunk there,” says Bradley. “It has about a 25-foot trunk and we put a life-sized lion in the top of the tree. That led to other zoo animals and now it was a joke to see how many different ones we can get in there and hide from people…”

“This is a garden that we have done completely on our own,” says Daugherty. “Susan designed everything.  We planted everything. We moved almost all the rock ourselves. All the work is worth the effort. When you get a chance to stand and look at it or share it with other people. It’s also very exciting to see how everything grows.”

Sue Grafton’s Louisville Estate
Novelist and Kentucky native Sue Grafton and her husband, Steve Humphrey, made their home on a large estate in Louisville that came with lot of potential, and a lot of neglect. The Kentucky’s Secret Gardens production crew visited the Grafton/Humphrey home prior to the Grafton’s death in December 2017.

“When we bought this property, it took us six months to work out the details,” Grafton remembers. “The gardens had been neglected for 17 or 18 years.” Humphrey started by researching the history of the estate. He found the original site plan along with an updated landscape plan from the 1930s.

“What I’ve tried to do is carve into the stuff that had been overgrown and allowed to go to disarray and to see what it would have looked like and bring it back to at least that original design,” he says. The formal garden includes statuary and fountains, including some that have been on the property for generations and required some serious maintenance.

“Over the years a lot of tree stuff had fallen into [the fountain],” says Humphrey. “It was 12 inches deep of dirt. I got up there with my shovel and wheelbarrow and cleaned it out.” “The fountain probably had not worked for 20 years,” adds Grafton. “They dismantled it, labeled all the stones, laid them out on the grass. We’ve replumbed, we did new electrical, and then they put it all back together again.”

The fountain garden is in the shade, while the boxwood garden is bright and sunny with a themed statuary.
“I got the four statues in the boxwood garden representing spring, summer, winter and fall,” says Humphrey. “Under each one I’ve planted things that will flower in the appropriate colors, so I’ve got oranges and yellows under autumn, reds and bright yellows under summer, pastels under spring, and then all white flowers under winter.”

One of the most ambitious projects that Humphrey took on during the landscaping process is a juniper maze. He designed it on a computer, then used a laser level and paint lines on the ground to plot it out. Once the design was in place and the junipers were planted, the last task was to make it a fun experience for visitors.