Towson's secret garden: A yearlong veil is lifted

Sanctuary: Amid azaleas and dogwoods, a publisher opens his lush private oasis to the public for annual tour.

April 27, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Three hundred and sixty-four days of the year, the lavish gated garden on Baltimore Avenue in Towson belongs to Robert M. Evans.

Whenever he wants, Evans, whose publishing office opens onto the garden, can sit on the spacious flagstone terrace, watch for signs of cardinals and otherwise soak in his verdant oasis in the middle of an ordinary business district.

The private garden is his in the winter, when the slightest shimmer of ice coats magnolia branches, in the spring, when pale pink weeping cherry petals waft into the reflecting pool, and in the summer and fall, when pots of vinca and geranium framing the ornate wrought iron-topped gazebo overflow with color.

But yesterday - Towson Gardens Day - Evans' secret garden belonged to law office employees and stay-at-home mothers, to engineers and secretaries, to bankers and toddlers and the rest of the 400 visitors who toured the place. Some were first-timers, others repeat visitors. All were drawn by the promise of seeing something mysterious and private, something open to outsiders one day a year.

"We had no idea there was a secret garden," said Carol Sutton of Glyndon as she stopped to admire the panorama of pink and purple azaleas and cherry trees in bloom with her friend Janet Kines of Towson. "It's so peaceful."

Peggy Ward, who works at a law office in Towson and looks forward to visiting the secret garden every year, takes pleasure in the garden's solitude and its ever-changing, always meticulous landscape. There is a downside to her visits however. "It does inspire a bit of envy in part," said Ward, who lives in Ruxton. "This is exactly the kind of garden I would like to have."

The garden, enclosed by a cinder-block wall ranging in height from 8 to 12 feet, was built in 1974 by Thomas Garland Tinsley, an eccentric millionaire who died in 1995.

The 20,000-square-foot property, which includes a 2,000-square-foot French chateau-style office building, is about 80 percent secret garden. The gate and office building are painted a putty color, and the exterior is landscaped with azaleas, pink dogwood trees and dragon lady holly, hinting of what lies behind the walls.

"This is not a traditional business office," said Evans, who bought the property in 1996 and made sure to situate his desk so that he could easily gaze at his garden through the glass wall of his office.

Others visiting the garden yesterday envied the setup.

"This has got to be the best office in town," said Don Mitten as he sat on the terrace steps with friends from work during the afternoon.

Tradition continues

More than a dozen years ago Tinsley agreed to open his private garden for Towson Gardens Day, and Evans has honored the agreement, motivated by civic duty and pride. "I spend a lot of money getting it ready [for the season] anyway," Evans said. He declined to specify how much he spends on the upkeep of the garden.

Evans said his full-time horticulturist, David N. Tracey, and two assistants have been working diligently for three weeks to prepare the garden for Gardens Day. "There isn't another one like it, certainly not in Baltimore," he said.

In its 16th year, Towson Gardens Day is an annual event that "celebrates the greening and flowering of Towson," with tours of the Towson Courthouse garden, plant, craft and food vendors, and awards to area gardeners for their handiwork, said event co-chairwoman Dorrie Wilfong.

Wilfong said opening up the garden to the public is a "hook" that draws people who might not attend otherwise. "It's so unique, so special to be right here in the middle of Towson like that," she said of Evans' garden. "It's gorgeous."

Garden's evolution

Originally, Tinsley Garden, as it was once called, was more formal, more traditional English garden. Tinsley planted hundreds of varieties of plants and shrubs from all over the country. There were boxwood hedges and rows of swirling and cube-shaped topiary that created a gallery to view the fountains spraying in the 60-foot-by 14-foot reflecting pool. The emphasis was on symmetry more than color, said Tracey, who has maintained the garden since 1978.

But the garden's drainage is insufficient. As time passed and plants died, Tracey and Evans made changes. The yew topiaries on the sides of the terrace were replaced with elegant Japanese maples. And many of the rhododendrons at either end of the pool were replaced with azaleas, the official flower of Towson.

"Over the years it has become a mixed bag in terms of formality," said Evans, who operates Middleton Press Inc., a small publishing house specializing in photography books by his son, Middleton Evans. "I don't care whether it is this kind of garden or that kind of garden. What I want is what's pleasing to the eye."

Standing amid the towering topiaries, gardener Carolyn Brooks of Towson liked what she saw.

"It's beautifully planned," she said of the garden. "It's like an artist's palette of azaleas. It's just a peaceful place."

Solitude returns

On Monday, the garden will again become Evans' peaceful place. He plans to celebrate by taking out the deck furniture and enjoying the quiet beauty.

"It's tough [working here]," he joked. "It's too beautiful."

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