A Garden FOR ALL Seasons

For 30 years on the Eastern Shore, Caroline Benson has nurtured a lushly varied and surprising garden

August 08, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Caroline Benson's mantra is "This was all a cornfield." y She uses it often as she shows visitors around Knightly Farm, near Easton, where she lives with her husband, Charles, their dog, a horse and 20 peacocks.

The fabulous gardens in back of the house -- once a cornfield -- lead the eye down to the water's edge, a quiet creek called Leeds.

"The house is a long way from the water by Eastern Shore standards," explains Benson. "We needed a way to get there." The solution was a classic English parterre garden in four parts. It's an all-season garden; and in some ways, she says, it looks as good in the dead of winter as it does on a beautiful summer day.

"It's something of a cliche, but it has very good bones. The tree structures hold it together."

Perhaps more surprisingly, the garden looks wonderful even in the dog days of August, the result of careful, but not obvious, planning and careful, but not obsessive, care.

Of course, plants are thriving this summer with all the rain, so everything is blooming in lush profusion. But you can tell these gardens would surprise and delight even under more normal conditions.

The Eastern Shore hideaway -- if you can call 160 acres a hideaway -- is accessible only by a maze of country roads. The Bensons bought the large brick house, built in 1810 and once the home of a Confederate general, and surrounding land 30 years ago. Caroline had a 3-year-old and was pregnant with her second son. There were a few boxwoods, a swimming pool with no landscaping -- and a cornfield.

Garden and retreat

Her gardening adventures at Knightly began with the swimming pool on the side of the house.

"I did a totally eclectic approach designed to bloom during swimming season," she explains. "I loaded it up with fun stuff." That included everything from hibiscus to black-eyed Susans to morning glories spilling over a trellis. The swimming pool itself is almost completely hidden.

The broad expanse of property behind the house is part formal garden, part overgrown retreat. Boxwoods, magnolias, crape myrtles, flowering fruit trees and a row of Eastern red cedars shade the four rectangular gardens, each of which has its own identity.

A tour begins with the perennial quadrant, full of soft pastels like the naked ladies (Amaryllis bella-dona), a racy name for a stunning pink lily that blooms in late July and early August. Soon the various asters and sedums will add their warm pinks and purples.

But like all the garden areas at Knightly Farm, this one has its surprises -- in this case a perky yellow annual called 'Lemon Queen' (Helianthus annuus) among the soft pastel perennials.

"A few years ago, I started to plant the 'Lemon Queen,' " Benson says with a shrug. "I just like it." The jolt of yellow adds unexpected pizazz to the pastel beds.

"She's able to bring in new plants and new aspects that most people would never think of to create a unique landscape," says Kerri Ginn, who helps with the gardening at Knightly. "She's not afraid to try new things. [The result] is so fun and so creative."

It helps that Benson has easy access to plants. Twelve years ago, she opened Garden Treasures in Easton, a well respected garden center that also sells gifts and home accessories. The center is open seven days a week and keeps her busy. Much of her time is spent as a buyer for the gift shop, but she does give landscaping advice, charging by the hour. Her own garden comes in handy.

"It's been a wonderful thing to take people around and show them what the plants look like in maturity," she explains. "I usually try a lot of these plants out, and I can give you firsthand knowledge of what things are good and why they are better for different areas."

Natural evolution

Surprisingly, she manages to keep her gardens in beautiful shape with only two helpers.

One secret is to allow the gardens to have a natural evolution. Section two was originally planted just with flowering fruit trees, blueberry bushes and a grape arbor. Over the years, it's turned into something a little wilder and less formal, with whimsical topiary animals that Benson creates from ivy.

Next to it is the fairy garden, so called not only because of the dainty garden statue of a fairy but also because it has a spiritual meaning for the Bensons. Beloved dogs -- or at least their ashes -- are buried here, and a small grouping of engraved stones and two marble lambs marks the spot. It's a pretty and peaceful spot for meditation.

Each section has some kind of seating, usually a wooden garden bench.

"I like to sit on a bench in the morning with a cup of tea," says Benson with a smile. "The birds divebomb you."

There are enough of them. Last year, she says, an official counting for the Audubon Society at Knightly tallied 36 different species in one hour.

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