Larry and Linda Webster have spent more than two decades transforming a dusty cornfield into 20 acres of lush gardens that they will show off tomorrow to about 700 guests on the annual Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage.
For the past few weeks, the Websters have been planting, pruning, and mulching to prepare their grounds to be one of 12 stops on the Carroll County segment of the tour.
The pilgrimage, which includes more than 100 homes and gardens throughout the state, moves Saturday to horse country in Baltimore and Harford counties, the last stops on the 68th annual tour that began April 23 in Kent County, then moved to Calvert and continued through Howard County last week.
At the Websters' home, visitors will see 7,000 trees planted since the couple moved to the Keymar property in 1979.
"Every piece you see we planted," said Larry Webster. "We don't have a nursery here, but we sure do keep a lot of them in business."
The Websters have decorated gardens with whimsical statuary and have placed benches, swings and gazebos that allow quiet respite among verdant shrubs and azaleas, tulips, hyacinths and rhododendrons, all bursting with brilliant color.
They planted 2,700 bulbs last fall in anticipation of the tour. Some flowers have already faded, and Linda Webster is worried that "people are coming from all over thinking that we really know what we are doing."
Larry Webster fretted about squeezing months of leisurely gardening into the few "weather-permitting" weeks before the tour. The soil in the jardinieres is too dry. The cat continually knocks mulch out of the beds. The peonies have yet to be planted, and his wife has changed her mind about where to put the newest trees.
"Ordinarily, we would do this all summer," he said.
The couple can stop worrying, said Margaret Powell, executive director of the pilgrimage.
"We are not looking for the last word in fancy," Powell said. "We want something with a great deal of interest, whether it be architecture, gardens or a fine collection. These are not decorators' showcases. These are people's homes."
Powell intends to visit all 12 Carroll sites tomorrow and then take the tour Saturday of Baltimore and Harford counties.
"You can always learn something and see how other people do," she said. "I will say a lot of times: You will feel like going home and burning down your own house."
Susan Catling, chairwoman for the Carroll tour, selected six sites in Uniontown, which will give glimpses of buildings that date to the 19th century. The tour, which benefits the Historical Society of Carroll County, will stop at an antebellum inn and several homes in Taneytown, which recently celebrated its 250th anniversary.
"We have towns that are relatively close together with a lot of different attractions," Catling said. "People who are coming from all over Maryland, Washington and Pennsylvania can walk around and get the feel of history here."
Catling encouraged the Websters to become part of the pilgrimage last summer, while visiting their home.
"Theirs is a 25-year labor of love and it's spectacular," she said.
The Websters would call it "trial and error" that started on a shoestring with recycled stock. Now that the children are grown, the couple, who run an insurance business from their home, said they have a bit more time and money.
Their 20 acres fan out from a stand of towering pines along Middleburg Road between Keymar and Detour, two villages near the Frederick County line. A cobblestone driveway lined with mature firs and arborvitae leads to a circular garden near the entrance to the home.
About 18 years ago, they invested in 1,800 paulownia - towering trees prized for their wood and known for their purple, bell-shaped flowers - that are just beginning to bloom. Originally, they thought those trees might be a cash crop, but they have since discovered it could be 30 years before the wood can be harvested.
"So, they are there for posterity," Larry Webster said. "After all, we are helping to clean the air."
Tomorrow, guests can wander through the gardens or linger in a gazebo built among a grove of black walnut trees, a spot Linda Webster calls her chapel in the woods. She hung a plaque there that says, "Be still and know that I am."
"Every day I ask God to send us something worthwhile to do," she said.
In between watering plants, her husband asked, "Linda, do you think you could stop asking for a while?"
The tour is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets are $25 and available at every site, including the Uniontown United Methodist Church, the Uniontown Academy and the Websters' home at 7100 Middleburg Road. Information: 410-821- 6933. For information on the garden tour stops, go to www. baltimoresun.com/garden.