WRITTEN BY BARBARA LOMBARDO
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY LESLIE BRENNAN, JOHANNA GARRISON, AND CAROL GODETTE
Those are the lovely words of Leslie Brennan, and they perfectly describe what she calls her “Jardin de Cadeaux” – the Garden of Gifts – near Lake Lonely.
Brennan is among a dozen Saratoga Springs homeowners who are generously inviting visitors to experience their gardens on the 27th annual Secret Gardens Tour slated for Sunday, July 10. This year’s tour features terraced beds, ponds, woodsy paths, splashes of color, jam-packed havens for pollinators, and a unique row of tiny townhouse gardens tucked into a steep, hidden hillside.
The Secret Gardens Tour is presented by Soroptimist International of Saratoga County, the local branch of an international nonprofit service organization committed to empowering and improving the lives of women, girls, and their communities. This fundraiser benefits programs and people, in keeping with the Soroptimist mission.
Leslie Brennan’s garden is so stunning that you wouldn’t guess she’s only been working at it for about five years. Encouragement came from her good friend Susan Knapp, whose in-city oasis was on the tour a few years ago. “Susan told me ‘You have to be patient,’ which is a big challenge for me,” Brennan said. Yet she dove in, reading, talking to people, staring into the yard, and experimenting. She learns more each year about light and how colors transition, visualizing what blooms where and when, and considering the terrain of her property. An engineer who initially strove for symmetry, Brennan began to think more broadly about proportion, weight and flow to create a sense of space. In the process, gardening has become a truly creative outlet.
One of the things Brennan loves about gardening is its strong sense of community. “People freely give their time, their advice, and offer different views to help you solve a problem,” she said. Friends share plants, ideas, inspiration, and she can name the person behind each gift. “When I look at the garden, I see all the people who helped to create it.”
That feeling of community is familiar to many gardeners on the tour, including Johanna Garrison. Seeds, plants and vegetables are regularly shared among residents in her city neighborhood, which is not far from downtown Saratoga Springs.
Garrison’s primary focus is on pollinators and the specialized relationship they have to native plants. For her, global reports of the collapsing insect population were a rallying cry.
“I used to garden for myself; if it was pretty, I bought it. I never gave a second thought to the insects that co-evolved with these plants and the intricate food webs they help sustain,” Garrison said.
Now, function and purpose have taken center stage. Garrison's garden is roughly 95 percent native, and each year she squeezes in a few more with the hope of attracting and propagating new species of invertebrates.
She has made peace with virtually any creature that loves her garden as much as she does, including insects, cottontails, voles and moles. Moles, she learned, consume invasive earthworms and Japanese beetle larvae, they aerate the soil, and “with their wee pushed-up pitcher’s mounds they fertilize homes for plants, which in turn provide habitat for butterfly larvae and other valuable insects.”
Garrison helped form the Sustainable Saratoga Pollinator Committee, which on June 5 is holding its first Pollinator Palooza, featuring educational material about pollinators and native plant sales. Visit their website for details.
“I love knowing I am helping to create a biodiverse habitat. Plant it and they will come,” Garrison said.
In another downtown neighborhood barely a mile away, expansive garden beds and extensive outdoor living space await visitors in the backyard of Dave and Carol Godette.
The Godettes made significant changes to the yard surrounding the house where Carol grew up. “The most important thing was I wanted a vegetable garden,” said Dave, who began gardening as a little boy alongside his grandfather. “Very soon after we moved in, we put in a pool, put flowers around the pool and one thing led to another.”
Big splashes of colorful New Guinea impatiens, begonias and wave petunias intersperse with daylilies and more than two dozen varieties of hostas around the Godettes’ in-ground pool. Behind this area, raised wooden beds and cold frames built by Dave provide a long growing season for dozens of vegetable plants.
Along a side yard is a mostly shaded memorial garden filled with ferns, pachysandra and forget-me-nots, created in 2001 for the cremation ashes of the Godettes’ golden retrievers. “It has expanded to include the ashes of a family member of the property’s first owner, Elizabeth Sexton Weiss,” shared Carol in a description she wrote of their garden. “Granite benches and a fountain were added to make it the perfect setting for quiet contemplation.”
A month before the Secret Gardens Tour, Carol Godette, Johanna Garrison and Leslie Brennan will spend an hour sharing photos, talking about their gardens, and fielding questions in a live “Secret Gardens Revealed” Zoom program hosted by the Saratoga Springs Public Library at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 9. Register for the free event on the library’s events page at www.sspl.org.
extraordinary row of townhomes whose close-knit residents have created charming individual gardens in the challenging terrain at the rear of their property.
Visitors on this stop of the tour will enter the flat, paved alley on foot from Nelson Avenue and walk two-tenths of a mile to its end, observing along the way little hideaways built into a steep hillside. At the last townhouse, visitors will turn around and head back to Nelson Avenue, peeking into the petite patios as they proceed along the alleyway. Seven of the gardens on the alley are featured in the Secret Gardens Tour descriptions.
Sherry and Scott Mittleman were the first to turn their stretch of hillside into a patio garden. Soon after moving into the then-new construction around 2005, they realized that they missed having an outdoor space to enjoy. So, they conferred with landscapers, commissioned a contractor, and, Sherry explained, carefully excavated the hillside, “preserving as many trees as possible, and designing and engineering a safe, sturdy, and secure wall. In truth, landscaping the patio was secondary to making sure it was safe, with adequate room for a couple of chaise lounges and a table for dining alfresco.”
The Mittlemans defined the deck area with low-maintenance shrubbery and added a wrought iron trellis-like arch that they found on their travels. Vines grow down the back wall, Sherry said, “giving it a kind of English garden look.” Adding bits of whimsy are a mountain goat named Yael, a blackbird wind vane, a pink flamingo, and an alligator guard.
About midway along the short alley is what Michele Mehler and Terry Julius proudly call their “hidden grotto,” with a pergola framing a patio and fireplace, along with an assortment of perennials, climbing vines and ornamental grasses.
Other features visitors will find in the various gardens as they walk along the alley include bird houses, wind chimes, sculptures tucked here and there, and an herb barrel that, at least once, served as a nursery for five baby rabbits. One of the residents is longtime Thoroughbred race caller Tom Durkin. You might see him using his binoculars to enjoy the activity around his backyard birdhouse.
Three other gardens – one near downtown and two on the northern end of Saratoga Lake – round out the Secret Gardens Tour.
Pat and Craig Stickney’s landscaping near the lake has evolved over 25 years into what they describe as “primarily a shady respite with a series of vignette-type gardens, from a Tuscan-style stone patio with thick moss and a pond inset, to a simple stone bench tucked into a grove of trees.”
The Stickneys’ stately gardens encompass stonework, fountains, birdbaths, benches, arbors, garden sculptures and garden lighting. A particular favorite when in full bloom is the yellow magnolia moved from their home state of Maine, as well as a large red chestnut tree planted in memory of a loved one. Their never-ending goal is to have blooms and color throughout the season.
Right down the street, Sue and Allan Littell harvest luxurious lavender for moth-deterring sachets to protect their winter woolens. Noteworthy is their Inaba Shidara variety of Japanese maple with its fine feathery foliage. A border built by Allan from stones found on the property adds visual interest. He likes to dig holes and she likes to direct, so their landscaping is continually changing.
Similarly, Richard and Susan Cooley describe their uniquely shaped property, hidden at the end of a quiet city street, as a work in progress. When they designed and built their home several years ago, they preserved the mature trees to maintain a wooded landscape. Color, shape, variegation and texture are important considerations as Susan tries out different plantings. She likens gardening “to an artist’s canvas – ever-changing and a process.”
The never-ending trial and error, experimenting to discover what you like and what works, are all part of the joy of gardening, whether your canvas is a postage-stamp patio, a sprawling suburban yard or something in between. The main thing about gardening, as Johanna Garrison assures us, is “Anybody can do it. There’s no such thing as a brown thumb.”
Tickets for the July 10 Secret Gardens Tour are $25 in advance and $30 on the tour day. Descriptions of all the gardens and suggested driving directions are provided. The gardens will be open to visitors from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., rain or shine. The tour is self-guided and you go at your own pace. The tour is geared for adults, but there is no charge for children 12 and younger; pets are not permitted. Visit soroptimistsaratoga.org for information about purchasing tickets and to learn more about Soroptimists.
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